You don’t have to be rich and famous to be happy; you just have to be rich. Whether said by Tom Hanks, as I originally heard it, or by some other rich and famous person, there the ring of truth and a note of falsity to the statement. Most of us know that if we just had enough money, we could be happy. Of course, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, enough is a moving target. Besides, few of us believe — deep down in our hearts — that we will ever be rich; we’d be satisfied with being comfortable and secure. Studies show that to be true.
Fame is an entirely different creature. Apparently we all want to be famous and not for fifteen minutes either. We want people — strangers — to watch us (Creepy, right?) or at least relative strangers — those people on Facebook that we vaguely remember meeting at a party or who are friends of friends (especially famous friends).
The desire for fame may be the single biggest impact of social media. For the first time ever we can create our own fame and not rely on gatekeepers or media intermediaries to do it for us. We can even become famous for nothing more than being famous.
There is little doubt now that this obsession with display is a natural part of being human — after all jewelry and make-up have been found in Stone Age caves. It is part of the mating ritual but it is also a way in which we demonstrate status and wealth. The whole point of status is to be paid attention. The main purpose of wealth is to buy obedience and slavish servitude. Well, at least it sometimes seems that way, doesn’t it?
But now we can all be famous — we can post endless selfies on the Internet and pictures of our food and drink — a modern form of displaying wealth. We can get people to like us and comment on our every thought.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that this culture of fame is both changing the world (and not merely the western world) and that it is directly linked to social media. Before 1997 the main job aspirations of youth were doctor, lawyer and engineer while now it is sportsman, rock star and actor. These are the people who command attention and having had a taste for attention, this is what we increasingly want.
It may seem like a harmless obsession but it is the desire for public display and approval that has led to a spike in cyber bullying (the counterpart to fame is envy) and to the on-line suicides of all too many young people.
I’ve sometimes used the line —I’m the most famous writer you’ve never heard of (stolen from countless others) — and obviously I am not immune to the siren call of notoriety. After all I come here every day, don’t I? But sometimes I wonder at what price.
But that’s ten minutes.