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August 30, 2017

The Present-Day Web Is All About Becoming A Celebrity Instead Of Following One

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Swati Sinha

Anyone who can build a network of fans online is entitled to their 15 seconds of fame

I was standing at least a foot and a half behind the lady at the checkout counter. A frayed blonde woman in her late thirties was returning some items and it was taking a long time. I kept my cool and, yes, my distance. Despite which she turned around, her face all crumpled into a frown and gave me a look which I read loud and clear as ‘Keep your distance’ or ‘Respect my space’ or some such thing. This was in a tony suburb of Washington DC. Walk down any street in New York City and you can almost sense the see-through movable cages encasing the fast-walking pedestrians. Fellow New Yorkers know the exact distance you have to keep from those in front of you, behind you or beside you — quite a balancing act in a fast-walking tribe. Any eye contact or backward glance is strictly taboo: so the denizens walk straight, focusing on their noses and far beyond.

Of soul-baring posts
It struck me as ironic that while in the real world invisible but impenetrable borders keep cropping up between human beings, on social media, they melt away. Intimacy actually prevails with strangers. After all, friends of friends and their friends, even in universes far, far away on the internet expressway, become intimate confidants with all barriers down. An acquaintance in Delhi known for her sartorial grace and impeccable taste and etiquette — not to forget her exclusive circle of friends — was once upon a not-so-long-ago time both admired and disliked for her snobbishness. It wasn’t rare for her, a woman of a certain age, to look through people she thought didn’t deserve her august company. But once she was ensconced comfortably on Facebook she began to constantly upload long posts detailing intimate details about the withering effects of age, including her gravity-defeated, sagging ‘boobs’ (her words, not mine) and facial muscles.

It set me wondering why she and others like her who rarely let the drawbridge down to allow strangers into their privileged worlds have now started inundating quasi-strangers with their innermost thoughts well beyond their circle of friends. Was it a way of coping with loneliness? Or was it a shot at the instant fame that the internet offers, though usually of the merely easy-come-easy-go variety? I think the late American painter Andy Warhol, who frequented Studio 54, pinned it down memorably decades ago: ‘In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes’.Actually, make that 15 seconds, in our accelerated age in which confessional and soul-baring posts come up fast and furious on social media.

The internet is increasingly a shortcut to celebrity, however ephemeral. It has totally altered the way people interact with pop idols and movie stars. Before the age of the internet it was largely up to the studio heads, agents and the PR machinery to whir into action, ‘create’ celebrities and manage their careers. Fanzines magnified a star’s appeal and kept him or her in the limelight. Today, most of those intermediaries are becoming redundant. Stars of the big and small screens can interact with their fans through social media. Even politicians are doing the same: the two great tweet masters, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reach out directly to the public regularly. Nothing comes between them and those out there in the wide world of the web.

Worshipping the self
The net is like a fairy godmother with a wand which can catapult an aspiring wannabe into the spotlight and the zone of fame through tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram and much else. The virtual Hall of Fame is wide open to anybody who can build a network of followers. Instead of worshipping the celebrities you can become one yourself. You can post selfies and be worshipped at your own altar. The logical end to all this: we are all celebrities.

Alas, there’s a downside to the rash of narcissism now sweeping over much of the world. Some people are so addicted to amassing likes on social media that they would do just about anything to get the attention. Just last month, a 21-year-old American woman cajoled her boyfriend to hang himself just so that she could go online about it and get lots of likes.

Shrewd bar and restaurant owners are capitalising on this craze to be a ‘star’. No need to just be a fan of a celebrity — become one yourself. Themed bars are becoming magnets for those seeking perfect selfies abroad. A bar in Washington DC set up a replica of the Game of Thrones set — there were queues a mile-long for people who wanted to sit on the throne from the popular television series and pose for a selfie, which would immediately be Instagrammed. Rose Garden, a restaurant in the DC area which serves only rosé wine, has pink umbrellas shading tables in its patio because pink is a popular colour against which to take a selfie!

Some museums have also caught on. The Hirshhorn Museum brought in the hordes (the largest number of visitors ever) for Japanese artist Yayoi Kusuma’s Infinity Mirrors this summer: there were near-stampedes for selfies in front of her iconic mirrors.

It was the race to be the first on Instagram!

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