Friday, May 15, 2015

The Emperor’s Clothes

When I was young, my friends wanted to grow up to be rich and famous. Not me; “I’ll settle for rich and unknown,” I told them. I’m a private person and I value my privacy. As a writer, I may have shared my thoughts when I was younger, and my wisdom (once I had lived long enough to have attained any) now that I’m older, but I've always shielded my personal life from public view. Again, as a writer, I believe it is the content of my words and not the ego of the individual who pens them that should be promoted.

I’m not famous. I’m not a celebrity. And I don’t want to be. Of course, I’d like to have lots of people say they like and appreciate my writing, but understand, there’s a difference between seeking admiration for the product of one’s hard work and effort, and seeking admiration for one’s self as an individual.

I have many younger friends who belong to a different generation from mine. They are part of the social media generation that has adopted Andy Warhol’s famous aphorism that “in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” as its mantra. For these people, becoming famous is the goal, rather than a byproduct of having accomplished something notable. Social media provides them with the tools to achieve this. Self-worth and self-esteem are established, not by what one has actually accomplished, but rather by popularity, which is gauged by how many Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and YouTube views one has.

If my young friend has 3,000 Facebook “friends”, 5,000 followers on Twitter, and 6,500 strangers watching her homemade videos, she believes she is a celebrity. Never mind that practically everyone else using social media can boast the same statistics. In her mind, she is famous and has a following hanging on her every word. When she posts, or tweets, or vlogs, she promotes her expertise on that topic. It might be makeup, or cooking, or marketing, or even writing. She uses social media to spread the word to an ever-increasing audience that she is a famous expert on her chosen topic. Soon, she even believes it herself.

But the truth is, the emperor has no clothes. All these people marketing themselves through social media are actually hyping themselves rather than their slim or nonexistent accomplishments. They call it “building the brand”. It’s a huge ego stroke that makes them feel as though they’re riding on top of the world… Until someone points out the truth: She knows as much about makeup, or cooking, or marketing, or writing, as anyone else. She’s adequate, but certainly not an expert, and famous only in her own mind and well known among a small niche audience.

After such a buildup and such self-delusion, the truth can be devastating to the ego. When she realizes her makeup tips aren't revolutionary, her recipes are only adequate, her marketing skills are no better than anyone else’s, or her writing is mediocre, she will be mortified. Like the emperor who paraded around town showing off his new suit when in fact he was naked the whole time, she too will realize how fraudulent the image of herself she has been promoting truly is.

The Internet is unforgiving. I cringe whenever I see a child sharing his or her god-awful artwork, poetry, prose, or singing online, knowing how embarrassed he or she will be years later upon realizing how terrible their early efforts were and how many people they showed it to. It’s even worse when the person doing the promoting is an adult.

It takes many years of practice before one is ready for prime time. In the pre-Internet days, people had the luxury of time to develop and refine their skills. Today, ready or not, they jump right in, seeking instant fame, fortune, or notoriety. And sometimes, once they realize they can’t live up to their own self-hype, their mortification and depression become so great that they can no longer live with it. They built themselves up to be famous, they told the world how great they are, and now they realize they’re not. And some young people who have everything to live for decide suicide is their only option.

It’s okay to be relatively unknown. It’s okay to do whatever it is you do, no matter how well you do it. But it’s not okay to develop delusions of grandeur and promote them through social media. And it’s not okay to kill yourself when you discover you can’t live up to the unrealistic images you’ve created.

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