Are we all famous now?
I know that’s a strange question. If everyone is famous, then no one is famous, right? Well, it depends on what exactly we mean by “famous.” Last month, I read a New Yorker essay by Chris Hayes, the host of All In on MSNBC, that sharpened the question. He asked, what happens when the experience of fame becomes a universal possibility?
Anyone who’s on a social media platform like TikTok or Twitter or Instagram is always one viral post away from instant fame — or what feels like fame, anyway. Most of us don’t ever get it, but the specter of it is always there.
For Hayes, this means a lot of us are chasing validation in a place that can never really give it to us, because we don’t really know or care about the people on the other side of the virtual wall. Like a celebrity interacting with fans, it’s hollow and one-sided, and while the people liking and sharing our posts satisfy our desire for attention, they can’t satisfy our desire for genuine recognition.
I reached out to Hayes for this week’s episode of Vox Conversations to talk about why he thinks this is such a radical shift in human life, and one we’ve probably underappreciated. We also talk about his own uneasy relationship with fame and why, like the rest of us, he just can’t back away from Twitter.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
There have been a lot of think pieces about the transformative effects of the internet, and most of them began with the assumption that the biggest change is the discourse is more open than it’s ever been, that more people have a seat at the table. And that’s certainly true, but you turn this around and say that the most significant change isn’t who gets to speak, but rather what we can hear. Why is our ability to hear more, to absorb more noise and information and content, the most radical shift in our social lives?
I think for a few reasons. One is that, even though it is the case that more and more people can join the discourse, I think the people that make the argument about that being positive have a lot going for them, and a lot that I’m sympathetic to. I mean, it really is the case that there has been a radical expansion of the voices that are in the media, and the kind of old gatekeeper universe has been torn down, largely, and there’s a lot of good that’s flowed from that.
I mean, Vox is kind of an example of all kinds of stuff getting published that I don’t think would have been published a generation ago, right? At the same time, most people’s experience of social media is consuming, and this is just an empirical fact about the distribution of users. A hilarious percentage of tweets are produced by a very small set of users. (I account for an embarrassing number of those personally. Half of all tweets come from Chris Hayes now.) The kind of modal experience of social media is consumption, is seeing stuff, is getting stimulus about the world.
And you’re just getting a lot. Michelle Goldberg made this point, she just wrote a column on this in the New York Times, sort of a related set of themes about the Facebook revelations, but she said, “Maybe 15 years ago people were sending around Christmas cards with their whole family posing with guns. I just didn’t know about it.” It’s possible that that’s a new thing. It’s also possible that’s been happening all the time, and now I just see it, and I’m like, “Wow, that’s weird. I don’t like that.”
You’re constantly being exposed to some set of stimuli, knowledge about the world, that is often designed to inflame and rage, but also just means there’s a creepy level of surveillance we all have into everyone else’s lives. I say this in the piece, that a not particularly industrious 16-year-old possesses the power to surveil on a level formerly reserved for the KGB. I mean, you could just pick someone at random, and I’ve done this, when sometimes someone will end up in the updraft of the news and you’ll go look at their social media. Before you know it, it’s like you’ve got this picture of this person, that is the kind of thing that an intelligence agency would compile, or take a team to compile, a dossier of in a former life. So we are just constantly inundated with a sheer amount of information, particularly provocative information, about strangers.
I basically think there’s two kinds of internet. There’s good internet and bad internet. The good internet happens between people who have actual relationships, where the internet is the medium to stay in touch. Then there’s the bad internet. Bad internet is all the stuff that happens between strangers.
Some of those stranger interactions are great. I’m very lucky that I learned things from the internet. But in the mean, I think that the proximity to strangers that’s produced by the internet is rubbing up against something very deep in us as human beings, and producing some really combustible frictions.
A key question, for me at least, is trying to figure out how this chaotic, overwhelming discourse isn’t merely changing what we can hear, but also changing how we think. If you believe that the limits of our language are the limits of our thought, then the memefied discourse of social media has probably not been great for our brains or liberal democracy. But, as you point out, we heard the same arguments about TV not that long ago.
