Using Phil Fish, the person responsible for critically acclaimed indie game Fez, this video by Ian Danskin explores what it means to be internet famous, something everyone who writes/creates/posts/tweets online has experienced to some extent.
We are used to thinking of fame as something granted to a person by people with media access. The reason people hate Nickelback is because of that record contract, that Faustian bargain — they bought into it. They had to be discovered; someone had to connect them to video directors, record producers, stylists, advertisers.
This is not what fame looks like on the internet. There, fame is not something you ask for. Fame is not something you buy into. Fame happens to you.
Phil doesn’t have an agent. He doesn’t have ad executives. He doesn’t tour the country on press junkets. He doesn’t have a PR department. (Obviously.)
He talked on social media. He did interviews when invited to do them. He was invited into a documentary. People read these things as shameless self-promotion or a desperate need for attention, or both, but that’s projection — nobody knows Phil’s reasons for doing them but Phil and the people who know him personally.
Phil never asked to be famous.
We made him famous. Maybe, in part, because we found him entertaining. Maybe, in part, because we found him irritating. Largely because many of us were once sincerely excited about his game. But he became a big deal because we kept talking about him.
On the internet, celebrities are famous only to the people who talk about them, and they’re only famous because we talk about them, and then we hate them for being too famous, and make them more famous by talking about how much we hate them. Could there ever be anything more self-defeating than this?
I was at home with a bad cold a couple of weeks ago when the internet exploded with hate against me over some kind of EULA situation that I had nothing to do with. I was confused. I didn’t understand. I tweeted this in frustration. Later on, I watched the This is Phil Fish video on YouTube and started to realize I didn’t have the connection to my fans I thought I had. I’ve become a symbol. I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a CEO. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.
The first is feeling like I’m sitting at a sidewalk cafe, speaking in a conversational voice, but having that voice projected so loudly that strangers many streets away are invited to comment on my most inconsequential statements — especially if something I say gets retweeted beyond my usual circles.
Many moons ago, I was “subculturally important” in the small pond of web designers, personal publishers, and bloggers that rose from the ashes of the dot com bust, and I was nodding along vigorously with what Danskin, Persson, and Kissane had to say. Luckily for me, I realized fairly early on that me and the Jason Kottke who published online were actually two separate people…or to use Danskin’s formulation, they were a person and a concept. (When you try to explain this to people, BTW, they think you’re a fucking narcissistic crazy person for talking about yourself in the third person. But you’re not actually talking about yourself…you’re talking about a concept the audience has created. Those who think of you as a concept particularly hate this sort of behavior.)
The person-as-concept idea is a powerful one. People ascribe all sorts of crazy stuff to you without knowing anything about the context of your actual life. I even lost real-life friends because my online actions as a person were viewed through a conceptual lens; basically: “you shouldn’t have acted in that way because of what it means for the community” or some crap like that. Eventually (and mostly unconsciously), I distanced myself from my conceptual counterpart and became much less of a presence online. I mean, I still post stuff here, on Twitter, on Instagram, and so on, but very little of it is actually personal and almost none of it is opinionated in any noteworthy way. Unlike Persson or Fish, I didn’t quit. I just got boring. Which I guess isn’t so good for business, but neither is quitting.
Anyway, I don’t know if that adds anything meaning to the conversation, just wanted to add a big “yeah, that rings true” to all of the above, particularly the video. (thx, @brillhart)
Update: From the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, a short essay called “Borges and I”:
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.
Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.