Virus: An infectious agent that spreads and replicates within the cells of a living host.
This is the modern day disease of the fame culture caused by social media. We live in a time where everyone can achieve public figure status with a few clicks of a mouse. With an over saturation of social networking sites like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and more, we are the stars of our own lives and the self-perceived center of the universe. What people output to the Internet is what they think is of public interest. Some people think the type of oatmeal they ingested today or how many sit ups they did at the gym are newsworthy topics, while others think news is how in love they are, or how closely they’re personally connected to a real celebrity, e.g. the recently deceased Paul Walker.
After the late actor’s death, suddenly news feeds in my network were filled with posts by people who were seemingly his best friends and supporters. People posted pictures of themselves with him on set, or shared stories about the one time they met him at Coffee Bean. Consider the motives of most of these people. Were they truly trying to honor him or were they using his passing as leverage to elevate their own social statuses? It was probably a combination of both, but most likely the latter. After all, what better way to further public perception of oneself than to show close proximity to a real celebrity via the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, or in this case Paul Walker? These celebrity death groupies accurately assumed that people in their social networks were none the wiser about whether or not they were legitimately friends with the actor, and because Mr. Walker isn’t around anymore to counter claims to his fame, their secrets are safe. So why has this type of self-promoting behavior become the acceptable norm?
Let’s start with the fact that social media has become an essential branding tool. Social media allows consumers or fans to vouch for entities offering products and services. These entities can be local businesses, artists, models, non-profits, clothing lines, etc. On the reverse, it gives entities a place to carry out an interactive dialogue with consumers and fans. With rating systems and the power of commenting on satisfactory accommodations and services, having a good reputation online can make or break a business’ ability to stay afloat. A local dive bar with rave five-star reviews on Yelp has nothing to worry about, as those stars were awarded by the community, but an Uber driver with two-stars will be getting a lot of ride cancellations. Any entity without an online presence may as well not exist because in the eyes of the public, transparency equals trust. Transparency means businesses are responsible for the quality of their products or services, but what about individuals? Who is holding them accountable for what they put online? Shows like Catfish expose the scary truth: no one, except for Nev Schulman.
How many of you have posted false or exaggerated updates on social networking sites? Are these fake public representations harmful to the collective self-esteem? A study by the University of Salford in the UK found that, “About half of the survey's 298 participants, all of whom identified themselves as social media users, say that their use of social networks like Facebook and Twitter make their lives worse. In particular, participants noted that their self-esteem suffers when they compare their own accomplishments to those of their online friends.
Additionally, “People with lower self-regard tend to worry more about what others post about them on the social network and spend more time monitoring their Facebook wall, deleting unwanted posts from others.” Social anxiety is no longer strictly reserved for going out in public. It has migrated to cyberspace too. The difference is that in public there is nowhere to hide. As soon as one enters a true social situation they are vulnerable. Online though, it is a totally different story. On the Internet, anyone can do damage control or perform digital public relations to spin their image however they please. They can use photo-editing apps like ModiFace, and Facetune to completely alter their physical appearances and they can say anything they want about themselves. Social networks don’t operate like newspapers or magazines where people are paid to fact-check.
As a society, if we are all being Catfished and trying to out-Catfish one another by presenting ourselves online in what we think is the best light, we are perpetuating a cycle of shallow narcissism and placing values on things that don’t matter because they aren’t real to begin with.
So what keeps this culture in place? Well, the answer lies within the chemical wiring of our brains. For every like, re-tweet, share, or comment we receive, we can’t help but feel a sense of validation. Our egos have been acknowledged and stroked and the reward center in our brains, the nucleus accumbens, is activated. Social media users become hooked and addicted to that good feeling that goes hand in hand with positive reinforcement. If we are all faking it until we make it then we are being rewarded for acting as false versions of ourselves.
The result of this need for positive reinforcement from others has created a culture where popularity is simply not enough. In fact, research shows that the next step above popularity--fame--is of more value to pre-teens as a future goal than anything else. According to a UCLA study, fame is the number one value for preadolescents ages ten to twelve. “These values stem from their interpretations of messages in the media that highlight the importance and value of public recognition. Adolescents then enact the value of fame by using online video sharing sites like YouTube to find an audience outside of their immediate community.” Reality shows and the ease of putting everyday Joes like you and I on screen by way of YouTube, Vine, or Snapchat give the illusion that becoming famous is easy.
As a culture, we are more narcissistic than ever. Boasting about accomplishments, flaunting personal and professional achievements, or even engaging in public self-exploitation in the form of sex tapes or compromising photos, have become normal attention seeking behaviors. Whether the attention gained from self-exploitation is negative, positive, or even fleeting doesn’t seem to be relevant. Those things are simply the price tag for fifteen minutes of fame. And fifteen minutes is all you’ll get due to the fact that social media has decreased our attention spans.
 University of Salford. “Social Media Fuels Low Self-Esteem, Anxiety”. Study (2013).
 Meshi D, Morawetz C and Heekeren HR. “Nucleus Accumbens Response to Gains in Social Media Use”. (2013). Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
 Uhls, Y, Greenfield, P. “The Value of Fame: Preadolescent Perceptions of Popular Media & Their Relationship to Future Aspirations”. (2013). Study.