From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

November 27, 2015*: Underexposure

To a certain extent I surprised myself when I first started work on this month's Boidem column. I had notes for columns for a few different topics, and upon reflection I have to admit that a couple of these would seem to take precedence over what I've ultimately chosen to write about. Considering, however, that the Boidem is a consciously behind-the-curve project, I suppose that I can be excused, or excuse myself, for choosing to devote this month's edition to what to my mind is a highly retro issue. If, at the end of the day, few people get to these pages, I suppose that I can allow myself to take a giant leap back in time to the days when the World Wide Web seemed to offer us a counter-narrative to the almost cult-of-personality star-worshipping nature of our physical society. Those were the days when we dared to claim out loud (or at least in print or its digital equivalent) that the internet was different. That difference revealed itself in various ways, not the least of which was the possibility, perhaps even the promise, of fame achieved while remaining outside the world of PR and self-promotion.

I don't know whether there ever really was a clear distinction between tabloid, or Hollywood, stardom and internet fame, though I tend to think that there was. On the whole, internet stardom was perceived as even more fleeting than it's "real life" counterpart - meteoric in its rise, and just as meteoric in its disappearance. It was probably also viewed as being a stepping stone to "true", meaning beyond the confines of the internet, stardom. "True", or "real life", stardom certainly received support, or were enhanced, by a continued internet presence. But everyone understood what really counted - and it wasn't in a medium that was still viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion. Fame and stardom don't particularly concern me, but when I read an article in Medium by Anil Dash I found myself wondering about how their internet versions might be different from their non-digital versions. In that column Dash reflected on what for him was the illogic of his being considered a celebrity. His admission that he viewed himself as being "fake-famous" caused me to focus on the issue of online fame - though I hasten to add that despite my focusing the issue remains fuzzy and unclear.

With laudable and, particularly in light of today's "get your name anywhere people will see it" ethos, exceptional modesty, Dash wrote:

Having half a million followers on Twitter is a genuinely bizarre experience, especially considering I'm just a random tech nerd on the Internet and not an actual famous person.
It's not really clear how we should measure someone's degree of fame. Wikipedia has an entry on Dash which, though only a few paragraphs long, notes numerous accomplishments of the sort that clearly make him a noteworthy personality, at least in the technological circles that tend to be heavily, even overly-heavily, represented there. It's perhaps also worth noting that the two-sentence biographical stub that was the first Wikipedia entry on Dash is from eleven years ago, meaning that though he may not be "seriously" famous, he's certainly been around and has been recognized for his accomplishments - which in a way is its own claim to fame.

That being said, though he's far from being a recognized celebrity, I don't think it's accurate to classify Dash's fame as "fake". After all, how many of us can claim to having over half a million followers on Twitter? The simple fact of having that many followers, whether merited or not, should be enough to bestow celebrity status. Many people with very significant accomplishments to their names have considerably fewer Twitter followers (if they're on Twitter at all). In the same Medium collection in which Dash's piece appears Evan Hansen writes of scientific fame and notes:
That's what scientific fame amounts to today: You won't be famous for 15 minutes or even 15 seconds; you'll be famous to 15 people. Eventually you might rate a biopic.
So perhaps Dash, who is known and even famous to well over 15 people, truly has achieved celebrity status. Yet on the other hand, his is still a very limited fame. It probably won't get him to the front of the line of a fancy restaurant, or to star previews of new Hollywood movies. Luckily for him, it seems that these don't really attract him so he doesn't have to try and cash in on his fame and discover that it's net worth isn't really that great.

What interests me here, however, isn't the degree to which Dash, or anyone else, is truly famous, but whether there's any significant difference between internet fame and "real life" fame. Dash may only be famous on the internet, but that in itself doesn't define why his fame is perhaps "fake". Especially today it's hard to find anything distinctly "fake", let alone even different, about web-based, as opposed to "real life" fame. Considering that we no longer distinguish between our online lives and our in-the-flesh lives, not drawing such a distinction should even be axiomatic. What, after all, could be different? Except that for some reason we have the lingering gut feeling that something most definitely is.

Perhaps what's different is that gut feeling. Even if it's been disproved by years of experience, the impression that the internet really is different somehow continues to remain strongly rooted in our perception. Part of the early internet ethos was that it was supposed to even out the playing field, it was supposed to give each of us an equal opportunity to become famous. That original ethos may have died long ago, but our belief in it, or our desire to believe in it, is still hanging in there.

At least for a while that belief seemed to be justified. It wasn't hard to find numerous examples of fame that not only couldn't be predicted, but probably couldn't even happen in "real life", examples that long ago convinced us that we were witnessing the evolution of a new phenomenon. On the internet elementary school students could start a website development business and their clients didn't know they were kids until they showed up for a meeting. On the internet someone who for health reasons had never served in the army could host a highly regarded web site on combat war planes and people assumed he was a pilot. And still today many readers without any professional background are trusted reviewers whose recommendations on Amazon influence thousands of other readers.

On the other hand, meteoric fame, fame that derives not from hard work but from being able to market ourselves, or even better (and simpler) from simply showing up at the right place at the right time, is a major aspect of today's "culture". Reality television can make anyone a star - often more because he or she can't sing, or clearly lacks some other skill, than because he or she can. And when Dash writes about fame on the web:
It's no wonder so many people want to believe that the only thing that's kept them from all the promised benefits of the World Wide Web is that they haven't had access to the kind of giant network that I was arbitrarily gifted.
it's hard to find much difference between that belief and the expectation of instant stardom that is so prevalent in reality television.

It may be easier to achieve stardom today than in the era of network television for the simple reason that we can become stars in any number of niche communities. The balkanization of culture, speeded along by the web but aided and abetted by cable television and numerous other cultural phenomena as well, makes it possible for us to achieve center stage on at least one of the countless stages that today abound. These stages may be small, with audiences that sometimes don't even number in the tens, but they can still be significant to whoever has chosen to be in, or try to appeal to, that particular audience. And often the opposite can happen - truly significant people such as scientists responsible for important discoveries can remain totally unknown beyond their own balkanized clique.

At the same time as the web seems to be continually absorbing everything, bundling it all into one immense all-encompassing framework, it's also putting in extra hours decentralizing or balkanizing our experience. Precisely because it has something (and something different) for everyone we no longer have the expectation of a common, shared experience. True, every so often a viral video comes along that the whole world views, but Gangnam Style is more the exception than the rule. For each of those immensely viral videos there are no doubt thousands of quality videos that garner at best a "respectable" number of views. And what's true for going viral online is also true for online fame. We can be known, even well-known, to our limited community, but the chances of that fame reaching beyond the boundaries of that circumscribed community are quite limited. It can happen, but probably won't. Of course there's nothing new or surprising about this. That's the way it works in "real life" as well. Anil Dash's fame, or more to the point his followers' perception of the influence of that fame, is probably a remnant of one of the now-faded expectations of what we might call internet exceptionalism.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

back to the Boidem Contents Page

Return to Luftmentsh