We are hoping that Lakshmi Chaudhry is ninety years old. Somehow misanthropy, a deep mistrust of technology, and a snarling skepticism about the ability of the masses to make good decisions for themselves goes down a little easier coming from an old windbag. But we have a sense she isn’t aged. And that makes her long screed in the Nation this week all that more dismaying. In a polemic titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Web,” Chaudhry rails against the rise of online user-generated media. This is how she sees us: “So we upload our wackiest videos to YouTube, blog every sordid detail of our personal lives so as to insure at least fifty inbound links, add 200 new ‘friends’ a day to our MySpace page with the help of friendflood.com, all the time hoping that one day all our efforts at self-promotion will merit—at the very least—our very own Wikipedia entry.”
So the idea of a YouTube video of someone “farting to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’” is not to her taste? Fine. It isn’t really to ours either. But she has a larger, more twisted argument to make. And this is where her cursor drops off the screen, if you know what we mean.
Chaudhry thinks the ease with which we can gain attention for exposing ourselves on the Internet has led to a highly detrimental “democratization of fame.” She claims that fame in this new medium does not discriminate between people who have a legitimate talent (she gives the example of political blogger Kos) and the jingle bell farter. The desire to achieve fame - to feel the heat of public attention - is what people search for on the Internet. And because, as she sees it, this tide lifts all boats equally, the web holds out this chance. This leads her to marvel at what she apparently believes is a new truth: “Celebrity has become a commodity in itself, detached from and more valuable than wealth or achievement.”
She then works up a lather about how young people these days are much more filled with a desire to be famous than ever before, much more narcissistic, and much less willing to believe, as she quotes from one survey, that they shouldn’t be the first people to be saved from a sinking Titanic. All this is the fault of the Internet, of course, with the seeming proximity of celebrity for anyone with a camera, it gives us the perfect outlet for our crazed individualism. Aided by a culture that, she says, for the last thirty years has told us, “You’re special; love yourself; follow your dreams; you can be anything you want to be,” and an “all-pervasive commercial narrative,” that has taken advantage of that message to “hawk everything from movie tickets to sneakers,” the circle is now complete. We are nothing but self-obsessed schmucks trying to come up with new ways to humiliate ourselves and then post it on YouTube so that our uniqueness might be appreciated.