But there are a few places where the edges of my experience have begun to crinkle in that direction. I'm closing in on a million Facebook followers and though most of those people are there for the puns, and wouldn't know me if I were standing next to them comparison shopping for Bugles vs. generic "corn chip horns" at Safeway, I've been recognized on the street, had my work recognized by fellow passengers on trains and planes (and technically automobiles, but usually those were my friends), had weird offers of marriage from strangers, been sent unsolicited sex pictures, had people I've never met talk to me like we were old friends, had people who were not mentally well fixate on me and frighten me, and even recently been like gushingly insisted upon by a fan who recognized my picture and happened upon my on OKCupid profile that Oh my god will I ever be swamped [I have not been] because the line is out the door and down the block [it's not even AT the door].
(And don't think it hasn't escaped my notice that becoming "famous" as a guy means that my experience has begun to resemble that of basically any woman who dares to exist on the internet.)
This is the latest in a series of articles examines both how my life and perceptions have changed with the approach of something resembling fame and also maybe once in a while something I see that famous people (the actually famous kind) do that starts to make sense to me.
I'm starting to notice that I have armor.
Not the personal leather that fits close to the surface and cushions the unintentional blows or a coat of mail that writers need to cultivate to get peer review and withstand criticism.
I'm talking about the big honking plate shit that deflects intentional blows from swords meant to take off my head. The kind that won't let you feel a human touch unless you've retired to someplace safe and are willing to spend minutes deciding to be vulnerable by taking it off.
The thing is, I don't want it. I wish I didn't need it. I don't want to be that guy. I don't want to be the person who isn't listening because someone isn't already my friend or hasn't sufficiently blandished themselves into a position where I don't feel threatened.
But I need it to survive. And I don't think a lot of people who don't need it realize how impossible it would be to be in the public eye without it. Especially in these days where we're still finding our cultural footing with the privacy of the internet.
There's a thing I've noticed over the years: celebrities and artists on social media no matter how cool they seem on some issues and how genuine and how willing to help and how sincere and maybe even how genuinely kind and possibly even be philanthropic they are, when they get hit with some criticism about something from a LOT of people, it's like teflon. They peel open their chests and put their organs and souls on display and seem to have nothing but love for the world, but if someone comes at then from a place of anger, it's like they hit the invisible shields in a campy sci-fi movie. The criticism, if they register it at all, doesn't even seem to cause an eyebrow to twitch, even as it piles up.
These aren't the arrogant, cocky assholes who you would expect to ignore criticism either. I mean big surprise that the writer who weaves Objectivism into high fantasy turned out to be kind of a snotglob about collective effort. Or that the guy who plays nothing but assholes is kind of an asshole. Shocker.
And I'm sure there's a lot of continuums and complexity and nuance on everyone else. Life is messy and even most activists don't get intersectionality right. Some celebrities have clearly bent a certain direction in some sort of raging controversy where they believe they ARE moral actors. If a celebrity has decided that trans women are "men trying to colonize women's spaces" or that "prostitution is always about the subjugation of women for profit" and that holding that line IS "fighting the good fight" for feminism, a trans person or sex worker probably isn't going to convince them they're being hurtful unless they're already pretty close. Certainly not by showing up and yelling––even though I must stress that the celebrity is not OWED a reasonable, calm tone.
But for me, it's a place of particular self-contradicting, multitude-containing, messiness. I need to have this armor more and more and I also hate it. So I imagine with people more famous more scrutinized, and more challenged, it has probably probably become exo-power armor with hydraulic servos even as they hold multiple truths and checkmarks in a lot of ticky boxes. Which is why so many folks in the spotlight can at once be simply spilling over with compassion and be paragons of empathy but then suddenly, surprisingly snap into brick wall mode.
I'm not even actually famous yet. But what happens if I don't wear my armor is worse than what happens if I do.
The law of large numbers and the instant gratification of the internet affects people who are online in the public eye in some chilling ways.
Imagine having a hundred people you interact with on a regular basis, and having to deal once every week and a half or so with ONE person who took something wrong or didn't give you the benefit of the doubt or assumed your motivation about something to be kind of shitty when it wasn't and skipped ahead to the part where they tore you a new one. Just .1 percent per day. One person every ten days.
That's life right? People overreact. They bring their bad day with them and hit you in the face with it. They don't read or react to something in good faith. They project something you didn't say into an interaction. They wonder "what you meant by THAT"? They're hangry. What they heard is more about the last thing that upset them than what you actually said. It's annoying but you cope. You clarify. You talk to them if you're friends or loved ones. Maybe it depends on how much energy it takes to ask what they're talking about or if they meant to be so hostile. Perhaps if you've had many more negative interactions than positive ones, you decide that's the last straw and you walk away if it's a more casual relationship, but that is rare and a decision made with great gravitas and in the name of self care..
