Fame and Fortune You Say?

(Note: Discussion question from class)

Is the phenomena of seeking fame on the Net business or usual for young people, or something new and different?–and why?

I’m going to step back, and disagree with the whole premise of the question, and the line of argumentation present in, for example, The Nation article. Because I definitely think this is “business as usual” for young people, but I’m not even sure they’re actually seeking “fame” in their actions and media practices.

Yes, there’s no doubt tons of people are posting silly things on YouTube. But why is it about fame? Of course, if you thought it might be, and then, say, went to a web site called “iWannaBeFamous.com” (a self-selecting group if I ever saw one…) and found some quotes to support your premise, well, then yeah. Duh.

And yes, Twenge has found an “overall increase in individualism” and people reporting “I am a special person.” But why must that be connected, as Niedzviecki wants us to believe, to this idea that we “have to be public figure[s], noticed and celebrated, and preferably televised”? And “connected” is not even the right word, because the Nation piece sort of implies a causality, that the younger generation is inherently narcissistic, and they’re all posting on YouTube to feed that need.

Even that Pew Poll, cited in USAT (which, by the way, you can find here), if you look at the question, it’s not about themselves personally, but about their generation as a whole. That is, it’s a comment on Gen Y society, and not on personal values — it’s what they think other people think.

In many ways, the youtubization of our culture is kind of like Christmas: social networking tools were the ONE THING you REALLY REALLY wanted to get, and you got it, and it’s Christmas Day and you’re still playing. Are we reading too much into it? We’re in such the early stages of all this — how much of it is still just that new-toy-smell infatuation?

But this idea of fame and narcissism as fuels for the social networking boom also runs up against, or maybe just ignores, another factor that fuels our Internet life — altruism. A gift economy works because people want to contribute to something greater than themselves (open source programming, wikipedia — these are the toils of anonymity). Political bloggers blog, behind pseudonyms for the most part, because they want to change the world, not make money. People share their photos on Flickr because they’re shutterbugs, and want to show people their work. And while the NYT article we read (“YouTube Celebrities”) points to several people who are making money off their posts — these are, by far, the exceptions to the rule.

My own anecdotal experience, at least, confirms this. No one I know that blogs, or posts on YouTube, or has a MySpace page, has any desire to be famous, or illusions they will be. Nor do they have the desire to get rich off it.

Not the stuff of Pew Polls, admittedly, but it’s a gut check.

And this idea of fame completely ignores the capitalism and political economy angle — we don’t have reality TV because we all have this inherent desire to be famous; we have reality TV because ads sales are down, and reality TV is cheap to produce. YouTube isn’t about “broadcasting yourself” — it’s a way to sell ads.

More importantly, though, much of this phenomena, from the user perspective, is really about identity, and young people exploring who they are, and who they will be. This notion of identity is not new — it’s part of human nature, and has nothing to do with digital media. Erving Goffman, in The Presentation of Self (a text that’s on my list of “Things I Still Need To Read Because It’s Referenced Everywhere”), used a theatrical metaphor for this process of socialization — we have “front stage” personas, that we put on for different social settings.

Along similar lines, the business-as-usual-ness of all this was brought out very well in the Montgomery reading (Chpt 5):

Media always have played a role in this process, exposing teens to a wide variety of cultural role models and enabling them to explore their “possible selves.” Adolescents “use media and the cultural insights provided by them to see both who they might be and how others have constructed or reconstructed themselves,” observed communications scholar Jane Brown.

Home pages are bedroom walls, blogs are diaries, IMs are those notes kids pass in grade school. Before YouTube, instead of posting that crazy dance video, they’d do it in the high school commons, or maybe a talent show. Adolescence is about trying on identities, and kids will use whatever they have in front of them to do it. Today, they happen to have web 2.0 technologies.

Of course, there are differences. There is a blurring of public and private space. There is a generational gap (at least temporarily), where parents may not even know IM exists, but their kids are “doing homework” while IMing their friends. There is a different sense of just who we’re talking to — danah boyd calls this “invisible audiences”:

When i stand here speaking to you, i have a sense of my audience (minus that camera that’s staring ominously at me. And you know that in this room you’re supposed to pretend to be paying attention. And i know that when everyone is staring at their computer only that i’m losing you, but if you’re staring at me and then down to the computer and back and forth that you might be taking notes or arguing loudly in the backchannel. I have learned to gauge the audience and i need this to speak appropriately. In mediated public spaces, there’s no way to accurately gauge who is present or who will be present as the conversation spirals along.

But these new differences, these media add-ons to our socialization process, don’t take away the main point, that it’s most important to view these Gen Y media practices in terms of identity, and not a quest for “fame.”

The latter is, I think, too simplistic a lens through which to view what’s really going on here.

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