Internet fame, Alan Moore and the Sea

…Social networks reward us every time we publicise our lives, and we eat it up. This is most startlingly apparent amongst Generation Y, for whom sharing their lives with the world is so natural and ingrained, they almost see it as a basic human right. They consider privacy as something archaic and quaint, no longer relevant to the world we live in. They like it when they Google their own name and see images of themselves on the front page. They compete to gain followers on Tumblr, friends on Facebook and mentions on Twitter.

– Mark Scott, coding2learn


In the 20th century however, with these massive surges in communication, suddenly a different sort of fame was possible. And I tend to think that what fame has done, it has replaced the sea as the element of choice of adventure for young people. If you were a dashing young man in the 19th century, you would probably want to run away to sea. Just as in the 20th century you might decide that you want to run away and form a pop band.

– Alan Moore

I am 40 odd years old and I don’t have a Facebook account. I did, but then I killed it. That choice was informed by a partial mixture of just not liking it very much, and being somewhat put off by Zuckerberg’s crass and relentless exploitation of the data he was gathering. I don’t think he needed to come across as a hustler, but alas for me, that’s what happened.

To be fair it was always clear what was going on, he didn’t lie to anyone. He might have been somewhat morally ambiguous, but that was hardly hidden to anyone who made more than a cursory investigation. So caveat emptor, we sow what we reap and we are fools to blame Zuckerberg if we don’t like what comes to pass. When the blame is being handed out we will have only ourselves to turn to.

That’s if blame is the right context, of course. It might come to pass that the loss of privacy becomes a good thing. I don’t think that it is likely to be a good thing, at all, as it goes, but I am willing to cede the possibility as I suspect that the endlessly flexible human animal may well adapt and create a new societal paradigm that works. And even though I might forever feel uncomfortable in that society, the natives, well they won’t give a damn. On top of that for all the negative externalities that I see there will probably be many positive changes that I do not. Human social and technologic evolution has been like this since…whenever. Plus ca change.

Nonetheless  I often find  myself scratching my head. Not just because young people are signing away their privacy, but also because of the huge swathes of my generation and the generations that came before mine, doing the same. I’m genuinely curious as to why people are so easily seduced into revealing their intimate life details (both mundane and explosive) to unseen digital platforms and uncontrolled (as in you can never guess if it’s your turn to go viral) digital audiences. I just don’t buy the argument that ignorance of the potential consequences, or a disagreement as to the potential consequences, explain the mass adoptions of these behaviours, there has to be something else at play.

I think the seduction of fame might be something to do with it. Fame after all is somewhat antithetical to privacy.

The quote from Alan Moore, at the top of this post, comes from this short Youtube interview excerpt whereby he explains his thoughts on the nature of modern fame and celebrity. But to be clear, he is not talking about fame and celebrity in the internet age. His observations relate to the fame that he experienced as a cartoonist in the 80’s and 90’s and noughties. I think his opinions are illuminating, particularly the specific idea I’ve highlighted. I think there is some valuable mileage in his comparison of fame with the youthful concept of ‘going to sea’.

I’m old enough to recall that ‘going to sea’ was a real option, indeed a part of the cultural smorgasbord, when I was young. Even though it is still a real option for today’s youth it is, however, somewhat absent of the romantic, and romantically dangerous, appeal that it held in my formative years.

Likewise fame is most certainly something that has a romantic appeal, often in the absence of practical comfort, and is also dangerous. We do, after all, as a society, worship those that die young from drugs and excess, but only if they were famous first.

Internet fame, though, has modified the situation becasue internet fame is more accessible and more scalable.

It’s more accessible because technology has democratised the means of production and distribution so that it is now fundamentally easier to write, compose and create with the aid of technology, and even easier still to offer such acts of creativity to the masses, through platforms such as Facebook as well as the rest of the modern social playbook.

Moreover because of the absence of gatekeepers at the point of publication we can more easily envisage joining in. We no longer have to convince someone that our work is good enough for publication, we just have to press the send button. This engenders a lower level of quality control, of course, but that is also part of the phenomena, driving a lowering in expectation which in turn enables satisfaction for a lower scale fame.

Internet fame can be fleeting, derived from just one small piece of creativity, one wisecrack, one blog post, one video, one song, one facebook comment, one well drawn picture that goes viral on reddit or one pithy opinion stated with alacrity and venom on the Guardian comment is free pages.

And internet fame can also be derived unintentionally from one offensive tweet, one cruel schoolmate highlighting a youthful mistake, one drunken photograph, one sad moment of exploitation revealed to the world and exposed to the voracious appetite of potential viral distribution.

This is what I mean when I describe internet fame as scalable. Internet fame encompasses writers, artist and musicians of a wide range of skill as well as local fame such as within a forum, for example, and fame derived purely from curation.

Going to sea, on the other hand, pretty much occurred on only 1 level. Maybe you were signed up with a ships company that worked the North Sea, or maybe you traversed the globe but in either situation you were pretty much a sailor, and a sailor alone.

Moore’s era fame was also limited in its scale, although in a slightly different manner. To achieve fame in a world where access to distribution was scarce and therefore rationed required a skill level that came with quite a high ceiling, talent needed to be somewhat substantial.

There was no mechanic that could make you famous for 10 days simply because of what you said on the playground, or in the office.

Social media changed that. Now what you say on the playground might earn you an audience from the other side of the world. When I grew up it couldn’t even leak as far as the next school.

That is an entirely different type of fame, serviced by a democratised distribution platform and made tangible through real time feedback loops. What once was fleeting is now preserved and validated through gamification tools (‘valueless’ internet points).

We can easily understand how this operates in seducing young people to seek notoriety, at the same time as it encourages the less talented to seek fame for their unworthy talents and at the same time as it massively enables the genuinely talented to proceed without the friction of gatekeepers.  The smooth processing of sublime creative genius of course, being the promise that helps drive the whole process…  ”that could be me”.

So, where do adults fit in? Why are they behaving like teenagers? After all if you examine the ‘going to sea’ metaphor it is clear that that was almost entirely a metaphor of youth. Of course there was the odd criminal that needed to disappear, regardless of age, but by and large the romance of the option was for young men. It was a hardy life of cold brutality and adventure. Not for women (opinion of the times) and not for middle aged couch potatoes either.

I think the scalability of internet fame might explain why adults are mimicking teenagers.

I check my blog stats and my Quora stats. I like it when my forum posts generate replies. I don’t post to Facebook but I imagine the effect is similar. I have often watched my adult friends get excited when an, often trivial (‘I did this yesterday’ type thing) facebook post causes a buzz.

All of these things are low level fame, brought to life by the artificial yet frustratingly real implication of ‘internet points’, but seemingly and soothingly bereft of any real risk of significant exposure. A small buzz, not an internet shitstorm. How middle aged is that.

The internet provides scalable low impact, local fame that doesn’t need to deliver career level celebrity to still be inherently satisfying. And we have all been seduced.

Social fame, the kind we all can experience (100 likes in a day, wooo) is slightly different from Moore’s romantic journey to sea. Fundamentally it is a weaker experience, in both commitment and impact. Nonetheless the dynamic of the attraction shares roots with those youthful nautical adventurers and also with the more recent and substantial dream of global fame.

Maybe I’m just dressing up a simple observation. Internet = fame, even the kind of low impact local fame that only 10 years ago wouldn’t have qualified for the sobriquet.