Renowned New York Times columnist, David Brooks, recently spoke at Georgetown as a guest of the Tocqueville Forum. Avoiding his typical partisan banter, Mr. Brooks spoke about the need for humility in American culture, arguing that our society, as a whole, misplaces our confidence in ourselves. Mr. Brooks waxed poetic about an earlier era in which Americans were humble, they didn’t boast about their accomplishments, and certainly wouldn’t have performed legendary end zone dances. He argues, simply, that we have experienced a “shift” from a “culture of self-effacement” to one of “self-expansion.”
While I, for one, don’t yearn for the days of lore, I do agree with Mr. Brooks’ assessment that we are more self-assured, pretentious, and narcissistic than previous generations. We live in a society consumed with celebrity, and the advancement of technology and widespread utilization of social media has taken this culture, and capitalized on the predisposition that we feel towards desiring notoriety. Technology, in essence, has increased the ease with which an attitude of self-expansion, which in previous generations would have laid dormant, can be easily and expansively shared.
One of the arguments that I frequently hear from people who don’t utilize social media in general, or microblogging in particular, is something along the lines of, “Who cares to know that I ate a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch?” And, in this, they may be correct – much of their digital audience doesn’t care, and most of what is posted to the Internet in this fashion isn’t relevant, interesting, or helpful. Social media is fueled by a sense of self-importance. If I didn’t believe that I had something meaningful to communicate I wouldn’t blog pictures of my cat sitting on my homework. Nor would I comment on yelp, tweet, or write replies to blogs. On the basest level, I wouldn’t share.
On a deeper level, our cultural desire for celebrity creeps in. We think that if someone else can achieve internet fame living their “normal” lives, we can have that digitalized version of the American dream as well. For many bloggers, video bloggers, and microbloggers, there is hope that if the queen bees of the mommy bloggers can make a (lavish) living writing about poop on the internet, then certainly my kitty mommy blog can become just as (in)famous. Like Heather Armstrong, I could get write ups in the New York Times or like Ree Drummond sign a deal with the Food Network.
The chance of that happening for the average Internet user? Slimmer than Grace Bonney’s ultrathin stripe fetish. Nevertheless, we keep posting, tagging, and sharing, because while we may not become the Internet celebrities we love, or love to hate (see: Rebecca Black), we do believe that our voice matters and someone cares.