The Appeal Of Internet Fame

In SEO & The Disappearing Self, Rob Horning conceptualizes that when we engage with social media, we are forced to self-objectify, brand, and advertise ourselves in order to interact with others effectively, simply because the nature of these platforms require it. For instance, because of Facebook algorithms, if you do not post content that is appealing to others — that generates likes/comments/etc — then your content will not appear readily in others newsfeeds. “Our communication is assessed like online advertising — how many click-throughs did it inspire?” Your “success” on social media is measured by “how well you’ve been able to package yourself as an attention getting brand.”

What does it mean, then, that our perceptions of selfhood are constructed in a capitalist marketing framework? No one can know yet, of course, but my first instinct is dread. Capitalism is an incredibly flawed, destructive, violent, oppressive system, so to move beyond a market of goods and services to a market of our identities seems poised for disaster. If we think of ourselves in terms of what will generate the most attention online, in terms of what will be most popularly consumed by friends and followers, we downplay or erase parts of ourselves that would not be readily received. “We must…allow our desires to be commodified and suppress the desires that don’t lend themselves to commodification.” We are encouraged to regard ourselves in terms of what will be best consumed by others, not in terms of critical self-reflection or introspection on our own lives.

Douglas Rushkoff explores this online marketing of ourselves in Generation Like, interviewing young people about their obsessions with social media recognition and popularity. The term “empowering” kept coming up when people described what it felt like to have a popular post, or a large following. We discussed this in class, and my first thoughts were that it is antithetical to think of these interactions as empowering; you are essentially powerless when you post your carefully constructed self-brand online, because the reception of “you” is entirely dependent on others. You are forced to define yourself in terms of what others enjoy, and what social media algorithms will promote to be seen. The power of self to succeed in these attention markets is reliant on others, and I could not see how this might be considered empowering.

Upon further reflection, however, I realized I needed to reframe how I was approaching this idea. The empowerment comes not solely in the act of being accepted by others; it comes from the realization that your posts, your voice, what you project into the world, is being seen by other people. That what you created is reaching others, that they are consuming it, that it has some effect on other’s lives, no matter how minute. That is where the power comes in; the power is having your voice heard.

It doesn’t matter what it is you are saying, honestly. Just the act of having yourself recognized and validated is enormous. It fills the void left by a sense of having little to no power over one’s life under capitalism, where power is concentrated in small areas — people generally have only some control over their circumstances. Certainly, most feel their voice is not heard in places like governmental systems. What small act could one individual do that would really influence or affect anything? I think the need for recognition online is really just a need to feel like you matter. In a social system that prioritizes some lives over others, the need to feel as though your life has value to it is an extraordinarily important one that is left out of regular discourse.

This would easily explain people’s obsession with internet fame, and even fame in general. The need to be recognized, to have yourself amplified in a world where you feel like another meaningless blur in the crowd, is an understandable one. Add in the power inherent with having your voice heard, and this obsession its logical. People who are famous have huge reach in their audience, their words or ideas or pictures or creations spreading to more and more people. Because what else has a huge influence and the power to really affect society besides the government? Media. The power inherent in media is huge, simply because of its ability to reach large audiences and project ideas onto them. It offers access to power that seems more real, less corrupt, more achievable perhaps than the perceptively hopeless government.

I’m obviously theorizing here. I’m not going to pretend I know why all people seek internet fame. But it seems entirely plausible that people market themselves, create brands of themselves, try to appeal to large audiences, try to achieve this recent model of success because of any combination of the reasons I mentioned above, reasons that are, really, just essential aspects of humanity: desires to feel validated, to be recognized, to have your voice heard, to feel like you matter, to feel like you have some power in your world. This obsession with likes/followers/reposts/etc is not so absurd or strange, then, when you consider the fact that our society is structured on systems that encourage none of these things.

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