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Big City (Everybody I Know Can Be Found Here)
Although it became a cliché long ago, Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” line, like so many of the aphorisms he tossed off, turned out to be annoyingly prophetic as a description of life in the 21st century. If it wasn’t clear when Warhol said it, it’s now obvious that the prediction was more of a curse than an assurance—being momentarily famous may have seemed more fun in the era of mass media hegemony (although Warhol’s tone must have seemed slightly menacing even then), but like so many erstwhile luxuries, fame has since become a commodity, if not compulsory grind for many who pursue it today, and social media has made more slots available at the lower levels of notoriety. Now every incremental level of fame is indeed possible. What is the “creator economy” if not an incentive structure for filling each of those slots? Everyone knows, or ought to know, that becoming Twitter’s main character for the day is something to avoid (“day” being a loose term for an interval that itself has shrunk closer to 15 minutes), but many also secretly hope for it, assuming they could parlay that momentary infamy into something more favorable and durable—virality as a rite of passage, or a credential like a college diploma, the attainment of which means graduation from anonymous digital toil.
But most people who use social media for hours per day aren’t striving for any amount of fame at all. Nor did Warhol promise that any of us would get our 15 minutes all at once. If fame is simply the aggregate real estate that an individual occupies in other people’s minds, above a certain threshold, then digital technology enables us to parcel out that real estate in ever smaller units and distribute them in more creative ways. Instead of being famous to a million people for 15 minutes, you might be famous to 15 people for a million minutes (so to speak), or for a few seconds at a time over a matter of years. The true genius of Instagram Stories, I am convinced, is not the format or the content’s ephemerality, but the elevation of “views” as a primary engagement metric for ordinary social media users. The bar for smashing the like button on a post is much higher, after all; rather than encouraging people to smash it more, or god forbid, to improve the quality of their material, why not just move the goalposts and foreground a stat that happens much more frequently, and often automatically? (You probably noticed that Twitter recently started highlighting views as a stat too.) If we recombined all the fractional seconds of partial attention that our better posts capture, and converted it back into a more legible currency like speaking to a roomful of people, we’d probably be shocked by how little mindshare it amounts to.
To state the obvious, social media wants to, and must, inflate the amount of attention that we believe we command. When this is done well, a few thousand followers is enough to make someone feel a little famous in their own corner of the universe, even though they’re still only doing the equivalent of telling a story to a group of people at a social gathering. Securitizing attention is an effective way to keep the user-generated content flowing, but our dual role as perpetual performer and spectator shapes what we produce. In a recent piece about Twitter’s past and present trajectory, Willy Staley quotes political scientist Kevin Munger, who describes how Twitter collapses any remaining boundaries between the creators and consumers of content: “‘You can’t actually conceive of a tweet except as a synthetic object, which contains both the original message and the audience feedback,’ he explains. In fact, a tweet contains layers of information beyond that: not just how many people liked it or replied, but who, and what they said, and how they present themselves, and whom they follow, and who follows them, and so on.” 20th century mass culture—the culture that Warhol saw coming to an end—maintained relatively hard boundaries between audience and performer, in most domains. This had its drawbacks, but also at least one major advantage: When someone performed, the audience understood that it was the audience.
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