Saturday, July 26, 2008

Internet Fame: The Voyeuristic Ouroboros

What does it mean to be Internet famous?

David Heinemeier Hansson is Internet famous, and he uses it pretty sparingly. He uses it to draw contributors to his project, customers to his company, and - too infrequently - converts to his point of view. He achieved net-fame with the excellent marketing and excellent programming that powered the exponential Rails adoption curve. Once the ball got rolling with Rails, he stopped drawing attention to himself.

Paul Graham is Internet famous, and it ruined his writing. A few years ago he was the best programmer writing about programming. Today, he's lost the plot. Don't get me wrong - Y Combinator is a very cool thing. Paul Graham does great work. I know people with Y Combinator startups and I envy them. But if you were only interested in Paul Graham as a writer, you could say that his Internet fame ruined him.

He's got a Reddit-style forum/community news-filter site, and his net-fame guaranteed that site a community from the get-go. Participating in his site, he stays tuned into its zeitgeist. But that zeitgeist is actively harmful. Sites of that nature suffer a flaw inherent to their design which inevitably degrades their quality, and makes the zeitgeist dull and groupthinky. Reading uninteresting things for years and years doesn't prepare you well to write interesting things, and Paul Graham's once-mighty essays have collapsed into ramblings.

Masuimi Max is Internet famous, and charges people money to send her e-mail.

Tila Tequila turned net-fame via Myspace into magazine covers and a reality show.

Julia Allison did the same thing. Julia Allison is a lifecaster who uploads so much of her own life that some inspired Valleywag tattle-tale called her a voyeuristic ouroboros. She's famous for being famous, and she became famous for being famous by blogging about being a blogger.

Julia Allison's Wired cover aggravated some people, but it sold me - it's one of the only copies of Wired I've bought in years, and the only copy I've been glad about buying since 1997. I think Wired deteriorated into Discover meets BusinessWeek a long time ago, but in its glory days, Wired put sci-fi novelists on the front cover and even ran short stories like Omni.

This Wired cover story gets back to the old-school, bringing up a really strange and interesting part of the Internet that has strong cyberpunk roots. William Gibson wrote about famous characters existing for their own sake in Idoru. Greg Bear put a lifecaster in Slant. I think Gibson had a lifecaster in Mona Lisa Overdrive, too, but I don't have it with me and I can't find any verification; I know I read some kind of sci-fi with a lifecaster in it long before I ever worked in technology.

On the other hand, back in the day, Wired, bOINGbOING, Mondo and Fringeware all operated on the assumption that the growth of the Internet meant the death of celebrity culture. In the years since the Internet became mainstream, however, celebrities have obsessed America, and indeed the world, not less but more. The Internet is the best thing that ever happened for celebrities.

In retrospect it makes sense. The more direct contact you have with people in other places, the more common points of reference you need. Say you're developing open-source software with a dude in New Zealand who's telling you about his sister being an idiot. He can tell you she's a typical blonde idiot, but that's not very specific. Is she a Britney Spears idiot or a Paris Hilton idiot? Both these women owe a lot of their fame and fortune to the fact that people worldwide need sophisticated ways to differentiate between subtle shades of idiot.

A lot of people like to hammer the idea that celebrities are gods, and certainly, when Britney Spears backs up traffic, paralyzes my daily commute, and magically summons helicopters just by visiting a courtroom, it's possible to see her as some strange, demented goddess, just because of the tremendous power her whims and moods can exert over strangers. She gets sad and the traffic changes. But I think it's much more realistic to see celebrities as words. Their fame gives us common reference points all over the world. I might not see my cousins in Canada very often, but if I tell them the woman I'm dating is basically Elaine from Seinfeld and my boss is basically Beck, the signal/noise ratio is incredible. That's a very detailed picture of my life from a relatively small number of words.

Just for the mental exercise, flip it around. Imagine telling somebody you're dating Beck and your boss is Elaine from Seinfeld. Same characters, but you've just described an infinitely different life in a very small number of terms which anyone in the English-speaking world can understand.

Or, somebody asks you what your roommate's like, and you tell them he and his girlfriend act like Scully and Mulder.

(Because you know Fox Mulder's roommates got weirded out in college. "Dude, why is the sofa bleeding?" "Let me tell you my theory.")

If celebrities enable high-resolution conversation, micro-celebrities constitute words in domain-specific languages. The difference between DHH and Paul Graham matters to programmers, but it doesn't matter to anybody else (except maybe venture capitalists). Programmers need multiple programmer-celebrities for the same reason Eskimos allegedly have so many words for snow. There's a reason public awareness of specific celebrities fragments across groups the same way the use of words does.

There's two things going on when we talk about Internet fame - there are people who become famous only within their tribe, like Paul Graham and DHH, and there are people who become famous in the usual sense, but it starts on the Internet, sometimes without doing anything noteworthy. Soulja Boy and the Arctic Monkeys leveraged Internet fame to achieve conventional fame while actually doing something - in each case making music - but Tila Tequila and Julia Allison skipped the doing something and jumped straight to the fame. That makes them Paris Hiltons - not in the idiot sense of the word, but the paparazzi sense.

Lots of people want fame. This is why Julia Allison crashes TechCrunch parties and dated Kevin Rose. The Internet is a major engine driving fame today. Fame-seekers want to learn more about it.