Back in 1968, Andy Warhol notably said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Back then, the gates to fame were securely guarded by the sober keepers of what was referred to as ‘mass media.’ Few had access to any form of media beyond a ‘photocopier,’ and so it took great skill or achievement, or spectacularly bad luck or choices to gain a remote audience of more than a handful.
I think of Michael James Brody Jr., who in 1970 announced he would be giving away one million dollars, and who was then of course immediately engulfed in media attention, including an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, where he prophetically sang a less than distinguished version of Bob Dylan’s, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” (Proving that opportunistic might be a more accurate descriptor for the mass media of the day than discriminating.) Indeed, Brody quickly faded from the public eye, committing suicide in 1973; his life a sad comment on Warhol’s original pronouncement.
These days anyone who can turn on a computer has access to an international medium, and the average teenager on Facebook has more than 500 ‘friends’ providing an instant audience. The average 22-year-old in Britain has more than 1000 Facebook friends. Certainly it amounts to a ‘network’ of sorts, encompassing plenty of people who can’t be considered friends in any genuine sense, but who nevertheless, as the YouTube slogan formerly suggested, allow the individual to resemble a minor-league ‘broadcaster.’
Numbers still count of course. Google Adsense does not come sniffing around any blog without a serious number of daily clicks. (Google makes searching for an accurate take on this number remarkably unproductive.) So when it comes to money, big dogs still rule the kennel, and in that sense not much has changed. But in other important ways nearly everything has changed. Now any ordinary mortal can ‘share’ everything from the breakup of her most recent relationship to, famously, unwisely, his participation in last night’s riot. And with these changes, the very conception of privacy seems to have morphed for current 20somethings. (The average 50something has roughly 50 times fewer Facebook friends than the 20something.) Any smart phone now knows precisely where we are at all times, and, if we wish, it will happily notify all our friends of as much whenever they happen to be in the neighbourhood. More ominously, if Eli Pariser in The Filter Bubble is right, facial recognition technology will soon advance to the point where whomever—the government, your employer, your husband—will be able to search for you wherever security cameras may have observed you, which is just about everywhere, isn’t it? The prospect represents a virtual paradigm shift in our public/private lives. As Pariser, writes, “The ability to search by face will shatter many of our illusions about privacy and anonymity.”
Personally, I’ve never quite grasped the attraction of fame, at any scale, whether it be via The New York Times or Facebook. Money, sure; it’s highly convenient. Power, again sure, if you’re able to contend with its corrupting capacity. Fame can obviously facilitate these other, more ostensibly desirable ends, but fame in the sense that you won’t be able to go out in public without being recognized, that strangers might approach you, looking for some sort of buzz of interaction—the very idea that anonymity will be gone for you—I just don’t see the payoff in that.
In June of 1968, Valerie Solanas, a marginal figure in Andy Warhol’s notorious ‘Factory’ scene, tried to kill him. She very nearly did, and Warhol had to wear a surgical corset for the rest of his life. Maybe it’s just my perverse take on things, but the attempt seems to be the apogee of the dark side of fame. A murder attempt is obviously not the sort of attention anyone needs, but then, the need for widespread attention seems to me to be something all of us should regard with suspicion. As David Bowie has suggested, “Fame, what you get is no tomorrow.”