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"Politics is culture is politics": Mayer, Social Media, and the Narcissistic Cult of Self

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I don't actually care about John Mayer one way or the other -- anybody trying this hard to get attention should simply be ignored because any publicity is good publicity, right?

Of course, I found his controversial comments abhorrent, but sadly not a whole lot different than how you might hear a 20 year old college student describe their weekend exploits in between games on the basketball court (not coincidentally, these tend to be the same individuals who find nothing wrong with Lindsey Vonn covers because, "She's smokin' hot, bro"). The longer we just dismiss such nonsense as "boys will be boys", the longer such nonsense will continue. So although we should stop pretending to be shocked, we also need to acknowledge that there is a problem worthy of our concern bigger than one man who happened to have his words published in Playboy. We should start finding this disturbing.

However, this matter of desperately drawing attention to oneself -- whether it be in a published interview or casually with one's friends -- is another problem that I find particularly worthy of our attention, especially in the social media context.

In my daily routine of morning work-avoidance, I decided to open up John Mayer's apology video via a tweet from TheRoot.com, whose Twitter bio fittingly reads, politics is culture is politics. Although he should not ever be mistaken for a brilliant orator, I did find his ruminations on the temptation to be clever rather interesting.

"In the quest to be clever, I completely forgot about the people that I love and the people that love me...into a wormhole of selfishness, and greediness, and arrogance and thinking that if I would just continue to be speedy and witty and pull together as many facts, words and phrases as I could that I could be clever enough to buy myself another day without thinking that anybody would finally pin me down and say, 'you're a creep'...I should have just given that up and play the guitar a little more."

Sadly, we would be fooling ourselves to think that Mayer is the only one who's falling into this trap -- it's happening all around us, he's just the latest and most visibly egregious example.

Around the turn of the century, scholars were talking about the promise of the internet to turn knowledge consumers into knowledge producers -- empowerment, openness, down with media conglomerates! What they didn't anticipate is people producing merely to construct cheap, artificial,  representations  of self online in 140 characters or less.  Even worse is when people's desires shift and all they want is cheap, artificial, representations of the world in 140 characters or less.

As an educator, this is absolutely frightening -- it means that nobody is actually interested in knowledge at all instead opting to consume loose strands of information and believing that because information is everywhere, there's no need to commit any mental energy to finding it nor is there any desire to dig beneath the surface of feel good clever status updates, tweets, and cheesy images. Perhaps ironically, nuance is destroyed in a world overflowing information. It's hard for me not to find it troubling that one of most powerful societies on earth with unprecedented military force at their disposal is simultaneously becoming so consumed with "selfishness...greediness...and arrogance" that clever phrases are becoming more important than seeking a deeper understanding of the world around us.

So the upshot of this Mayer mess is that he did articulate something in plain terms that the academic sorts have been saying for months: celebrity culture has spun completely out of control. That is compounded by the fact that the use of social media -- not necessarily the tools themselves -- is only accelerating our collective descent into a dark abyss of Me-culture.

In relation to women's sports in particular, Interrupting the ongoing dialogue about Lindsey Vonn's cover photo shoot, this leads to a question for women's sports advocates who want more attention for women's sports: what kind of coverage do we really want for female athletes? In this wormhole of selfishness, greediness, and arrogance, is any attention really good attention for women's sports, particularly on social media?

A few months ago, Nicole M. LaVoi brought up this question in response to whether cutting one's hair on U Stream is worthy of our attention.

Things That Make You Go Hmmmm…More on Social Media & Women’s Sport " Nicole M LaVoi.com
It also got me thinking about where female athletes and women’s sport might be headed in terms of social media. If everyone "loves it" (all 66 viewers)—is this our new model of promoting women’s sport? Is that what fans really want to see? Is this how fans want to interact with athletes? Where is the line between "good access" and access that, to borrow from C + C Music Factory, "Makes You go Hmmmm"? As was pointed out to me, Ron Artest of the LA Lakers, got his hair cut that same day…which garnered media attention. But if the men do it, should the women follow? Should we always be trying to emulate our male counterparts? (I’m not suggesting that is why Janel chose to UStream, she’d have to tell us the inspiration).

What I believe LaVoi highlighted months ago is the thin line between using social media to advance women's sports and falling into a technology enhanced wormhole in which any reasonable holding to what's important is lost.

I commented then, and still believe now, that the answer to every one of her questions is no. Doing things just for the sake of getting attention -- any attention -- fits into that wormhole of anti-intellectual celebrity culture that is predisposed to casting women as second-class citizens. Falling into that wormhole cannot help advance women's sports because in that wormhole, what matters is 1a) me, 1b) myself and 1c) how I feel. From Chris Hedges:

Book Excerpt: ‘Empire of Illusion’ by Chris Hedges " Dandelion Salad
We consume countless lies daily, false promises that if we spend more money, if we buy this brand or that product, if we vote for this candidate, we will be respected, envied, powerful, loved, and protected. The flamboyant lives of celebrities and the outrageous characters on television, movies, professional wrestling, and sensational talk shows are peddled to us, promising to fill up the emptiness in our own lives. Celebrity culture encourages everyone to think of themselves as potential celebrities, as possessing unique if unacknowledged gifts. It is, as Christopher Lasch diagnosed, a culture of narcissism. Faith in ourselves, in a world of make-believe, is more important than reality. Reality, in fact, is dismissed and shunned as an impediment to success, a form of negativity.

The way in which people participate on social media -- typically in echo chambers and typically in ways in which feelings are confused for knowledge -- is not conducive to shifting perceptions, as many women's sports advocates desire. Case in point: despite the number of voices either in opposition or problematizing the Lindsey Vonn photo, SI.com experienced record-traffic. some people will applaud -- a female athlete is getting recognition. I will continue to wonder what is wrong with this world.

Ultimately, those who are marginalized in the real world end up being unreflectively marginalized in this wormhole because reflection in a world predicated on supreme faith in oneself is actually dangerous.   In that world, there is no way to distinguish right from wrong or act on any notion of "equity". As such, integrity is a burdensome myth and an impediment to feeling good about oneself.

Nevertheless, what social media can be good for is raising the number of voices in support of a give cause or interest to a critical mass such that there is community among people who might otherwise be forced to work in isolation. Despite the wormhole culture, social media can work to serve higher goals in support of the interests and people we love. Figuring out how to reach people via social media without falling prey to temptation to become personal celebrities will be the critical issue.