Reading Notch’s letter about how the burden of public scrutiny led him to sell Minecraft, I’ve been thinking back to an essay I wrote in 2006 entitled Are You Somebody?
As I’ve done more publicity, and talking-head interviews on various DVDs, I’ve found that random people are recognizing me and saying hello with increasing frequency. It’s once a month or so — nothing alarming — but it always comes when I least it expect it: shopping for strollers, in line at the movies, at breakfast with the woman carrying my baby.
The hand-shakers are invariably polite, so I can always genuinely say, “It’s nice to meet you.” But what’s fascinating is how everyone around us reacts. Remember: as a screenwriter, I’m not actually famous. Yet suddenly someone is treating me like I am. I love watching that double-take as bystanders try to figure out who I could possibly be.
Once a nearby woman actually asked me, “Are you somebody?”
Almost apologetically, I said I was a screenwriter. Her face showed a combination of confusion and disappointment that would have been devastating at another point in my life.
That was 2006. Eight years later, I’m still not famous the way movie stars are famous.
Back then, I wrote:
Here’s an example of someone who is actually famous: Drew Barrymore. A few years ago, paparazzi took pictures of us having lunch. In the caption, I was the “unidentified companion.”
This happened again last year in New York. This time I was carrying Drew’s kid, and I didn’t even merit an “unidentified companion.” So when I say I’m not famous, I have proof.
But over the last eight years, I’ve become more widely known within a subset of people, most of them writers and tech folks. Because of Scriptnotes, my voice is actually recognized as often as my face. Because of Twitter, I end up interacting with strangers much more often. And because of both outlets, people who recognize me know a lot more about me — at least, a version of me who hosts a popular podcast about screenwriting.
That “version of me” aspect can be challenging. Jason Kottke writes about his experience:
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.)
Because I can’t hide behind my writing, I’m probably more “myself” on the podcast than I am in blog posts like this. I rewrote this sentence five times; on the show, I can’t ponder and perfect.
But the podcast is on some level a performance. It’s me with the dial turned up. It’s not who I am when I’m making dinner or struggling to make a scene work.
Kottke references Ian Danskin, whose video This is Phil Fish deftly explores how we treat “famous” people more as concepts than as individuals. Even if notoriety hasn’t changed someone’s behavior at all, perception has:
The dynamic between these two people is viewed completely differently as soon as one of them becomes famous.
If there’s a takeaway from this — and there needs to be, because John August is professorial — it’s that the time to think about how you’d behave if you got famous is right now.
That fuck-you tweet to @RandomCelebrity may seem like no big deal — hell, they’re rich and famous. But if that rich-and-famous celebrity tweeted the same thing, you’d think, “Wow, what an asshole.”
Here’s the mind-blowing truth: The person who sends the fuck-you tweet is an asshole, regardless of her pre-existing level of fame.
Tweet people — even famous people — the way you’d want to be tweeted. Yes, this is basic Golden Rule stuff, but we always forget it in the world of internet fame.
Beyond that, be careful of internet pile-ons. People do stupid stuff, and it’s often appropriate to call them out on it. But it’s almost never a good idea to take a random person who said something stupid and hoist them up as a symbol. You’re forcing fame — infamy, really — on someone who is likely no worse a person than you.
Internet fame has a multiplier effect that’s hard to anticipate. You can hurt people far more easily than you realize. And long after you’ve forgotten your outrage, the focus of the blast is left picking up the pieces.