The Scottish songwriter and author Momus, looking at the early Internet in 1991, quipped that Andy Warhol got it wrong: “In the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people.”
“Social networking,” a phrase common in the early days of Facebook, Myspace and Friendster, has been almost entirely supplanted by the term “social media.” As late as 2008, “social networking” had twice the search volume on Google. Today, “social media” is ten times higher.
Try to remember the early versions of Facebook: there was no “newsfeed.” The early newsfeed, introduced in 2006, was a series of annoying text updates about your friend’s “actions,” which included “pokes.” (Remember pokes?) Before 2006, you logged in directly to your profile; it was a fancy form of email.
Now, you log in directly to a sophisticated, personalized feed optimized for video; all traditional media and advertising companies obsess over their Facebook metrics.
Most of the innovation in this industry has been a race to build a better newsfeed. Twitter (created the same year as the Facebook newsfeed), Snapchat, and Instagram are all variations on the basic idea. Sure, messaging exists on all of these platforms, but the draw is the personalized newsfeed, which you can contribute to and get “likes” and new “followers.”
Social networking turned into social media, which has taken fame and made it into a commodity. Wags make fun of this trend, but there is no denying its power. I went apple picking in New Jersey and you had to ride in a truck through several parking lots to get to the orchard. The truck was overcrowded and everyone was grumbling; suddenly the truck stopped next to an amazing view of an apple orchard. Everyone got out and took photos. After two minutes, we climbed right back into the truck and rode on, but the complaining ceased.
We were still stuck in an overcrowded truck in a crappy parking lot in New Jersey, but we had wonderful photos to post on social media and so… we were “having a good time.” For decades, people made fun of politicians for phony “photo ops,” now everyone with a social media account searches for them.
People issue press releases (aka, “status updates”) for the same reasons a president or A-List celebrity would a few decades ago – to announce where they would go on vacation, where they stand on certain issues, or changes in the status of their relationships. And the language is eerily similar: vaguely positive and hinting at complexity.
The idea of fame, throughout history, was synonymous with power in all its forms. Power led to fame, and not the reverse. Great wealth led to fame. Military conquests led to fame.
Previous to the invention of the photograph, art was a tool of the powerful. Sculpture, painting, and music was commissioned to amplify the powerful person’s influence. Alexander the Great brought poets and artists to his battles.
The invention of photography altered the idea of fame so completely that it is hard to comprehend the previous world.
When King Louis XVI was fleeing the French Revolution, he simply changed his outfit and pretended to be a wealthy merchant to slip past border guards. He had absolute power, but no one recognized him without the royal accoutrements. Try to imagine Barack Obama putting on a t-shirt and coat and trying to sneak by border guards.
Fame became more “real” with the invention of the photograph, and so candidness, even if contrived, became prized by the consuming public. A whole array of techniques to cope, like the “photo op,” emerged and were adopted by powerful people. The “image” of the person became famous, and not his works, his conquests, or the institutions he built. And so it became possible to reverse the equation: build an image and you can grab fame and become powerful.
A discussion of “image” would go way beyond the scope of this blog post; it would include the narrative supporting the image, the consumers that demand fame, the psychological effects of maintaining an image, and the evolution of propaganda. More relevant to this discussion is the production (and the producers) of image.
Social media has reduced the cost of production to almost zero and thereby commodified fame. Anyone can, and many people do, make images, videos, and narratives and put them out in the world for anyone to see. Independent YouTube video makers, using free software on their computers, make videos that get more hits than those made by mainstream media.
Some of the effects of this democratization are innocent: pictures of dogs that look like blueberry muffins getting more hits than articles on the State of the Union address. Some are much more consequential: young internet posters on both sides of the political aisle were calling the recent U.S. presidential election the “meme wars of 2016.”
Almost 100 years ago, Walter Lippmann, a founder of the profession of public relations, and John Dewey, a philosopher and educator, debated the role of journalism in a modern democracy. Lippmann posited the idea that policy was so complex that the role of the journalist was to act as a filter between the elite policy makers and the simple public. Dewey thought of newspapers as places where dialogue and dissent would take place and policy would then be constructed from those conversations.
For most of the previous century, Lippmann’s ideas (quietly) were acknowledged to be dominant. Due to social media, however, it looks like Dewey defeats Lippmann.
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