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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Fragments on microcelebrity

1. I’m trying to collect some thoughts for an essay I’ve promised to write about microcelebrity. In the past I’ve talked about the phenomenon mostly in terms of personal branding and amassing capital in an attention economy through social media. The idea there is that in communicative capitalism, you are only as valuable as your platform, the audience you can bring. In other words, the main work we do in a network society is assemble and commercialize our social network in various ways; microfame is one way of conceptualizing and articulating that process. Microcelebrity is a matter of misrecognizing the potential to be broadcast as the achievement of being seen; mistaking talking for necessarily having an audience.

2. Usually the attention economy is conceived in terms of a surfeit of information creating a scarcity of time to take it all in. Attention scarcity is a matter of TMI, which has an obvious connection to some of the more salient practices of microcelebrity: confessional writing, oversharing, “radical vulnerability,” exhibitionism, the New Sincerity, and so on. Viewed with maximal cynicism, these are all modes of turning the nuances of intimacy and personal identity formation into a fungible product, an explicitly economic resource. They also all reflect the possibility of a life lived merely to confess it, to share it on social media. Social media functions as a giant scoreboard to confer significance to events that are more or less meaningless in the moment. Getting likes on a photo of the meal you made yourself is more important and more significant than eating it.

3. It’s tempting to say that an impulse once reserved for artists and aesthetes has been democratized — now we can all treat our friends like characters in our online roman à clef! Only most artists don’t seem to actually operate that way. They don’t seem to live life as a deliberate pursuit for material to transform into art; instead the artistic practices and the discipline to work on those practices organize what they can use from one’s life experience. It’s not as though anyone thinks, If only I could have the right sort of experience, it will make me into an artistic genius.

4. It might seem strange to lump the New Sincerity in with microcelebrity. It was popularized as a kind of performative earnestness once 9/11 allegedly killed irony. But regardless of what its original anti-ironic intentions may have been, the New Sincerity seems like an alibi for the confessional mode used as means to pursuing celebrity for its own sake, to garnering attention to confirm that there was something there inside worth being sincere about — a real self was there to tell the truth about.

5. For most people, the confessional impulse is probably not a matter of cynical calculation.  Obviously, most people don’t draw any monetary returns from self-branding and sharing. The economy of attention is also the economy of recognition, which implies some sort of scarcity of empathy, or of affect generally. It may just be a semantic illusion, but it seems the experience of the first sort of attention economy leaks over and creates the second; feeling our own attention overtaxed seems related to registering a deficit of attention being paid to us. Confessional practices in social media is a response to feeling overwhelmed by information, the feeling that one is only information oneself, and in danger of being diluted to total insignificance. The stream of microaffirmations can certainly help sustain us, but merely expressing oneself in serial fragments, recording oneself in a way that can be exhumed by outside interpreters at some other time, giving the flux of life some form, is also sustaining. The need to give our interior experience the form of information and allow it to circulate seems more urgent now.

6. Though we are in the age of the attention economy not all attention is created equal. There is a difference between friends’ and strangers’ attention, though they tend to be collapsed in how we integrate ourselves into the realities of the attention economy. We are starting to substitute them freely for one another and then reckoning with the consequences of the imperfect substitution later.

People are getting used to receiving social affirmation, a sense of belonging, social recognition, not merely in the form of quantified measures (people have always mistaken money as indicator of self-worth) but as notifications, digitized receipts of acknowledgment. Seeking microaffirmations through social media means we have somewhere to turn when the tap of our friends’ attention runs dry, or when it ceases to satisfy our aggrandized self-concept. Or it may be that the surfeit of microaffirmations from friends prompts us to immediately disavow them and seek some non-friend to supply “genuine” unbiased recognition that’s not rote.

7. There can be a sense of belonging and of mattering that is mutually negotiated, that is the product of co-presence, and that can endure beyond the moment it is forged. But the sense of inclusion, of mattering, facilitated by social media sharing is ephemeral by design; the recognition it garners is fleeting, shallow. Instead, I am only as secure as the last time I was retweeted. The need for recognition becomes productive, it becomes conditional on producing memes.

8. There is a need for immediacy in affirmations to cope with highly volatized moods. I seem to need immediate and constant reassurance of my belonging or, more basically, of my existing but receiving some sort of feedback through social media. I am not distracted by emails coming in but by their failure to, when they could be coming. The parentheses on the Gmail tab remains unchanged, but I can’t stop looking to it like it is measuring my vital signs.

