According to popular folklore, Andy Warhol, famous artist and accidental mentor to Paris Hilton, once predicted our influencer and social media culture with the aphorism that in the future, everybody would be famous for 15 minutes, which eventually gave rise to the expression “15 minutes of fame.” In reality, the story is a little more complicated and Warhol himself said he never actually came up with that. Instead, the quip is the end result of an exchange between him and photographer Nat Filkenstein in which Warhol mused that everyone wants to be famous, prompting Filkenstein to scoff “Yeah, for about 15 minutes.” When the simplified version hit the press, crediting Warhol, his friends decided to leave it be and deemed the actual story behind the line irrelevant, knowing how the media works.
But herein lays the problem. Rather than actually predict the future, Warhol simply observed that everyone wanted fame while Filkenstein doubted their ability to handle it for an extended period of time. What we ended up with is a prophecy that one day, we will all reach fame, even for a blip because it sounds much better than what was really said, and that sort of optimistic line sells better in the media. But right now, we’re living in that gray area between the real story and the aphorism because as many of us managed to grasp a whisper of fame by going viral on social media, we’re finding out that keeping that fame or building on it is hard work and requires skills we may not possess, or perhaps don’t have the ability to learn quickly enough.
One of the best things about social media and its vast reach is its ability to let us bypass our traditional cultural and informational gatekeepers, allowing truly talented people who wouldn’t have had a shot otherwise show their abilities to the world. And in a way, those gatekeepers have outstayed their welcome. It’s thanks to them that every fourth movie we’re all supposed to salute as a pinnacle of filmmaking is about an aging white guy having a midlife crisis like some never-ending loop of Rocking The Suburbs by Ben Folds that doesn’t realize that at some point, it’s become satire. It’s because of them that political pundits are visually interchangeable out of touch millionaires who still think it’s 1997. And it’s because of them that news today is filled with incessant whining about those darn millennials and their cell phones and selfies.
But one of the worst things about social media is that it bypasses any kind of gatekeeper so the only thing you need to reach those 15 minutes of fame is enough retweets, shares, and likes to get your posts or tweets noticed. You can opine on anything you want and there will be no one to stop you, and at the end of the day, unless your take is simply spectacularly awful, you can be propelled into virality no matter how much actual experts on the topic debunk or criticize what you write. The recommendation algorithms that govern social media don’t care about the quality or correctness of what comes across your timelines and feeds. They care only about topic tags and engagement, and if it pulls you into collections of cute dog gifs, down a neo-Nazi rabithole of hate and apocalyptic conspiracy theories, or into the arms of alt med scammers selling snake oil, that’s fine because it still makes the platform money.
Now, consider that many journalists and writers today are often contractually required to be extremely active online and spend a great deal of time looking at what’s trending and what people are talking about as it’s related to their beat. In part, this allows bots and trolls to hijack conversations and turn conspiracy theories from the internet’s most paranoid and darkest corners into news that floods your feeds and timelines. Some publications live and die by Twitter’s and Facebook’s trending algorithms and Google Trends, desperate not to miss out on a rush of clicks from a well-timed story about a topic lighting up the internet that day because if their stats drop, their hedge fund and private equity owners will demand for heads to roll and a pivot to clickbait.
To hit those marks and keep people tuned in, they’re churning out pieces framed around what’s viral instead of what’s true and playing to controversy instead of being fact-checking buzzkills. It’s all well and good when the viral post is about some kind of wholesome deed or is a heartwarming story, or an explanation about something important from an actual expert. But often times, it elevates random internet cranks by virtue of them having enough retweets and likes to get on the journalists’ radar. Even if the stories they write are unflattering exposes, it still gives publicity to those who promote the conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, propaganda, and divisive tribalism and help boost their followings by attracting like-minded fans to their social media profiles.
And it can be even worse when those stories shine a positive light on some of the people in question because now they know that to get in the news they need to keep going viral, and the best way to go viral is by either stirring controversy with hot takes and contrarianism, or by simply echoing the opinions of their followers for easy signal boosts and approval. This is how your least favorite and most obnoxious pundits have their jobs. They bring in enough clicks to get attention for their latest missives and when they do try to irritate their followers into long and heated debates to generate even more engagement, they manage to toe the line between “edgy” controversy and outright offense just enough to at least plausibly claim they’re being provocative to start a debate.