Okay now imagine we're talking about the Internet; and people don't have to see your face react to what they're saying or deal with you interrupting them if they're way out of line (they basically get to do the text version of the speech they worked on in the shower because there's no one to stop them from writing it all out before hitting "Send"); and you've never had ANY interactions with them before that are positive and which set the stage for relating to each other as two humans; and the current trend is towards ever more hyperbolic descriptions of how much something angers/enrages/upsets/devastates them; AND the gratification from impulse to "Send" is only as long as it takes to fire off a comment (long gone are the days of having to hand-write out a letter and maybe think about whether or not one is possibly being rash for a few hours first and then a couple more days until the postmaster comes) and click a couple of buttons; AND they get to project on you all manner of unkind things as regard to your character and motivations that are typically callous and cruel because they don't have that face-to-face interaction or any sort of feedback to realize that if you made a mistake it was probably either misinformed or unintentional; AND you are a high profile and convenient target for any amount of preexisting emotions, mental or psychic baggage, misunderstandings, propensity for seeing you as The Issue™that they think you're on the wrong side of, and treatment of as an allegory for all the bad rather than a complex person, as well as any other bad faith they've brought to the table.....
And......you have a thousand followers, so SOMETHING like this––maybe not quite so bad every time, but SOMEthing like this––is just about a daily occurence.
Not so bad yet. Once a day you have to deal with someone who requires a little extra time and energy and a little bit more TLC to talk down. Usually it's not that bad. If you're me, you probably read things carefully, consider your actions, evaluate how you might have been misunderstood. Try to make things right. Apologize if it was your fault––even just a little. Try to find a connection with them as a human and see where the disconnection happened. Tell them how you're feeling if they're really bringing some bad shit to the table or putting something on you that you don't deserve and maybe talk a bit and walk away, both feeling more understood at least. You open up a dialogue. You proceed carefully, being very nuanced with your explanation. And only if that person seems to bring their own shit to the table over and over again in toxic ways would you consider ignoring them or just walking away.
Okay, now let's kick in the law of large numbers....
Imagine you have a million followers, and no matter how careful you are, no matter how you proceed, no matter what you do, no matter what you say, just based on the sheer chance that you are (virtually) in the same room when someone is having a terrible moment or just based on other people's mercurial natures and human failings (possibly including your own), something like what I described above will happen, on average, a hundred or so times a day.
You're too this for some people. You're too that for other people. Too liberal. Too leftist. Too capitalist. Too communist. Too conservative. Too moderate. Too gentle. Too harsh. Too antifa. Too bootlicker. Too prescriptive. Too descriptive. Too nuanced. Too activist. Too academic. Too anti-academia. Too much like the conversation they just had with someone they aren't in a position to argue with. Too political. Too apathetic. Too basic and 101 with concepts. Too esoteric and not educational enough of the fundamentals. Too long in banning people who needed it to keep the space safe and clear of their bullshit. Too short in banning someone instead of trying to reach them.
They will demand you engage them even though they're not making sense or they clearly read something wrong or they are enraged about something THEY'RE bringing to the table. They will read something you never said into something you posted. They will fill in the blanks when tongues are in cheeks with the worst possible interpretation. Jokes lacking pages of nuance go awry not because most people don't get what you're saying (or not saying) but because one person needs to get in an aggressive "Well, actually..." They are projecting a personality onto you that isn't really you. They're just having a bad day and you're there. They are a ticking time bomb of fury who forgot their squeezy ball and taking it out on you because that's better than yelling at the kids. They just spent two hours dealing with shitty, not-nuanced versions of the same argument and they can't really "hear" your disclaimers and exceptions. They just walked out of a meeting where their hours were just cranked up to 65 a week and they're never going to have weekend to themselves or free time again, and see a "You should be writing" meme, take it personally, and go off. They have read ten articles already this morning, see one of your posts, slide past the nuance, maybe don't even make it all the way to the bullet points, and go on a tear about the title.
How many of that million skipped lunch? Didn’t get a good night’s sleep? (Both?) Just had a fight? Are not managing their mental illness? Are bringing their unresolved trauma to your issue? Are just “edgy assholes”? Have a hypersensitivity to one TYPE of oppression and have determined that calling out everything they see, no matter how slight, is the way they make a difference. Are under the influence? Are distracted? Are rolling the shit downhill? Just don't like you, never really have, and want you to misstep? Are abusive and have simply learned a way to justify ignoring boundaries in their online interactions that isn't typically CLOCKED as "abusive."
