Dear Mom and Dad, I’m doing fine… you guys are on my mind.
You asked me what I wanted to be and I think the answer is plain to see.
I wanna be… FAMOUS!
-Total Drama Island
I was not expecting to find the perfect encapsulation of the zeitgeist in the intro theme to a decade-old Canadian cartoon, but life is full of surprises. I have only recently begun to tweet (after briefly experimenting with the medium in 2009 and 2011) and almost overnight I became exactly the thing I had mocked for so long. Twitter was, in my eyes, emblematic of the shallow, virality-obsessed social media culture that had replaced any kind of real public life in America. I stayed off it for ages because such trivialities offered nothing to an urbane intellectual like me. Then I relented, logged on, and it was all over but the shouting.
Everyone wants to go viral. That’s the point of twitter. Everyone wants to be the next big meme. The social media feedback loop is perfectly crafted. I admit to a little thrill when that number pops up next to the bell: I want to know what people are saying to me, saying about me, saying about the things I’m saying. It’s the thrill of being noticed. Isn’t that what fame is? Not the desire to be loved or even liked, but merely to be noticed? The idea that someone has picked me out of the crowd is intoxicating. That’s what notice is. It’s not just a positive act, but a negation as well; when you notice someone, you are not noticing the rest of the teeming masses. In that instant, you are focusing on one person. Does that not imply a certain worthiness? There are 7.5 billion people on Earth but for one millisecond, one of those people though that I was more important than any other. They could have rested their eyes anywhere and they chose to rest them on me.
Life is fleeting. Life in a consumerist society is more so. Everything around us is designed to be disposable: single-serving, packaged, prepared, plug-and-play. We want things to be simple; we dread complexity, not least for its time commitment. Something that requires time pins you down, eats up your schedule, stops you short. It’s not true that all sharks must swim constantly or drown, but it’s true for us. To stop is to die. Better to eat bite-size chunks while we jog to work. Better the 24 hour news cycle, which never feeds us more than we can digest and excrete in a single tweet.
In such a society, is it any wonder that attention has become the universal currency? We are aware, as we hurry through the towering cenotaphs of our cities, that they are not truly ours; we are merely renters, and soon we will pass through without a trace and leave them to our inheritors. Attention makes us real, if only for a moment. We are scurrying ghosts who can barely touch the solid world, but when we are caught in the spotlight of someone else’s gaze, we become briefly corporeal. In heaven, according to the old proverb, they feed each other; in hell, where we live, they reify each other.
Hence the allure of faves and retweets. They are proof that we existed, that somewhere, something we did impacted someone else. Trolling follows a similar principle; the idea that somewhere, someone is mad because of something you did is profoundly satisfying. It’s a scream: I EXIST! The half-life of attention is measured in picoseconds, though, and soon enough we fall back into the whispering void of our solitary lives. Like any drug, you acclimate to the high, and you need more. More faves, more follows, more retweets! More attention, more notice, more regard, more reality.
Is this how it always was? Reactionaries harken back to a simpler time when the community had stronger bonds. Is that real, or imagined? Was there a time when our thirst for the regard of others was slaked at a common well? Did churches fill that role, once, or festivals? Maybe, but I suspect this curse has always been with us. The girls who accused Tituba of witchery were acting out for attention. How far does it go? Was Jeanne d’Arc a martyr to it, the desperate need for affirmation in the face of an uncaring world?
We are mortal. We live, we die, we vanish. We fear the latter most of all; the worst thing of all is not to die, but to have never been, to burn up the thread of your life in both directions so that it vanishes entirely. We spend our lives seeking the validation of others because they prove that we were here. We scratch our names in rocks and trees and on the surface of the Moon. We build monuments and then build again on the rubble. We declare this to be the Victorian Era or the Age of Trump, our leaders stamping their imprimatur on the world, but the truth is we live in the Age of Nobody. I think we should embrace this ephemerality. Even those who notice us will pass into history, and their regard will die with them. Eventually the sun will expand and turn this planet into a cinder. Why does it matter what we leave behind?
I may not be real, but as a poltergeist I find that I have enough strength to rattle my chains and howl at the world. Like everyone else, I crave regard, but I am trying to make my peace without it. This must be what is meant by “self-actualization.” The one thing the panopticon cannot see is itself; if I can turn that all-consuming gaze inward, I can escape the endless cycle of attention-seeking and churning for clicks. This solipsism is the only escape from the cycle of highs and lows that marks the social media era. Once you have noticed yourself, you can look outward again, but now as more than a pair of disembodied searchlight eyes.