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The fame machine is more powerful than ever
“Two centuries ago when a great man appeared, people looked for God’s purpose in him; today we look for his press agent.” — Daniel Boorstin, 1961
When he delivered the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln self-deprecatingly said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.”
And yet his 274-word speech has become one of the most lauded pieces of rhetoric in history.
Lincoln chose his words carefully not because he knew he was becoming an inextricable part of the American story, but because he knew the moment required words that would inspire.
He rose to the occasion, delivering a speech that has withstood the test of time and has been part of what has contributed to our assessment of the greatness of Abraham Lincoln as a leader.
How much inspiration do you get from what flashes in front of you every day? How many influencers are chasing fame?
In 19th century Paris, theatres hired a claque, a group of professional applauders who would supply reactions to ensure a performance was received well in the media: applause, cheers, stamping feet, and such. Like a laugh track, claques helped to buoy the mood at the performance, but didn’t guarantee critical success.
“There’s not a thing on earth that I can name
So foolish and so false as common fame.” — John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, 1679
Fame Over Greatness
The rise of what Daniel Boorstin called the “Graphic Revolution” — newspapers, radio, television, and all associated media — gave us the ability to manufacture fame. Mass media gave us the ability to share the same message, the same voice, and the same face across vast amounts of the population.
What does that get us, though? Not greatness, but fame.
He was clear that fame ought not to be confused with greatness:
“We can fabricate fame, we can at will (though usually at considerable expense) make a man or woman well-known; but we cannot make him great. We can make a celebrity, but we can never make a hero.”
Heroes are granted monuments, and there are fewer monuments being built these days.
Another 50 years beyond Boorstin’s writing drops us square into the Digital Revolution (same concept, new technology). Now our markers of fame are likes, clicks, views, and follows as we build monuments to ourselves under the auspices of a “personal brand.”
It’s a race to online celebrity as we take a shot at digital immortality. And yet, the meme mausoleum is littered with viral stars that have since gone supernova and have burned out.
I was thrust into the spotlight when I was an executive at Ford leading digital communications and social media during the rise of social media. My fame was a byproduct of the work I did, not the goal. But I used my position to share what I learned working within a Fortune 10 company, building my expertise along the way.
And yet, I saw (and still see) the self-styled “gurus” online who are hustling their hearts out, attempting to convince you that they know how to run a global enterprise because they can push buttons, buy fans, or make bots in their attempt to achieve fame and build their personal brands.
“Perceptions of the world furnished by the camera substitute montage for narrative…the camera doesn't think.” — Lewis H. Lapham, 2011
Being, Not Becoming
Social media gives us our fair share of Hollywood celebrities and their legions of fans. But it has also birthed thousands more YouTubers, Instagrammers, TikTokkers, and the like, who dazzle us with their creativity nonstop. So much so that one-third of children want to grow up to be YouTubers.3
The unending parade of content is an assault on our senses that doesn’t give us time to recover. The infinite scroll keeps our thumbs moving while our brains are at rest, passively consuming whatever is presented to them.
It’s what allows us to have celebrities who are famous for being famous. Zsa Zsa Gabor was probably the first of this kind who eventually gave way to the likes of the Kardashians and Paris Hilton. [Incidentally, Zsa Zsa was Conrad Hilton’s second wife (he was the second of her nine husbands); Paris Hilton was Conrad’s great-granddaughter. The circle is complete.]
And who can blame erstwhile fame-chasers? The accidental viral success of mere nobodies is an enticing alternative to actually doing the work. Of course shortcuts to fame seem preferable.
Celebrity is about being, not becoming, and that sums up the skewed priorities that the world seems to reward.
“Men are more generally pleased with a widespread than a great reputation.” — Pliny the Younger, c. 110
So we have online personalities (I refuse to call them “influencers”) who see the fame, think it’s easy to achieve, and chase after it with willful disregard for how they’re perceived by those who are paying attention. Or at least by those who are paying attention and can understand the difference between aspiration and raw, greedy ambition.
In pursuing their unbridled passion for digital dominance (followers, likes, views), with their own personal claques in tow, they may be sacrificing their reputation along the way. Or perhaps they’ll simply further demonstrate who they are — they’ll have a reputation, alright.
With so much content out there and limited space on the platforms, it’s harder to get noticed. In an age of content deluge, we ought to think more about reputation.
Rather than pursuing fame, perhaps we should pursue excellence. Or competence. Or helpfulness.
“If you are ever tempted to look for outside approval, realize that you have compromised your integrity. If you need a witness, be your own.” — Epictetus
What you have to live with every day, and the legacy you leave—particularly to those who care most about you—is your integrity, your character, and your reputation.
Put your efforts into leading with integrity and character, and greatness will follow.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
The related episode of Timeless Leadership (released every Thursday) featires Jason Falls, author of Winfluence: Reframing Influencer Marketing to Ignite Your Brand. Listen to it below or wherever you get podcasts.
And the follow-up piece for Premium subscribers: