Tuesday, February 3, 2015

On The Pleasures Of Internet Obscurity

Let's start with the obvious. The blog has never taken off.

When I started blogging way back in 2007 blogging was the newest of new media. The summer before I had interned at the American Prospect and I remember watching Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein enviously over the cubicle walls: here were kids just a little bit older than me, getting paid to write Big Important Thoughts about Big Important Things, while I was stuck in an unpaid internship. How had they first gained attention while I remained obscure? Their blogs. (And of course, their talent.) They had written incisive, funny, daring blogs. The blogs had earned them attention. So it seemed inevitable that if I wrote enough, well enough, and often enough I would go viral, too.

Hasn't happened.

And even though I'm okay with my relative internet obscurity, every time I write a post there's this fifteen minute window where I keep hitting refresh on the 'stats' page of Blogger Dashboard, wondering whether this is finally the day when Raise High The Roofbeam Carpenters goes viral, whether I am going to see the hit count inch from ten, to a hundred, to a thousand. I imagine that there's this mangy compulsive little Fame Monkey perched on my shoulder beating a drum screeching MAYBE NOW THEY WILL WATCH US DANCE MAYBE NOW THEY WATCH US DANCE! And for the quarter of an hour he's screeching I can't do anything but listen to him. Refresh refresh refresh. As the page views inch up from twelve, to thirteen, to twenty.

The fame monkey, in action

And I suspect that there are Fame Monkeys perched on a lot of our backs, howling that we're right on the verge of going viral, that this comment is the one that's going to get us the attention we deserve, that we are going to be lifted from obscurity; that we deserve to become a name; a known entity; a meme. A Jenna Marbles. A Ze Frank. An Allie Bosch. A Matt Inman.

Some great examples of the Fame Monkey fantasy come from Reddit's new podcast, Upvoted. Each episode of tells the story of a single Reddit user's stumbling path towards internet stardom. The person begins as a regular work-a-day joe, perhaps down on his luck. Then he posts his work to Reddit, and the attention of so many people transforms him into something utterly new. In the space of a few hours he is reborn, different, changed, thankful, and famous. He has had doubts about his talent before; and now in the light of the pageviews he's earned, this doubt looks silly. He has been unlucky before; and now in the face of this massive amount of good karma, he has nothing to complain about. The stories are incredibly compelling because they are exactly the kind of story I once to expected to happen to me. (It is notable that Upvoted has not yet featured any women. Internet fame for women seems to come with about as many dick-pics as page-views; about as much harassment as beatification.)

But this kind of fame changes the internet from a private sandbox where we can try on different identities, to a place our every last comma is scrutinized. Here's Ezra Klein (many years removed from our American Prospect era) explaining why he no longer has as much freedom in blogging: "If I said something dumb in my Blogspot days — which I did, constantly — it hurt me. If I say something dumb today — which I do, but hopefully less constantly — it hurts my writers, and my editors, and my company. My voice needs editing. The cost of being unedited is too high." Fame turns the internet from a place of semi-anonymous play, to a place where we can never speak unedited.

The Fame Monkey can never be satisfied
We don't imagine that we will become the object of the internet's two minutes of hate. That we could become the next Phil Fish. The next Adria Richards. The next Anita Sarkeesian.

And still the Fame Monkey screeches WATCH ME WATCH ME WATCH ME. His fists still pound his tiny drum DANCE DANCE DANCE AND MAYBE THEY WILL WATCH. And we still gaze at the lucky few, wishing we were in their place.

But is this new exciting public sphere of blog comments and Facebook posts and retweeting really truly public when people feel the need to obsessively edit every last comment because they are so closely watched? Where the public, for the most part, stares at those in the public eye from behind some kind of anonymous one-way mirror? Where we ready ourselves to attack every mistake we see, any fakeness, any duplicity. As the Fame Monkey hisses jealously in our ears--THEY DON'T DESERVE THE ATTENTION! THEY DON'T DESERVE IT! I DESERVE IT! I DESERVE IT! I DESERVE IT! I DO I DO I DO I DO!

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