Jane Jacobs Versus The Kardashians

Is talking to strangers on the Internet making us crazy?

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There’s an old saying—a twist on the classic Warhol slogan—that dates back to the early days of the Web: “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people.” I thought of the quote last night when I finally sat down to read Chris Hayes’ artful New Yorker essay, “On The Internet, We’re Always Famous,” which somehow manages to take the reader from the auditory system of the fennec fox to the philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s re-interpretation of Hegel’s master-slave dynamic, all while offering a trenchant assessment of The Way We Live Now.1 (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do so now.)

Hayes’ core point is that the age of social media has taken the strangely disorienting information asymmetry of celebrity—having large numbers of total strangers expressing thoughts and opinions about your work or persona—and turned it into a mass phenomenon. “In the same way that electricity went from a luxury enjoyed by the American élite to something just about everyone had, so, too, has fame, or at least being known by strangers, gone from a novelty to a core human experience,” Hayes writes. Having “fans” or “followers” used to belong to an exclusive circle, reserved for a small number of famous musicians or professional athletes or political leaders. Now, follower counts are, for innumerable “influencers” and other micro-celebrities, the primary measure of their economic value. (And don’t even get me started on OnlyFans.)

Hayes—correctly I think—sees this as a problem, because fame has a long and storied history of, well, making people lose their minds:

Ever since there have been famous people, there have been people driven mad by fame. In the modern era, it’s a cliché: the rock star, comedian, or starlet who succumbs to addiction, alienation, depression, and self-destruction under the glare of the spotlight. Being known by strangers, and, even more dangerously, seeking their approval, is an existential trap. And right now, the condition of contemporary life is to shepherd entire generations into this spiritual quicksand.

Exactly why it makes people crazy is where Hayes digs out the Hegel as an explanation. It’s worth reading in full—it’s a framing of the general diagnosis that I hadn’t really thought about up until now. (And also a good exegesis of Kojève who had always seemed a little mysterious to me.) But reading the piece made me think of two additional twists to the argument that I think are worth mentioning.

The first is that the follow/fan dynamic is not the only kind of stranger interaction that the social media age has greatly amplified. There has also been a staggering increase in casual, drive-by encounters with random people online—and most importantly, with the ideas and opinions of other people. Every single day on Twitter I stumble across probably at least a dozen clever or funny or provocative things that total strangers have shared, many with links leading off to longer articles or podcasts or videos. These are not op-ed columnists or television anchors; they’re folks who I would have had no way of eavesdropping on thirty years ago. And now they just drift into my consciousness, day after day, a constant source of discovery and serendipity. But they’re not stars or celebrities in my world; they’re peers.

And this is the key point: these people are strangers, but I don’t enter into anything resembling what Hayes calls a “Star and Fan” relationship with them. We pass each other in our shared virtual space, and some little gift of new information or perspective shuttles between us. What Hayes is talking about is the part of the Internet where everyone is the star of their own reality TV series. But the other part of the Internet—which was really what got me excited about it so many years ago—is more like the kind of stranger interaction that has always been celebrated in dense cities. (Contact between strangers has long been a key experience that urbanists cite as one of the virtues of cities as opposed to suburbs.) Except the Internet version is often better than the folkloric pedestrian interactions of urban life, because most of the time the only strangers whose opinions you hear when walking down an actual sidewalk are crazy people shouting “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”

My point is that both parts of the Internet—the Kardashian Web and the Jane Jacobs version—are flourishing. This is a larger argument that someday I will try to write out at length, but I believe that

My point is that both parts of the Internet—the Kardashian Web and the Jane Jacobs version—are flourishing. This is a larger argument that someday I will try to write out at length, but I believe that a significant part of the values shift (sometimes called the “Great Awokening”) that we’ve seen over the past decade or two—starting with gay marriage, continuing through Black Lives Matter and MeToo and now trans-rights movements—is ultimately the consequence of the radical increase in these sidewalk-style stranger interactions, the ever-larger pool of people and experiences that we now have access to thanks to the Web and social media. (Which is also an argument that the “filter bubble” hypothesis is actually the completely wrong way to think about what the Internet is doing to us.) All those movements—and the massive shift in public values that they reflect—are ultimately about a widening circle of empathy and respect. It can’t be just a coincidence that this moral circle began to widen so dramatically at exactly the point when our technology radically expanded our contact with strangers.

Hayes’ essay provoked one other thought, which is a delicate one so I want to tread lightly here. He doesn’t touch on this point for perfectly understandable reasons, but I think it’s worth noting that the pathologies he rightly diagnoses about the micro-celebrities of the social media age are not intrinsically the result of the business model of products like Facebook or TikTok, or of “surveillance capitalism” generally. If you believe—as I do—that the Internet was inevitably going to evolve towards an architecture where information was organized around people and not just documents, that there was always going to be a social graph that channeled the flow of information, then the “pernicious effects” of democratized fame were in our cards no matter what. Imagine an alternative history of the present where the social graph of connections between people had been designed as an open protocol and people developed followers and fans without having to go through the advertising-driven middlemen of Insta or TikTok. That would be a better world, no doubt, but I suspect almost all of the problems that Hayes describes would still be plaguing us.

Now, to be clear, there are plenty of other reasons to be concerned about companies like Facebook—I’ve been on the record with my complaints about the company for almost ten years now—and it can seem maddening that private companies (and their founders) are making so much money off people submerging themselves in “spiritual quicksand.” But I think the quicksand—as real as it is—is ultimately the product of the information architecture, not the advertising model or the proprietary algorithms of Big Tech. One way or another, we were always going to find ourselves in that swamp.

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I’d always thought the “famous for fifteen people” line originated with David Weinberger or Kevin Kelly, but Wikipedia informs me that it began with the Scottish artist Momus who apparently first said it way back in 1991, in the dark ages long before we had TikTok celebrities and follower counts.