The New American Dream

Would you rather be rich or famous?

For most of human history those were one and the same—power was so consolidated that if you were anyone with influence, then you had lots of wealth (a causal relation that went both ways). In ancient times, think kings and emperors—really anyone from bygone eras whose name is still remembered today had tremendous wealth, with the rare exceptions primarily being some philosophers and warriors.

In more recent history, power was less consolidated but still very centered on wealth. In fact, after the rise of capitalism, it could be said that power and money became truly indistinguishable. Fame was fortune, because society had been reconfigured to reward those who were able to amass the most wealth. As  our society developed, citizens found increasingly diverse ways to gain recognition that were not necessarily associated with making money—like athletes, academics, politicians, and artists—but still they were all famous for their success, and in a capitalist society that is absolutely measured at least in part by one’s commercial success.

So why is there a distinction between fame and fortune today?

Simply put, because of mass media and, most recently, social media. These two behemoths of modern society have completely redefined power and who has access to it. They have not severed the ties of money and power, wealth and recognition, but they have created a divide large enough to house a multitude of people who are able to have one without the other.

It should be noted that the existence of people with great amounts of money and very little renown has been growing since the dawn of capitalism, and exponentially so since the advent of the stock market. In fact, most of the richest people in the world have almost no name recognition across the regions in which they do business, and therefore are prime examples of the divergence between fame and power.

Let us instead focus, though, on the divergence between money and power, for that is the capitalist conundrum created by the modern state of social media. It is entirely possible to be famous without having any money, and to stay famous without making any money.

I am speaking primarily about those modern celebrities who have risen through social media, be it Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etcetera. Many of the most famous and most powerful people on those apps were rich and famous to begin with—they simply exploited the medium as the innovative rich and famous have been doing for all time—but there are many today who began with nothing. It certainly seems as if anyone can become famous by using social media.

Before refuting this we must again make a note: our self-correcting capitalist system has adapted to these anomalies by assigning measurable wealth to social media fame, mainly through advertising. Public recognition can be easily quantified in dollars if you see every user/subscriber/follower as a potential customer. Therefore, many of the social media celebrities have become rich and famous in the traditional sense.

But the key word is celebrity, for that is what I believe is the most appropriate term for these people. It is not a term that was invented in this country or this century, but the idea of celebrity was rapidly changing in America in the last few decades and underwent a profound change since the advent of social media. Someone can become famous without ‘doing’ anything in the traditional sense. A celebrity can be created without any amount of ‘success’ as we have always defined it—whether by wealth accumulation, human accomplishment, or amazing craftsmanship. Of course these kids—for many of the social media celebrities are very young, often literally kids—are doing something, and we must change our definitions of accomplishment to keep up, but this is a radical change in the pathway to fame.

Let us get back to the notion that anyone can become famous by using social media. This is the modern day American Dream, refurbished by current technology to appeal to the newest generation. Anyone can become famous, and now you don’t even need to work hard for it, at least not in the traditional sense. It doesn’t even seem like another facet of the capitalism machine because at first there is no money involved—it is simply about exposure and influence. A new path to power has opened up that goes around the forest of wealth…although it inevitably circles back around to it. This is direct democracy at its finest! Every person is given a microphone and a soapbox rolled into one in the form of their smartphone and what’s more, it goes both ways. The world is connecting, the world is sharing, and anyone’s voice can rise above the clamor simply by being unique (or louder).

So what’s the catch? Humans have yet to develop a technology that we haven’t been able to find a way to abuse or disfigure until it eventually abuses and disfigures ourselves. Many have decried the original American Dream flawed and fictional—will the modern day version suffer a similar fate?

More likely, it will suffer the same fate. The flaw in the American Dream was the myth of equal opportunity; even in the best case scenario, there is no perfect equality, and overtime those small divisions in opportunity become massive chasms of inequality. Truly it is obvious that this would be the case in a capitalist society, because while it may be self-correcting, it is the market that self-corrects, not the people within it—and even that only happens in a ‘perfect’ system. No, the idea of anyone being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps to achieve success is conceivable in one (hypothetical, fictional, idealistic) generation, but no more.

Today perhaps anyone can become a social media star (of course “anyone” has to be able to afford a smartphone). Anyone can rise to great fame without creating anything more than a viral web presence and can amass nothing more than millions of followers. Anyone can have a strong voice, real influence, and a sense of celebrity without selling themselves out—but then they will. Though they may have taken a different path to fame than most people, the power they will eventually attain will be more or less the same as any other. Or rather, they will be in the same system as everyone else and therefore must exchange their unique power for the sort that has always been used as currency in this system.

They will sell their persona to make advertising dollars. They will sell their body to make advertising dollars. Most importantly, they will be tempted to continue holding onto their power and amassing more power which inherently means blocking out new people.

The great flaw in the old American Dream (one of many) is that wealth is passed down hereditarily; the children of the original bootstrap-pullers begin their lives with great privilege, a full step ahead of everyone else. Twitter followers are not passed as literally as wealth, but celebrity is very much hereditary as well. What’s more, modern day fame can be passed on to even more than just children—one celebrity can create another out of any relative or friend, or even a total stranger (and even by accident) by including them in their sphere of influence. Of course it is up to this new person to develop their celebrity, to climb the ladder themselves, but they have been pulled onto the first rung by someone above. Celebrity is as transmittable as wealth.

*             *             *

I am not against social media. Quite the opposite, I fervently believe in its ability to empower the masses, disseminate information, democratize politics, and otherwise further the expansion of the human consciousness. Those goods outweigh the bad, but that does not mean we should ignore the negative effects. Much attention has been given to the dehumanizing effect of social media (and the internet at large) and the increase in cyber bullying. That is a huge problem and there are many other more nuanced effects upon the collective morality and psyche of our society that surely will become more prominent in the years to come.

The reason I focus on the flaws of social media as a tool for empowering individuals and creating celebrity is precisely because those seem like such objectively good goals. Modern day celebrities are unlike famous people at any other stage in time and I do not believe anyone as of yet fully understands or appreciates how our society is affected by these larger than life people within our midst—or how those people turned demigods themselves are affected.

But psychological repercussions aside, it is dangerous to recreate a myth that has been repeatedly disproved. The New American Dream promises as much, if not more, than the original, and it would be definitively insane to expect any different result from a widespread belief in the reality of this dream.

It is tempting to believe that anyone today can become a celebrity, but truly that is nothing but a dream. Anyone can make their words accessible to the whole world—but the world does not have to listen. Anyone can access the rich and famous with unprecedented ease—but it means almost nothing because everyone else can as well.

The way that social media has changed the very definition of power is good; good for democracy, for individual liberty, and for the progression of humanity. But the allure of power is the same that it has always been, and may be even more powerful than the allure of money that has been the driving force and dehumanizing scourge of our society since the dawn of capitalism.

Both fame and fortune come at a price, and if you choose to seek either you must be prepared to pay.

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