Yeah. I think both are pretty true. I think that it is a perennial complaint of people who are encountering a new technology, particularly a new medium to communicate thought, to be wary of it or to focus on its downsides. But also, a lot of times they’re right and there is a profound effect that these various media have.
There’s a riff in I forget which part of Plato, where Socrates is talking about writing as being the enemy of good thought, and he’s got a whole thing about like, “No one’s going to remember anything anymore.”
The critique goes all the way back from an oral society to a written society. Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, writes about the features of thought that were prioritized by an oral society, which was memorization. Its modes of thought were very aphoristic and very mythos-based, because those are the things that you could recall from memory.
I think it definitely changed human thought to go from an oral tradition to a writing tradition. For the better, for the worse, I don’t know, but definitely changed it. Then I think Postman’s argument about going from a kind of print society to one dominated by TV and the image, I think there’s a lot to his critique about how it changes the way that we think, and shapes public discourse.
The question of what’s better, what’s worse, what’s reversible or not, Postman says this is a change for the worse, but to identify that mass modes of discourse produce changes at the very level of conceptualization in people doesn’t strike me as far-fetched, and seems an idea very worth taking seriously.
Let’s zoom in on the particulars of the piece and then we can wind back towards the Postman stuff. You talk about how beings crave recognition above all else, but all the internet gives us, really, is attention. That might seem like a distinction without a difference to someone who hasn’t read your piece yet, or hasn’t thought much about this. So can you explain the difference between recognition and attention, and why one is worth pursuing and the other is hollow?
I think the distinction between that actually is really important, and has clarified a lot for me about just the way I feel about things. The recognition riff is drawn from the lectures of a Russian expat who went to Paris after the Bolshevik revolution from a wealthy Russian family that fled the Bolsheviks, named Alexandre Kojève. He ran this seminar in Paris at a school where he basically did a kind of week by week exegesis on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and it was attended by a who’s who of French intellectuals, including Lacan, Ansart, and others. Lacan, by the way, once you read Kojève’s exegesis on Hegel, if you do read Lacan, you realize that like a lot of Lacan is just literally ripping off Kojève.
He was a weird guy. He was a bureaucrat. He ended up a very high-ranking bureaucrat in the ministry of trade, and basically is there at the inception of the EU. He’s got a lot of different theories, but one of the things that he talks about in his uses of Hegel is, what’s the constituent human desire? The thing that makes us human is a desire for recognition. His specificity on this is that recognition is to be seen as a human by a human. He says, man can only therefore be social.
The reciprocity of the acknowledgement, the gaze, the investment of another human who looks at us and sees us as human is the thing that we crave above all else, that is actually what forms us as humans. I think there’s a lot to that. That’s a very profound observation that is clarifying for me. He then goes on to talk about the master and the slave paradox of Hegel.
There’s not a ton on it in The Phenomenology of Spirit. But Kojève’s take on this has to do with the fact that there’s this paradox in the master and the slave, in that the slave, because he’s brought low by the master, he’s forced to submit. And there’s this whole weird thing about like this fight to the death that I couldn’t quite even crack intellectually, but basically, the takeaway I have is that the slave submits and recognizes the master.
But fundamentally the paradox, and the kind of tragedy of the master, is that that recognition is meaningless — because the master doesn’t recognize the slave as human. The master is on the receiving end of recognition from a person he himself does not recognize as human, ergo, that recognition itself can’t matter for him.
I think what ends up happening in the internet is that our profound desire for recognition to be seen as human by other humans is the lure that we chase, like the cartoon donkey with the carrot in front of us, to go out into the world and say, “Look at me, here, I am human. This is my humanity. Recognize me.”
And what we get, in a somewhat similar situation to the master and the slave, is we get these inputs and likes from people, that because they aren’t real to us as humans, can’t actually feed that desire for recognition. Because we don’t see them as humans. Because they’re strangers. They’re just people out there in the ether. We’re sort of compulsively chasing this desire for recognition and instead getting attention.
