We need to try to understand the problem of fame before it destroys us or kills us. Everyone had been failing to reckon with it for generations, as God and collective purpose were supplanted in the public sphere by collective spectacle and attention, but in this decade fame broke its old bounds and engulfed everything, and look where we are now.
There was a time in living memory when visibility and notoriety were difficult things to achieve. The proliferation of television channels made them easier, and the internet made them easier still. Even so, at the turn of this century, some people still worried this might be harmful. What might happen to the select few human beings who were being confined to spaces full of TV cameras and webcams, put under constant surveillance for the sake of entertainment?
No one ever established that those fears were wrong. Nevertheless, by the dawn of this decade, the technology was in place to make mass exposure available to everyone. In November of 2009, Twitter began to roll out the retweet button. In December of 2009, Facebook reversed its original terms of service, switching posts from private by default to public by default. Public by default! In October 2010, Instagram launched. By mid-decade, video streaming would be evolving—in the span of months—from a novelty to a standard feature. Everyone was a broadcaster; everyone was broadcast material. Anybody could be famous.
What is fame? In 2018, Justine Bateman wrote a book about it. The title of her book is Fame: The Hijacking of Reality. In it, Bateman, whose own stardom peaked in the ’80s when she starred on Family Ties, writes about the experience of becoming extremely famous (and gradually becoming much less famous) and what it was like from the inside. Fame, she writes (using a capital F), was “a sheath that I could look out of and see the world as I knew it before the Fame happened, but a sheath that now obscured anyone’s vision of me.”
Fame is a condition of being widely seen, while also not being seen in particular, human terms. It is a nonreciprocal transaction of interest or attention, on unequal terms of exchange. Bateman writes about what happens to celebrities, constantly exposed to people who keep asking them about themselves to keep them talking one-sidedly, so as to prolong the interaction: “The celebrity, the famous person, gets used to this. They get used to it and come to expect it … and you then stop asking anyone else about themselves. You just forget. It’s not part of the exchange anymore.” Bateman writes: “And you get used to this performance to such an extent that you forget to behave any other way.”
Now anyone with a smartphone has access to something like this, without needing to audition and be cast in a sitcom that reaches tens of millions of people each week. Everyone is on view. Did we volunteer for it? Yes, but also not really. I present my work in public, but I can count on one hand how many times a stranger has told me they’ve recognized me, anywhere outside a professional context. Possibly two hands. On the rare occasions it happens, it’s so uncomfortable I quickly put it out of my mind. The point is I’m not famous.
And yet: According to an archived snapshot of my Twitter page, my Twitter account had 85 followers in 2009. In 2010 there were 506. Right now Twitter says there are 33,800. I tried to guess before looking, and I was low by 6,000. A lot of them are surely bots, and many of them have quit Twitter, and at least a few are dead, but that’s just what happens when the numbers are that size: It stops being personal. I’m not much of anyone, but when I get annoyed and type a passing thought, it happens in front of an audience the size of Fenway Park, basically.
It’s been possible, through the course of the decade, to feel the effects of this. Humanity doesn’t really translate at scale. It’s not just the Nazis and trolls, or even the inevitable context-jumping misunderstandings, but the impersonal quality of supposedly personal interaction. The proportion of genuine, reciprocal friends receiving your messages diminishes, as they’re drowned out by sheer numbers, or they drop out and drift away. The expressive range gets narrower—no more tweets about the family, less irony to feed into the irony-mangling machine. The old adage for politicians about never saying anything you don’t want to see on the front of the New York Times now covers everyone, and the front-page space is effectively infinite.
Performance is the response to surveillance; constant performance is the response to constant surveillance. Social media has added some third category to public and private—something equivalent to combatant status. People set about generating public selves that were necessarily separate from the private self or even the old-fashioned, conventional social self.
