Perils of Internet microfame, stanza one billion.

by waxbanks

You see this arc over and over in the over-30 set — the generation that came of age without ubiquitous Internet:

Someone more or less good with words (and usually bad with people) gets a taste of Internet notoriety and accumulates a small but devoted following. As his voice grows confident and identity becomes complexly bound up in his ongoing Internet performance, his online persona becomes an extraordinarily rich character. This phase can last a couple of years. It is (in my case, it was) a good time to be online. The voice comes easily — it’s improvising in character, and autobiography is permitted, so there’s a deep well of character to draw on.

He’s very productive during this time. His best work.

But microfame is addictive, particularly for academics and writers, long unaccustomed to the fast enthusiastic feedback cycle and fast-moving ‘social’ dimension of online interaction. And online life is a magnet for sociopaths, troglodytes, and the socially malformed, who might value the distance and pseudonymity of the Net for normal healthy reasons but who are nonetheless a huge drag for everyone else.

Tender souls who’ve gotten a taste of microfame quickly harden themselves against what they take to be unjust or unkind attention. They shut off comments sections, no longer deign to discuss what they’ve written, and withdraw into their personae — tending toward self-aggrandizement and self-parody. Myopia.

They always get much less funny in the process. That’s the most predictable part.

This isn’t just a matter of losing their hunger. Most of these folks never ‘make it big,’ they just get a slightly higher dose of microfame. I’ve come to believe that the quickness and finality of this transformation — which has turned a hell of a lot of once-interesting human beings into petty, bitter, contemptuous assholes over the last 15 years — is largely a function of the destabilizing feedback cycles built right into the blog medium (and its online-magazine descendants).

(Instead of naming the assholes I’m talking about, I’ll mention one semifamous blogger-journo who’s avoided this trap: Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. But I’m sure you can come up with your own examples — and no, Andrew Sullivan doesn’t count. He was in the game long enough to make it out the other side, and his relatively open-access approach fortunately mitigated his horrifying tendencies. To an extent.)