Worse yet because they’ve been mentioned, cited, interviewed, or invited to write a piece here and there, viral phenoms can now claim to be experts even if everything they say is absolutely wrong or based on fabrications and wild exaggerations. An instructive example in that is the career of Bret Stephens, who switched from a life of professional foreign policy contrarianism to constant hyperventilation about the scourge of militant political correctness in colleges across the land, and finally to citing white supremacists when writing op-eds about Jews. One of the examples of out of control PC he’d sometimes cite was the viral tale of students at Oberlin College in Ohio staging protests in response to what they say was “cultural appropriation in their cafeterias.” And that would certainly be over the top. If it actually happened.
In reality, a student reporter at Oberlin noted complaints about the quality and preparation of food billed as banh mi and sushi and wrote about the issue. Students and cafeteria workers then met, discussed the topic, and everyone walked away satisfied that they could improve the quality and variety of the food being served at the college. There were no protests. So why did just about every major publication say otherwise? Clicks baby, clicks! In fact, many free speech on college campus controversies have highly questionable sourcing and the whole idea that authoritarian PC activists are trying to force higher education to silence free speech is a useful invention of right wing and libertarian think tanks paying professional trolls and agitators. With a few flash-in-the-pan exceptions, campus life is far from an ideological battleground.
And yet, Stephens and his fellow travelers in the punditocracy have been paid for countless ever more hyperbolic articles about a problem that doesn’t exist, invited on TV to discuss this fictional dilemma, and indeed owe their career advancement to having very strong and very loud opinions about a manufactured crisis replayed with cherry-picked anecdotes as their backing for years on end because it brings in clicks, shares, likes, and retweets. Far from being experts on free speech and higher education, they’re frauds elevated to household names just because they can get people riled up on social media. Actual experts on the subject — like the deans and professors who deal with college students every day — are pretty much nowhere to be seen or heard, relegated to an op-ed in a specialized publication once in a blue moon.
This is how social media is ruining news and public expertise. By focusing on virality and what’s trending, actual expertise doesn’t matter because neither the writers nor the pundits to whom they’re giving a platform really care whether what they’re saying is true, just that it spreads far and wide. They have no incentive to be right because a lot of times being right is boring. You just give the factually backed answer based on the consensus of the experts in your community and move on. With actual experts on screen ancient alien astronauts who supposedly created us suddenly disappear. Global warming becomes a real problem to address. TV, movies, and video games aren’t turning kids into bloodthirsty monsters. Moral panics about the existence of pornography are revealed as little more than hyperbole by religious zealots.
Of course, this is not to say that for experts the world is black and white, in fact, it’s often just the opposite. But they seldom give the kinds of answers that go viral because they either challenge viewpoints their followers online refuse to change or confirm that nothing exciting is happening. Bound by facts, they’re no competition for those for whom the only thing that matters is hitting 10,000 retweets or gaining 3,000 followers that day. With lower engagements and little chance to come across to an online journalist’s feed, they seldom get seen or heard, drowned out by the loudest and fastest voices on social media. And because viral trends have the lifespans of mayflies and social media is an insatiable machine built for novelty, those viral voices have to figure out how to stay viral and relevant with highly variable levels of success.
Just as Warhol observed, everybody wants to be famous. It’s nice to be on the radio, or to get interviewed, or to have your work mentioned in a prestigious publication. I’m not going to tell you that you don’t get a surge of dopamine when a famous pundit publicly praises your article while sharing a link, or a radio producer asks you if you have time to turn a Twitter conversation into a live on air segment later that night, or a celebrity with a few million followers retweets you. I’d obviously be lying. But at the end of the day, just like Filkenstein shrugged, you get a very short time in the spotlight. It’s a little more than literally 15 minutes, but it seldom lasts a full two days because while you’re basking in your triumph, the web and social media have moved on to their next big thing and the people promoting you have other fish to fry now.
This is when you have a choice to make. Do you just start tweeting whatever gets attention to try and replicate that dopamine rush or do you try to stick to what you know and hope for the best? Just about every incentive on social media says “go for it, see what sticks next time!” as do far too many writers who’ll pick up your tweet or give you another day of fame by writing about you. How do you leverage your actual expertise to stay in some sort of spotlight? And if you can’t do that, how much would you be willing to compromise to extend those minutes of fame? There is a reason why Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Twitter feed switched from astronomy, popular science, and skepticism to picking fights with Disney over snowflake geometry and takes so hot, they might as well be the product of nuclear fusion.
