Earlier today, while looking through a social media article at iMedia Connection, I came across a link to a Lakshmi Chaudhry piece in The Nation from a few weeks ago in which she takes some serious potshots at the new culture of online collective creativity.
Adopting the tone of scolds throughout time, she slams the younger generation (damn kids, get off my lawn!) as shallow and perpetually obsessed with dreams of personal fame. Citing carefully filtered sources (among them, the musings of reality TV stars and some 16-year-olds posting on a site called iWannaBeFamous.com), she draws the inevitable conclusion that as a culture we’re drowning in a sea of narcissism:
Without any meaningful standard by which to measure our worth, we turn to the public eye for affirmation. “It’s really the sense that Hey, I exist in this world, and that is important. That I matter,” Niedzviecki says. Our “normal” lives therefore seem impoverished and less significant compared with the media world, which increasingly represents all that is grand and worthwhile, and therefore more “real.”
The evolution of the Internet has both mirrored and shaped the intense focus on self that is the hallmark of the post-boomer generation. “If you aren’t posting, you don’t exist. People say, ‘I post, therefore I am,'” Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO of Denuo, a new media consultancy, told Wired, inadvertently capturing the essence of Web 2.0, which is driven by our hunger for self-expression. Blogs, amateur videos, personal profiles, even interactive features such as Amazon.com’s reviews offer ways to satisfy our need to be in the public eye.
But the virtual persona we project online is a carefully edited version of ourselves, as “authentic” as a character on reality TV….Self-expression glides effortlessly into self-promotion as we shape our online selves–be it on a MySpace profile, LiveJournal blog or a YouTube video–to insure the greatest attention.
Okay, I get it we’re still trapped in a desperate run to catch that brass ring, but with traditional aspirations to financial or creative success replaced by notions of shallow fame, and with corporate America happy to sell us empty dreams of pimped rides and surprise makeovers.
How about this for a different take on what’s happening on YouTube, blogs and the rest of the participatory media outlets? Millions and millions of people are making the most of opportunities to create something that they think is interesting, and they’re using technology to let both friends and strangers take a look at what they’ve done. They’re making videos, recording songs, publishing rants, revealing secrets and the best thing is, they’re generally having a damn good time doing it.
Sure, most of what’s produced is going to be schlock, and much of it will be self-promoting (hello, e.politics!), but are we to believe that EVERYBODY who’s making this stuff is doing it solely (or even largely) out of a desire for fame? I’m a blogger, God rest my soul, which means that I write in public, with a few hundred people at most reading what I write on a given day. Narcissistic? Sure, but no more than anyone else who’s arrogant enough to believe that other people might be interested in what he has to say, and that describes just about everyone writing in public (including in the pages of The Nation). As for homemade video, I am quite confident that filming a Mentos/Coke explosion is fun as hell on its own, and if it happens to entertain a few hundred thousand other people, isn’t that a net good for society?
I’d be curious to hear what Chaudhry would say about more tradition kinds of performance, for instance playing music for an audience. Being on stage is an absolute rush there are damn few things more fun than being a rock star, even if it’s for just a couple of hours. But what you enjoy about it is a complex mixture: being looked at (elevated above the herd!) is part of the equation, sure, but much more of the high is the sheer joy of creating something with other people, both the other musicians and the crowd. A performance is a collaborative act if you think the crowd’s emotional involvement doesn’t matter, you’ve never played in front of a dead room. Part of musical performance involves narcissism, just as some part of writing or acting or painting or sculpting or making film is deeply self-absorbed, but we don’t condemn musicians or artists for daring to put their creations out in public for people to see.
Human beings like to make things it’s as simple as that, and also as complex as every other piece of human culture (we have an amazing ability to create very elaborate structures out of the flimsiest of elements). The interconnected world of the ‘net gives EVERYONE the potential to find someone to see or hear what we do a very different situation than what we’re used to, since for the last century or two (since the rise of mass-distribution publications such as newspapers and magazines and ultimately television), we’ve lived in a top-driven media world that annoints certain people as “stars,” to be held up above all of the rest of us. But, the Internet’s cheap (or free) publishing tools create a more democratic environment in which the creation of culture isn’t monopolized by a handful of designated “artists.” Toward the end of Chaudry’s piece, she makes an observation that may have been intended to be dismissive but actually captures a fundamental truth:
“If these corporate technologies of self-promotion work as well as promised, they may finally render fame meaningless. If everyone is onstage, there will be no one left in the audience.”
Of course! That’s the goal for all of us to participate in creating our culture for ourselves and each other, rather than having predigested media products and consumer crap rammed down our throats. Social media and our dreams of a moment of fame (or a moment to entertain or to enlighten or to instruct), rather than a noxious manifestation of corporate consumerism, might actually be what undermines and supplants the corporate culture of monopolistic creation.