There is nothing mysterious about how hype is generated: marketers and PR people coordinate with attention brokers on various media and relentlessly bang the drum for whatever it is they want to promote. But, as Devon Powers details in this paper about hype in the International Journal of Communication, hype seems mysterious because it comes with its own disavowal. It’s “contaminated publicity” that infiltrates past one’s defenses by seeming to refute itself; it tries to work by implying, “This thing has already been too publicized.” It engages people not on the level of the thing being hyped — it tends to posit the idea that everyone already knows what the thing is basically about — but by evoking a cultural conversation, as if there is some alternate answer to the question “Why is everyone talking about X?” than “X was heavily and concertedly marketed.”
Hype already presumes that no one completely buys into it; the passive dope who just responds to hype with naive enthusiasm is obviously a straw man, the creation of which is hype’s chief achievement. Hype creates this stooge that makes us feel smart in being jaded about hype. Advertising generally works by trying to make audiences feel smart and insecure at the same time; it flatters us but makes us know that the flattery is conditional. Hype says: yeah, you are probably smarter than to fall unreservedly for this obviously overhyped thing, but still you better know about it so you know just why you haven’t fallen for it. As Powers notes, Through our engagement with hype “we are at once too savvy and not savvy enough.”
By definition, hype is never a surprise, an accident. In fact, we know when something has gone “viral” precisely because it hasn’t been hyped in advance; its spread is unexpected. Why something like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” caught on is a legitimate question, the birth of meme-ology. Something like Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls is another matter. It is not a meme. It can only be understood within the context of its preparatory promotion. As Powers argues, “Hype is a state of anticipation generated through the circulation of promotion, resulting in a crisis of value.” The crisis of value is in part aesthetic — the intensity of hype implies the thing in question can’t stand on its own and can’t attract its own audience.
But it’s also a crisis of what we mean by value. Hype is a switch point where attention comes to seem valuable for its own sake, as the point of all cultural production. A hyped work can only be about its own popularity. Hype reinforces an idea of value that fits well in a world of social-by-design products, suggesting that art is only meaningful to “consume” when you yourself have an audience to watch you consume it. What’s the point in trying to enjoy something no one else is watching? There is no advantage, no value, in that. Powers notes that “consumption is not synonymous with endorsement, but it is increasingly read that way.” I might modify that to: We increasingly know we are consuming something only when it can be registered as an endorsement — when we know it has made some statement about ourselves. Powers writes:
As more of an individual’s relationships, transactions, beliefs, and self-concepts take place in, or are primed for, public consumption, and as the economy continues to shift toward entrepreneurialism and self-employment while technological advancements shift toward mobile, social media, each of us is likewise pulled into these promotional tropes.
That is, given the imperative to be productive on social media, hype is as much a model for personal conduct as it is promotion for a particular good. It teaches us to be careful in how we promote ourselves through the things we choose to attach ourselves — to stoke and undercut expectations about ourselves simultaneously. Since self-promotion is a given, not a choice, we should aspire to do it right. Hype is compelling because it starkly models how to do it wrong and how to do it well, and persuades us we’ll always know the difference, even when they are the same thing.