Ultimately, all this striving for virality to become part of the news and the abdication of editorial responsibility to social media algorithms created an environment in which facts are acceptable casualties in the hunt for eyeballs and clicks, expertise means nothing, and gatekeepers are basically fired for all intents and purposes. Bots, trolls, and angry partisans on social media are now driving the national discourse and define what’s newsworthy. It would all be funny in that grim, Eastern European way near and dear to my heart until we remember that our politicians now both spout and believe insane crap spewed from the internet’s equivalent of a paranoid hoarder’s basement and are supported by millions of voters who basically superglue their eyes to the same lunacy.
Then it stops being funny and starts being absolutely fucking terrifying when you realize that a narcissist desperate to keep extending his time in the spotlight and easily influenced by those bots, trolls, and grifters controls a world-ending nuclear arsenal. And it gets even scarier when you realize that so many journalists’ and TV presenters’ skills to combat bad faith and outright disinformation have atrophied to the point where they will regularly book liars and conspiracy theorists, then not only fail to push back on the word vomit being emanated for fear of being branded “globalist elitists” but pay them to routinely come back on their shows. We’re not just being gaslit, the people doing so are paid for their time and effort.
So not only have we systematically broken down our basic mechanisms of trust and consensus-building on common facts and truths, we’ve blunted our weapons for dealing with those who inevitably rushed in to exploit this situation. And what did we get in exchange? Page views on which can barely cash in thanks to the now necessary proliferation of ad blockers, prompting many publications to experiment with subscriptions to keep the doors open, and outlets that subsist on the largesse of right wing billionaires who don’t care that their media operations lose money because aside from Fox News, they’re not out to build a viable business, they’re trying to get tax cuts, and looser regulations by exploiting culture wars and their audience’s fears.
It just so happens that fear and outrage are the most clickable and shareable kind of content on social media, helping them in their obvious goals, and fueling an industry of outright fake news supported by fake fact checkers, like a Bullshit Tower of Babel where money rains on all those involved and incoherent nonsense, rumors, paranoia, and conspiracy theories shower all those trapped below. And while we can blame technology and those who try to weaponize the data they capture on social media, the fact of the matter is that we helped supercharge all this by releasing our impulsive id on the internet and refusing to fact check news that we wanted to hear or believe that our preconceptions may be wrong.
We received great power and decided to abdicate all responsibility, to outsource it to the tech platforms and their other users. But there is a way out. When we first started surfing the web, we had a healthy skepticism towards everything posted there and still relied on our traditional gatekeepers to help us parse fact from fiction. Now, as already noted, those gatekeepers are in dire need of catching up with the times, to diversify, to allow more voices among their ranks, and listen to criticism from the public to learn valuable lessons from their mistakes. However, we do need to invest in rebuilding them and their institutions again with a good faith effort. In other words, we need to rediscover our inherent skepticism.
Today, it’s obvious that there are plenty of people who want to deceive us for their malicious and selfish purposes. We also have a torrent of wannabe experts and celebrities interested in grabbing and monetizing our attention by any means necessary, and journalists either too lazy to vet their sources, interested only in getting clicks, have a serious case of FOMO every time something viral comes across their feeds, or all of the above. To counter them, we have to be ready and willing to call their bullshit the minute we see it and demonstrate to social media platforms that we consider everything posted on them as lies, nonsense, or hearsay until we see concrete proof otherwise from respectable journalists, and experts, and that virality doesn’t have much currency outside the untrustworthy web unless backed with something real.
And finally, we will need to remember that the world and everything in it is not subject to our whims and desires. We will constantly hear things we don’t like, inconvenient facts that don’t fit our worldview, and be forced to adapt to change even if we don’t want to. We cannot resort to rage and confirmation bias to protect our own biases because that rebellion against cognitive dissonance is exactly what those who would take advantage of us weaponize, like reality show producers pitting contestants against one another to generate drama, ratings, and revenue. Skepticism and willingness to accept change are our only shields against the barrage of viral provocations, lies, and nonsense, and our only choices are to embrace them or to drown in our own technologically accelerated insanity.