Attention is a broader category than recognition. Recognition is a specific and rarefied form of attention. I actually tend to think of it, as I’ve been constructing this in my head, there’s attention at the lowest level, then there’s recognition, and there’s love, as the three ascending forms of human engagement.
Attention is just someone notices you. Recognition is someone sees you, recognizes you as a person, and love is someone feels for you. We want to be recognized, we want to be loved, and we’re on the internet getting nothing but attention all the time, because that’s kind of all the medium can produce.
You talk about how we’ve built this technology that creates a synthetic version of this most fundamental desire, but really, it almost seems like the web creates a synthetic version of human life as such, which is why most of what we do on there feels like this kind of pantomime, but a pantomime that mimics real life just enough to keep us coming back for more and more.
I think that’s part of what is so tricky about it, because there are people that I’ve interacted with online for literally decades. Jamelle Bouie, the New York Times columnist, and I have met in real life maybe a dozen times. Ran into him once on Martha’s Vineyard. I remember once he did a book event with me. I used to see him around DC, but Jamelle is someone that I’ve read for over a decade, who I’ve interacted with, who I’ve corresponded with about the things that he’s writing or the things that I’m writing or working on.
He’s someone that I feel quite close to, in a certain way, because of the internet. I mean, I imagine some earlier iteration, maybe it would have been that I wrote letters to him, he wrote letters to me, or something like that. And I don’t want to overstate our closeness. We’re not. I know him and respect him and feel quite warmly and fondly towards him. But what I’m saying is that there’s a kind of relationship there that I have with a bunch of people that, again, is in that good space that does feel both human, but also mostly enabled by the medium, but that’s us, and it’s a narrow slice in there.
My point is that the genuineness of that, the genuineness that you can feel, where sometimes this will happen, someone will announce a child is born to them or some tragedy, and again, you will feel a genuine feeling of human tug, about a person who’s fundamentally, IRL, a stranger, that you nonetheless feel approximate to, close to, invested in. Again, there’s something so profound in that. It’s more than, to me, a facsimile. It’s actually like playing the same strings that are like the deepest chords of our soul, basically.
I think you’re right. We want to be seen by other people with whom we’re interacting online. We want to be recognized. We demand it, but we can’t really get it because it’s, by and large, an unequal relationship; we can only recognize the other, we can’t be fully recognized by them.
It’s almost like you have this kind of virtual wall between people online. It collapses everyone on the other side into almost an abstraction, a non-person, or some kind of avatar onto which we project whatever we want. That’s enough to satisfy or engage our attention. It’s not enough to satisfy our soul, and I love that you’re teasing that out here.
Correct. That point about attention to me, and here’s where I’ve been trying to give a lot of sustained thought to attention, because the writing project I’m working on now really focuses on this, is that there’s also something really profound about how attention works. This is, again, is an area that is very well trod. Tim Wu’s book, called The Attention Merchants, gets into some of this.
So, there’s a very powerful market for our attention. But the thing that’s really interesting about attention is our ability to control it is essentially constitutive of our consciousness as humans.
So the thing that actually makes us human beings is that we can, at will, shine the flashlight of mental focus on what we want to. If I say to you right now, to the listener, I say right now, conjure the image and the sound of a sprinkler on a lawn on a warm summer day. You can do that. Well, as far as we know, we’re the only species that can do that. It’s possible, again, this is a long philosophical literature that maybe dogs are running around doing this or dolphins or whatever, but as best we can tell, this ability to at will, to take the flashlight of thought, shine it on the thing, conjure things, bring them forward, this is essentially constitutive of what it means to be conscious.
And yet, there’s another part of our attention, what psychologists call preconscious attention, that we can’t control. When a siren comes wailing down the street, the siren takes your attention against your will, involuntarily. It’s designed to do so. Our lives online are this existential battle, like Odysseus tied to the mast as he passes the sirens, to wrest control back of the very thing that defines us as humans, which is the volitional control over our own mental focus, as it is constantly being battled for by enormously powerful supercomputers and corporations attempting to involuntarily extract it.