The attempt by Ms Kardashian and Paper Magazine to “break the internet” didn’t quite live up to billing, but it did seem to break the common sense and discernment of millions of people. In a sense Ms Kardashian is little but a brand. Her existence is so mediated that it cannot exist outside of the frame of a photograph, video or article.
The phenomenon of Ms Kardashian, and celebrities in general, is largely irrelevant to me, but the existence of this culture as an epiphenomenon to the globalised market economy is an indicator of a deeply worrying trend.
It seems that the language and mindset of sales has burrowed so deep into our culture that the dermis is fully breached and the idea has taken us over like some parasite. Everything must be sold ideas, people, art, science, as well as products are treated and judged the same way. There is a comfortable simplicity in employing measurable comparisons to judge success but in many areas of our society it is having a regressive effect.
We can quickly see the success of something through a sales framework. There are either data on earnings or the more public metric of attention. The creation of social media platforms as MMORPGs where the aim is to gather attention facilitates this further. Our scores are even displayed on our profiles reflecting our value in friends/followers or more subtle metrics of retweets, shares, replies and comments. Even if we’re not selling for money we can see how much attention we earn.
I certainly don’t want to prescribe how anyone should use social media though I do think that the attention metrics are affecting how people relate through digital media. It is the larger bodies with more gravity that concern me. Our culture is massively influenced by a few behemoths. Some of these are obvious and live in the old world like The X-Factor or tabloid newspapers and some are part of the online world like Buzzfeed and even Stephen Fry.
The initial allure of the internet for me was as a democratised media. Anyone could publish what they wanted. This gave those with access a route to discover many wonderful (and some horrible) things. It seemed for a while that this would facilitate a massively diverse online culture. There still is a diversity out there but as the power of a few bodies to deliver masses of attention grows finding that diversity is a bit like trying to observe distant stars at noon on a cloudy day.
Danger lies in the refinement of culture to the detriment of creativity. The sales culture promotes and is the primary arbiter of success. If it is simply picking from a wide range of cultural artefacts growing in a healthy culture this may not be an issue, but when it begins to become an influence on the underlying culture diversity will suffer.
In his wonderful book Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum Richard Fortey tells of a man who studied bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts to you and me). This was his life’s work and it didn’t have a huge impact on the scientific community, but he was an immensely valuable figure. His value lay in keeping knowledge of this phylum alive as he was one of vanishingly few experts in his field. There may be no great need for any moss knowledge for hundreds of years but one day it may be important and what will we do if that knowledge has withered away to nothing?
There is a trend in tertiary education to frame study as a route to employment. Courses are sold to students with percentages of graduates in work. This is fine up to a point but education can also be about wonder and exploration. This is how we make discoveries that have no immediate apparent use, like lasers, and how we find guardians of bryophytes.
In the arts the chasing of widely perceived value is beguiling. As the art culture changes in the digital world many artists, writers and musicians are forced to market themselves. This is not easy and can be antithetical to why these folks started creating stuff in the first place. Attention is nice and money is even nicer (up to a point anyway). It is not easy to make a living as a creator as shown by Hannah Ewens in her article Loads of Huge UK Rock Bands Still Have Day Jobs.
What will our culture be like ten, twenty or fifty years from now if no-one creates? Will we have to live on cannibalising half-remembered scraps of past cultures?
A solution, at least for now, might be to attempt to step back from the mediated culture. For us in the audience to make up our own mind and remember to travel the byways of our culture occasionally to see what might be growing in the hedgerows. For those brave folks who make stuff the path is harder but I hope you can find a way to stick to making what you love the way you want to make it. We have (at least) enough Kim Kardashians for now.