We have the capability to broadcast every detail of our lives.
- We can share every thought in tweets and status updates.
- We can give people a view into our world with pictures and videos.
We are all the stars of our own reality TV shows and social media companies are networks that broadcast our lives.
But your life is not a reality TV show. You were never meant to spend more time documenting your life than you do living it, seeking more validation from strangers on the internet than connection with the people who you actually know.
Mistaking Perception for Reality
Tools like Facebook and Instagram cause us to confuse perception of people's lives with the reality of them. We make up stories about who they are and what they're like in the space between stimulus and response, in the space between one status update and the next, between one picture and the next. We don't see what's happening between the lines.
We're more concerned with the validation and approval of people we've never met over people who should matter most to us. We're more caught up in the perception of our lives than the reality of them.
A few weeks ago my friend Brian was telling me about some of his wife's friends who are Instagram influencers. They hardly ever respond to texts and are incredibly flaky with people they know. But they spend hours responding to strangers on the internet with the illusion of sincerity. In his words, "They're terrible friends." If you knew what the lives of some of these people were actually like, you might not be jealous of them. You might not wish you had what they had.
Reality TV was the first iteration of the pseudo-celebrity, then the internet made it possible for anyone to become a pseudo-celebrity, a world where it's possible to be famous for being famous. But nobody who is famous on the internet is as well-known as we think they are. Anytime somebody asks me about internet fame in an interview, I tell them, "Nobody really knows who I am. Just go ask your barista at Starbucks if they know who me or Seth Godin are, and you'll get a blank stare."
Sadly, the invention of the pseudo-celebrity has people starting creative projects for all the wrong reasons. A few days ago, Joey Torkelson and his co-host interviewed me for their podcast. It was the first time in ages I'd witnessed someone take so much pride in creating for an audience of one, or in their case an audience of two. I could tell they were having a lot of fun with the project and as a result, I did too.
Joey and his 7-year old son started a Youtube channel together. Shortly after they started it, his son was worried about the the number of people who had subscribed. Joey explained to his son that the reason they were doing this was not for subscribers and views, they were doing it for themselves, just for fun.
If the culture of the pseudo-celebrity who comes from social media fame has 7 year old kids concerned about the size of their audience, it's worth really giving some thought to the ethics of quantifying every aspect of our humanity.
The Death of Hobbies
People don't do anything for fun anymore. When Jordan Harbinger interviewed me for The Art of Charm, he said, "People don't have hobbies anymore. Everything is a side hustle." Carrie Batton echoed this sentiment in her New Yorker article The Artist's Way in an Age of Self Promotion:
This life chafes against the lessons of “The Artist’s Way,” rendering them almost impossible to follow. Hobbies are now necessarily productive. If you’re learning piano, you must try to record the jingle for that commercial your friend directed. If you develop a curiosity about a niche topic, you must start an online newsletter dedicated to it, work to build your audience, and then try to monetize the newsletter. If you have a nice speaking voice, you must start a podcast. We’re encouraged to be “goal-oriented” and rewarded with outsize praise for everything we’ve accomplished, and so we feel that we need to turn every creative pursuit into a professional one.
Even if someone has a hobby, they document it in some way. People who start painting feel the need to share their art on Instagram. People who cook feel the need to start a YouTube channel where their love for cooking turns into a series of tutorials. It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with these things, but if we're doing them for an audience of one, while secretly hoping to reach an audience of millions, what should bring a great deal of joy to our lives causes us nothing but disappointment.
You are not a reality TV star. And your life is not a reality TV show. It's worth considering a question that my friend Damon Brown posed several years ago: Are you documenting your life at the cost of living it?
The pursuit of internet fame causes us to overlook the toxic impact of our unreasonable standards for success. For people who are public figures, this is worse. Their fans and followers have high expectations of them and place them on pedestals. What you get as a result is conditional acceptance of authenticity and vulnerability from public figures.
As long as you don't let me down, I'm your biggest fan. The moment you do, I'll unsubscribe, unfollow, or unfriend you. Thus, the only option for public figures is to keep feeding the beast and manipulating public perception for acceptance and validation.
One of the first stories in the introduction of An Audience of One was about Daft Punk. You'd never recognize them on the streets and they believe that, in their words, "You don't need to have your picture on the cover of magazines to make great music." But I think we can take this a bit further.
- You don't need to have a million followers on Twitter to be great writer. In fact, you might be better off not being on Twitter at all. Some of the most successful writers of all time don't use social media, such as Malcom Gladwell, Michael Lewis, Seth Godin.
- You don't need to have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other social network to become a master of your craft.
As I've said before, instead of figuring out how to get somebody's attention, do something worthy of it.
The Loss of Our Humanity
We live in a world where it's become acceptable to ghost people after multiple dates with no explanation, never return texts, and never pick up the phone when someone calls. The conveniences that technology has afforded us are also costing us our humanity and turning us into the worst versions of ourselves.
When we treat our lives like a reality TV show, we become self-obsessed, confuse attention with accomplishment and start losing our ability to empathize and truly connect. We see fan and follower counts instead of people, downloads instead of listeners, eyeballs instead of hearts. We forget that on the other end of every digital interaction is a human being.
Your life is not a reality TV show. If you spend more time documenting your life than you do living it, give some thought to the opportunity costs. Is it really worth neglecting the people you're with, doing long term damage to your attention span, and sacrificing the time that could be spent on things that add real meaning and value to your life?