In the wake of Weiner and on the tide of Palin e-mails and Facebook posts, we swim in a world where fame is so uncoupled from achievement that a Republican presidential debate could well be titled “Sarah and the Seven Dwarves,” with a non-candidate’s image hovering over the politicians vying for attention.
Seventy years ago, Americans were riveted by a book ironically titled “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” showing in words and pictures the desperate poverty of invisible victims of the Great Depression.
Now, social media have erased the problem of being unseen and unheard but created a new one–a poverty of mind threatening to starve out understanding of public issues with a glut of personal nonsense that one critic describes as “a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, but with higher real-world stakes. It is grounded in the first principles of game theory…You have to give to get; you have to get to give. Managing these ratios–deciding how much of your attention to expend to win attention to yourself, say–is the lion’s share of the Twitter action.”
The Fame Game has gone long past 20th century clichés—-Daniel Boorstin’s definition of celebrity as “being well-known for well-knowness” and Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame for everybody–into a realm of irrationality never foreseen.
Back then, traditional media were a fame factory retooling from manufacturing publicity saints that last for years, even decades, into spewing out disposable celebrities to be used briefly and thrown away like Kleenex. ”Freedom of the press,” A. J. Liebling noted, “is limited to those who own one.”
Now we are all publishers and self-publicists…