Don't You Know Who I Am? On Internet Fame And The Unbearable Lightness Of Being Known
A few years ago, former Gawker blogger Emily Gould wrote a New York Times Magazine piece about her life as a blogger, and reflected at lengthy upon the awkwardness of Internet fame, such as such fame is. She related an anecdote about struggling to explain that "fame" to someone who, predictably, just didn't understand:
"'It’s important to remember that you’re not a celebrity,' she told me. How could I tell her, without coming off as having delusions of grandeur, that, in a way, I was? I obviously wasn’t 'famous' in the way that a movie star or even a local newscaster or politician is famous — I didn’t go to red-carpet parties or ride around in limos, and my parents’ friends still had no idea what I was talking about when I described my job — but I had begun to have occasional run-ins with strangers who knew what I did for a living and felt completely comfortable walking up to me on the street and talking about it."
I totally know how she felt.
Which is not to say that I'm famous, because, you know, I'm not. At least, I'm not "famous" in the way that a movie star, or even a Snooki, is. I don't go to red carpet parties, and I'm not followed around by cameras and a lot of people still have no idea what I'm talking about when I describe my job ... but I have had more than a few run-ins with total strangers who know what I do for a living and feel comfortable walking up to me on the street -- or at the airport or in the grocery store or at the playground -- and talking about it. But that's kind of hard to talk about without coming off as having delusions of grandeur, you know?
So, yeah. That. That is awkward and uncomfortable to talk about, because that -- being well-known for writing about your life on the Internet -- is such a bizarre and implausible thing; the kind of thing that, to the wrong ears, sounds completely deluded, to say nothing of egotistical and self-aggrandizing. But that is something that is more and more common the more the Internet and social media and all the tools and doodads that support those things become central to our lives. There are, simply, more and more people becoming better known for doing this thing that we do, here, in our sweatpants, in the brightly lit spaces of the Interwebs. Which is why we need to start talking about what means to get attention in these spaces, what it means to be Internet famous. Or, at least, Internet well-known-ish.
I'm not hugely famous on the Internet. I'm not a widely-cited social media expert, nor am I the sort of lifecasting blogger that Gawker regularly covers (and likes to refer to as "fameballs"). I don't have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, I've never been on Oprah, and I'm certainly not in the league of Dooce. But my blog has been mentioned, more than once, in the New York Times and the Washington Post and on the BBC and CNN and across a variety of publications, and I get asked to appear on television and, yes, people do approach me in public, in my own city and in others and in quite a few airports in between. So, yeah: Some people would say that I'm kind of sort of well-known, for whatever that's worth.
And what is that worth? Not in terms of dollars -- one can be Internet well-known and not make one's living from it (that's not me, but still) -- but in terms of, well, what it all means and whether it's worth it (whatever "it" really is) and how one copes and how one keeps from becoming bitter or exhausted or ridiculous or big-headed or insufferable or (as I heard someone at SXSW call it) just an all-out "social media d-bag", the Internet equivalent of the "stars" of Jersey Shore. Or all of the above.
All I can say to that is: It's worth something, and nothing, and it matters not at all, but also a lot, and it's very, very hard to not have your head turned by excess amounts of attention and when you come home from wherever and tell your spouse that someone squealed when they met you, your spouse will look at you and say "and?" and you will say, "Because I'm on the Internet! I'm a good writer! People like me! They really like me!" and your spouse will say, "oh," and go back to his Sudoku, and you will wonder why he JUST DOESN'T GET IT and then you will go to bed and lay awake and wonder whether he didn't have a point, really, because isn't being well-known on the Internet kind of like being well-known in certain regions of Korea for having appeared in those karaoke videos back in the early nineties? Which is to say, kind of cool, maybe, and the sort of thing that's fun to mention off-hand at high school reunions, but nothing that really gives one's live meaning. Really.
I think that it's important, when and if one attains any kind of knownness on the Internet (or anywhere), to have those conversations with one's loved ones (the more skeptical they are about Internet fame, the better) and, perhaps more importantly, with oneself. Because although attaining such knownness brings some cool things -- I'm a writer, and having an audience for my writing, and opportunities to pursuing my writing in other media, is/are invaluable to me -- it's not everything. Thinking of it as an means to some other end -- as, for example, a means of creating more and better opportunities to do write/photograph/film/perform/consult/craft/cook/WHATEVER -- rather than an end in itself is, I think, the best way to keep it in perspective. Being well-known in itself isn't interesting or choiceworthy -- it's doing the things that earn the well-knownness that are interesting and choiceworthy. It's the doing that is the reward, not the recognition. Or at least, not so much the recognition. Everyone likes to be recognized for doing something well. But it's important to keep in mind that it's what one is doing that's important, not the recognition on its own.
Which, you might say, easy for you to say. Fair enough. I'm writing this from the vantage point of someone who has had some success doing this blogging thing and garnered some recognition for it and that means, I suppose, that I have the luxury of disdaining, even by mild implication, that recognition. But I'm not disdaining it; I'm just looking at it with some hard-earned perspective. I've gone through periods of worrying whether I was getting recognized enough of worrying whether the readership statistics on my blog were on a steep enough upward curve and wondering why I didn't get asked to do this or that campaign or wringing my hands over whether I'd get this or that award, and I learned that no good comes of that. Fame, as they say, is a cruel mistress, and even though I'm not talking about conventional fame but its poor cousin, knownness, they're members of the same family and they're both harsh bitches. They offer little bits of sweetness here and there but not in equal measure to their slaps and pokes. If you want them too badly, they're going to punish you. (Also! They bring with them trolls and hate mail and general resentment-fueled nastiness. These are not fun. They're really, really not.)
Trust me: You are much, much happier when you seek most of your fulfillment in the work itself, rather than in the recognition for the work. The recognition -- and all the markers of recognition, like traffic and links and rankings and awards and media mentions and speaking -- is fleeting and inconsistent and there will always, always be someone who gets more of it than you. The work, however -- that's yours. You control it. You own it. You can have as much as you want. You can keep doing it and keep enjoying it as long as you can stay mostly upright. But recognition, well, that's something that not even the most awesome among us -- and speak up, awesome people, if I'm getting this wrong -- can control. History is full of great people who did awesome things who were never recognized in their time or never recognized all. History is also full of Snookis. Ask yourself: Would you rather be Van Gogh, Thoreau, Dickinson -- or a cast member on Jersey Shore?
So when people approach me in person or send me mail and praise my writing, I take that and value that -- man, do I value that (I get the deep warm fuzzies, every single time) -- and I let that inspire me to keep writing well and to keep writing more, rather than to seek out greater recognition. Because the writing, and the love of writing, I'll always have and it will always, always (except in certain, moments, like when I'm under deadline or can't complete a sentence or feel like I'm never going to get that book published) make me happy. Recognition is a nice fling, and it's exciting and it makes me feel kind of sexy, but it's never going to keep me warm at night.
Still, if you know the booker for Oprah? CALL ME.
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