Celebrity Culture, Social Hipsterism, and Transitive Success

Celebrity gossip, business gossip, media gossip, political gossip, they’re all there at your beck and call. Log on to the Daily Mail today, if you want to find out what Marla Maples and Tiffany Trump are up to these days. Go to the Wall Street Journal for a sympathetic account of an autistic banker who manipulated a financial index that harmed homeowners, but nonetheless deserves to escape punishment because everyone else was doing it, too. Pop over to the New Republic to find out what one of their most popular editors has to say about a bunch of folks who make a Leftist podcast. Wonder whether or not Sean Spicer got fired or how is replacement came to be in his new post? Check out Politico’s wonderfully passive-aggressively titled piece on the matter.

The assumption for all of these pieces isn’t what someone is doing and why it should matter to your life in economic, political, or cultural terms. The writers, editors, and content-managers already know why it matters to you. We’ve created a social environment in which the reader takes on the role of a voyeur and supporting actor in the personal and personal-related professional issues of another human being offered up for the judgment of the masses.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than reading sequential reviews of albums by the same artist on Pitchfork.  

Pitchfork perfectly encapsulates the social yo-yo of taking credit for another’s success and subsequently enjoying their eventual fall that is the hallmark of internet culture. When the outlet was still interested in finding music off the beaten path before it subbed in for a snobbier version of Rolling Stone that wrote about hip hop, writers at Pitchfork had a particular formula: build up a new up-and-comer artist in their review of the artist’s initial album and then absolutely demolish her in the sophomore album for the temerity of persistence in the music industry.

Media readers semi-consciously participate in the pattern, of course. Social hipsterism all but guarantees a nihilistic schadenfreude through which people want to feel like they’ve built something up by acting as a fan only to destroy it after it succeeds in a wider audience.

The traditional idea of hipsterism is that erstwhile fans of the band/writer/artist subsequently tear the creator down when her work becomes too popular and therefore déclassé such that knowledge of the cultural element no longer represents a social cudgel. Instead, I posit that the essence of social hipsterism resides in agency. The social hipster needs to feel responsible for another person’s success and, as the fan pool dilutes with additional entrants, the social hipster’s salience of agency on behalf of another person’s success slips. As the sense of agency dilutes, the hipster feels resentment at the pool of supporters and, thus, the success of the content producer generally.

The problem with celebrity culture, though, isn’t the sense of voyeurism or petty hipsterism, it’s the toxic impact it has on how people view success and their place in society. The more celebrity (defined broadly) obsessed we become, the more alienated we are from our own value and comfort. Who really wants to spend time curating culture based on a sense of social return on investment or maximizing intra-group social status?

Celebrities are the social mirror of the ruling class; don’t give them more power.

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