If you missed last Friday's discussion on "microfame," or if you've ever felt that strange compulsion to get the hell off Facebook, listen up. In a lecture titled "Hi Haters!" and hosted by the USM Philosophy Symposium, Rob Horning, sociologist and editor of the culture magazine The New Inquiry, explained several useful and alarming ways of examining how the Internet is changing us.
Microfame, as Horning posited, is a much different phenomenon than gave birth to Andy Warhol's maxim that everyone will experience 15 minutes of fame. In fact, it makes it seem quaint by comparison. Instead, Horning defined microfame as "a sort of ongoing state of being, a structure of feeling for coping with a mandatory requirement to construct identity online . . . which affects our everyday life." For many of us, it's a fundamental quality of day-to-day existence.
Apropos for a lecture about the Internet, Horning led off with a pop-culture reference. The curious case of Britney Spears, who famously shaved her head in 2007 in defiance (she claimed) of the near-incessant attention she was getting, gave a particularly good illustration for the many valences of celebrity he would discuss. "Whenever a celebrity flips out because of overexposure," Horning said, "it's usually served up to the public as a sort of schadenfreude. The reassuring lesson is that we're supposed to enjoy the fact that too much fame will cause these other people to disintegrate. Unlike Britney, we don't need constant attention. We don't depend on the media to reflect back on us about what our lives are all about." While Spears is stuck in an endless cycle of producing her own complicated image of herself — even seemingly against her own wishes — we can rest assured knowing that our lives are lived out in private.
Those were the days! In the new era of social media, Horning said, "Britney is less an exception than an extreme depiction of what social media and surveillance are bringing to everyone." In other words, while we aren't about to throw a tabloid-worthy fit, we might be hooking ourselves into the same paranoiac feedback loop of production and attention within our own communities.
If social media has radicalized Warhol's definition of fame, it's performed a similar trick with surveillance. In real life, the most popular surveillance model has long been the panopticon, where a subject watched from above (or believing herself to be) regulates her behavior in fear of punishment. Social media hasn't changed that definition as much as given it new dimensions — now, surveillance doesn't occur only top-down but in every direction. The Internet has given us "sousveillance," the process of being watched from below — which might describe the public policing of politicians or corporations (or, for that matter, pop stars) — but social media is most responsible for another form, in which participation in society involves watching others. It's this "participatory surveillance," or "the many observing the many," that Horning alleges fundamentally modifies our identities, leading us to operate our online selves like small businesses ("interiority is like a factory, social media the showroom floor"), read news articles while looking for shareable pull-quotes (the "Facebook eye"), and generate marketing data about ourselves and our friends with every click.
While Horning didn't exactly make the case that microfame is some insidious conspiratorial force that threatens to shatter our psychological core, the fact that social media is rapidly changing our notions of society and identity is indisputable, and the sickly sweet mainstream explanation — that it makes sharing between friends easier — doesn't begin to cover it. We're in pretty deep, and if we've learned anything from Britney, it'll take a lot more than an electric razor to opt out.