In a phone interview, Bateman said that she first noticed private activity becoming a public product when people started checking in on Foursquare around the turn of the decade. “When I saw that, because I had had a life prior, where people were taking note as to where I was going … the whole Foursquare thing just seemed horrifying to me,” she said. “I was so glad to be free of that. So the idea to me that you would volunteer for that was, to me, like an anathema to having like a kind of a free life. You know—why would you volunteer for that?”
But the other choice was obscurity while everyone else was becoming ever more visible. And so this mode of existing expanded until it couldn’t be contained by the internet. Storefronts occupied by new, uncanny kinds of establishments began to open, places that were notionally museums or shops or restaurants, but which had been built really as photographic environments. Tourists went in search of water that was vivid blue with toxic waste. Plastic surgeons began reworking people’s faces to match the settings on Instagram filters.
Everywhere, the irreality became concrete. People reportedly are decorating their own homes with photogenic walls so their guests can have something to pose against. Or they just buy and hang gold Mylar fringe curtains, if people are coming over, or lay down trompe l’oeil surfaces to put under their meals, so that everything may converge on the same range of visuals. Physical life is organized around the algorithmic average; the simulated environment becomes the only environment.
Not far past mid-decade, a man, who had already been famous under various older forms of media and publicity, hired a bunch of actors—a human Mylar curtain—to cheer for him as he declared his ambition to become the most important person in the world. He toured the country against staged backdrops, with the cable cameras angling away from the empty stretches of stadium to focus on the manufactured crowd behind him. He tweeted, and people tweeted back at him, until all of Twitter seemed like an extension of a single performance.
It succeeded, all of it. It replaced everything that had come before. The president of the United States exists as a fame-object, not a person; he could launch a nuclear device for the impression it would create, for his brand. Nuclear explosions were always first of all a form of display, so why not use the most impressive display at his disposal?
It’s easy and emotionally satisfying to say that the president has no internal self, but it does not seem true, based on the public statements of the people who say they have observed him. His internal self (by reputation) seems to be driven by a mix of terror and complacency, enfolding each other or cycling after each other. He cannot be secure, and he cannot be shaken.
What does seem to be missing is that intermediate layer, the social self, the self as it exists in relation to other people. Everything Donald Trump does is a performance, a projection of what sort of thing he wants other people to believe he is. The nation’s policies are a series of gestures, whose underlying substance or lack of substance is of no interest to him.
Under the conditions of acute and widespread famousness, any other form of meaning collapses. The role of Mr. Rogers has been taken over by unboxing videos and gamers on YouTube. The surviving Boston Marathon bomber appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in a tousled and beguiling pose. People tried to get mad about the magazine packaging him as a heartthrob, but it was just his own selfie.
The old terms of fame were lopsided, but they had something under them. “You put a lot of effort into this work,” Bateman said, “and other people are like, ‘Wow, that really touched me’ or ‘I really enjoyed that’ or whatever. And then your exchange is complete. But if you don’t, if the product’s just you, I don’t know—what satisfies that? What’s the complete exchange? When is the exchange complete? And I would offer that the exchange is never complete. It’s an infinite loop. It’s never complete, because all it is, is please. Please what? Fill in the blank. Please pay attention to me? Please acknowledge me? Please make me feel that I am worth something?”
In 2014, an academic-turned-journalist felt free to argue in the Baffler that Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian should be understood to represent two forms of “the labor involved in the production of celebrity”—and that the distinction between them was that “Beyoncé’s labor is masculinized and legitimated, while Kardashian’s is feminized and denigrated.” Any other differences one might have wanted to notice between the creator of world-spanning hit music and the marketer of a semi-scammy app game were irrelevant. By the end of the decade, the Guardian was running the same argument about how the critically acclaimed bestselling authors Jia Tolentino and Taffy Brodesser-Akner were basically the same thing as a person named Caroline Calloway, who’d gotten attention after someone else wrote a long essay about the experience of ghostwriting Instagram captions for her. Whether a writer did any writing was as irrelevant as whether the president had any capacity to be president. They were all influencers, and what was there, really, in the world but influence?