9. It’s easy to see how social media is trying to monetize our friendships, tapping into a network of deep ties to inject advertising. We share and make connections and retrace a network that exists outside of Facebook within Facebook, making it more coherent and palpable for us, but also permitting Facebook to use it for its ends. But what if your social network outside of Facebook is worthless, weak, empty? What if you turn to Facebook to help you build social ties?

The rise of phenomena like radical honesty, normalized cyberstalking, exhibitionism of self-harm/exhibitionism as self-harm, and so on has coincided with the monetization of intimacy and hanging out. In an essay about rejoining Facebook  Danny Butt described how Facebook  is indicative of how “the  basic labour of human attachment is increasingly the interest of capital.” The site has commoditized and grammatized intimacy for capitalists’ enrichment, but intimacy itself is not sold on the social networks. It is promised as a practice, as a mode, as a given labor capacity in all users. But what if you are lonely? How does social media exploit that affect, the affect of not belonging?  By encouraging a desperate New Sincerity, a hypertrophied sharing meant to generate “real” belonging.

10. Microcelebrity evokes something small but it marks an excess, a need for more, a hunger, a dissatisfaction that can’t be resolved by social media. Social media has emerged to sate people’s need for connection and stability; it is a reputation-management system, a grantor of coherence, a constant source of ontological security to compensate for modernity’s destruction of the stable self it promised to make more autonomous and sovereign. But while social media solves that problem for some, making them feel rooted and connected, placed in a network, for others it generates a lack, a ceaseless hunger, attachment issues. It stimulates borderline-personality behavior, fantasies of omnipotent control and terrors of ultimate abandonment in the midst of all the universal love and harmony you can see flowing down your Facebook.

11. To mark today’s release of New Inquiry’s music issue, Spectacle Theater in Williamsburg is screening a film tonight about Kurt Cobain, a clear casualty of the celebrity he was determined to achieve. A few years ago Steve Hyden wrote an essay for AV Club contrasting Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain, who apparently had a feud, despite being pretty similar.

Both men hated the press for spreading “lies” that often turned out to be true, and both were drawn to complicated women who created as much misery as ecstasy in their lives. Both men saw fame as a double-edged sword; it gave them the attention they craved after a lifetime of being ignored, and yet it also seemed to intensify their feelings of self-loathing.

What I thought when I first read this was: Is it ridiculous to think that the problems of fame Hyden describes, once reserved for reflexive and narcissistic rock stars, now potentially afflict us all? Does microfame yield macro shame? My experience with Facebook has been double-edged in that way: It seemed I had a chance to redeem all that time I felt ignored. But I only rediscovered the same disgust with myself for wallowing in that miserable egomania, as Facebook forced me to recognize yet again that my tastes and experiences aren’t really my own, because I still want so badly for people to applaud me for them.

This seems like what happened to Kurt Cobain, only writ small. You end up ruining all the cool things you thought you wanted to share with the world because you can’t share them without tainting them with shameful self-importance. Cobain must have knew that covering the Vaselines and gushing about the Raincoats threatened the quality about those bands that made them important to him and threatened the value they had to his own sense of self. Sharing those pleasures becomes a means of nullifying the self, invalidating it insofar as the self is premised on special, unique tastes. But wasn’t sharing supposed to expand, distribute the self? How do we communicate our love for something without making a claim to possess it somehow, without investing ourselves in it? The lens of fame, even microfame, makes it harder to do that; it makes it seem like so much is at stake in what moves us. It reduces us to what we endorse.

In his L.A. Review of Books essay about Tiqqun’s Young-Girl,  Adam Morris notes how, according to Tiqqun, the Young-Girl (their pointedly sexualized term for hipster) “will always feel a miserable lack, having failed to experience her own personhood in a way that would generate unique desires and emotions.” That seems like a good description of the consequences of fame, or living life as though one is supposed to be famous, or living as though one is always already potentially famous. (One day they will discover my blog archive and I will be truly recognized!) Fame makes you aware of yourself in these terms, with the uniqueness of your passions made suddenly general, exchangeable as cultural capital, transferrable rather than integral to yourself. Sharing (as a pseudo-famous person) is self-alienation. But perhaps that could clear away the detritus interfering with a different conception of selfhood, one that pleasures and intensities pass through without being codifies into status-seeking tastes.

When self-worth is bound up with connoisseurship, with having the cool things that you want to share acknowledged, you are never the cool thing yourself. Worse, it’s a doomed proposition when you are staking your self-worth on convincing others with the argument, But my taste is better than yours! The trap seems even harder to escape now that the pressure and the means to share everything online is ubiquitous, and we’re constantly appraised of how our wise deliberations are entirely ignored, at least by somebody.

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