They will examine your every word. They will scrutinize each turn of phrase for fallibility. They will yell at you for posting a Calvin and Hobbes comic that makes fun of academia because how dare you encourage anti-intellectualism. They will yell at you for posting pro-academic articles because how dare you espouse an institution so rife with systemic racism and sexism. They will yell at you for being pro or anti NaNoWriMo (even if you're both). They will demand your retractions and your apologies. They will demand you do as they say––post exactly what they want you to post in exactly the way they want you to post it because they assume you do not really know what you are doing. If you do what they want, you did it too late and/or only to "save face." If you don't, you are Satan. If you apologize for something, it is not good enough. If you apologize with all the markers of a good apology, you're just offering a scripted reply. It's never enough. If it is enough for most, you only did for the optics of your public image, and they know you didn't really feel it. Because if there's one thing they definitely know, it's how you FEEL. And even if almost everyone thinks you were absolutely sincere about an apology, someone out there won't because the person they REALLY need to hear the apology from......isn't you. And that is if you owe anyone an apology––if you weren't just doing your thing and someone decided that pissed them off.
And if you reply with anything other than obsequious contrition, most will see it as escalation. If you point out they misread something.... If you suggest they don't seem to be getting you.... If you simply disagree.... If you agree but offer nuance.... You're off to the races.
A Hundred. Times. A Day.
(I'm not there quite yet. I don't have a million "fans." I have close to 900,000 followers on Facebook, (roughly 890,000 of whom are filtered out from any one post because of the FB algorithm) but most of them are just there for puns and memes and have little interest in anything else I post. I'd say on an average day I see twenty to thirty people try to pick a fight with me of SOME stripe or another––usually in the comments. Often it's pretty low key. They just want to say their piece and if I ignore their comment, it's over. )
I've already written about every reason someone might unfriend me. I can't really let that ebb and flow get to me or it would tear me apart as a person who imprints on Roombas and wants everyone to love him. People pick fights with me for almost all of the same reasons, but if I got into twenty fights a day, even if I could find that human touchpoint and make peace with 95% of them, I would A) only be conflict resolving and never writing, and B) be a hollowed out husk of a desiccated human being who knows only rage.
There's only a few ways to deal with it. If you hold absolutely, perfectly still, people will get bored and go somewhere else. If you say only absolutely, perfectly innocuous things, (most) people will not have any reason to complain. If you completely ignore your comment sections, probably only 1/50ish of those angry people end up contacting you directly in some manner (but then your comment section is a troll-haven cesspool).
Or you put on your armor.
You ignore the shitty comments. You delete things said in bad faith. You ban/block people who clearly want a fight. When they start out with "Oh so you think...", you don't even finish reading the comment/message before clicking the little trash can icon. "I demand an apology" becomes the insta-off switch to your listening lobe. You hide comments when people are clearly reacting only to the title. You ban people who come in with phasers locked and shields up before opening hailing frequencies and trying diplomacy. You assume that people will round up their friends and that subsequent floods of comments about how you haven't addressed X are more about loyalty, online cliques, piling on, and performativity than any sincere call for accountability. You assume that someone who is going to have a problem with your politics is going to be an ass in every subsequent post and just show them the door to save yourself the ongoing headache. You pretend when they share your shit and their emcee comment is "This asshole is wrong about everything" that you didn't ever see it. You walk past those fights and act like you can't hear the people proverbially screaming your name for a throwdown. You assume someone who can't be bothered with civility is a bad actor (or having a bad day, but doesn't deserve a reply in any case).
You learn to deflect it all. All of it. Except for a trusted inner circle (a few dozen, tops) or maybe someone who takes the time to really connect with you as a person first, you deflect it ALL. Because you have to. Because long behind you are the days when you could spend an hour of back and forth seeing if someone was arguing in good faith instead of presuming they weren't or asking someone "Hey, are you okay? What just happened?" Now, even if you literally had the time (you don't), you couldn't handle it. You can't deal with every flash of anger. With every person who comes at you to show they're better than you. With every fucking howler monkey who has no self-control. You have to protect yourself.
And here's the worst part. In deflecting everyone, you deflect the people who are being sincere. You deflect the people who might have a point or who might be kind if you just validate their anger. Or who might see they're being unfair if you had a conversation instead of ignoring them. You deflect the people who are right. You deflect the people you really DO owe an apology. When your armor is on, they can't reach you either. Outside of your own group of friends, family, and close acquaintances, you become this person you never wanted to be.
At least, it's not anyone I ever wanted to be.
I'm not saying that I can read the minds of all these celebrities who seem to be teflon, but I think that's half the reason they get called out by swaths of big communities to no avail, but then come back a week later and say "So I talked to my friend last night, and I owe you all an apology.... " Their friend (or loved one) was someone who treated them first like a person, and thus got to see them without their armor.
I'm sure some of them are just SWERFs, TERFs, or herding Nerfs. I'm not saying they're right not to soften their hearts. I'm not saying they "deserve" to be approached diplomatically or entitled to a calm tone and a conversation about something pleasant first. However, I'm beginning to understand JUST how many people they had to walk past who wanted to tear them down and tear them apart in order to be get where they are today, and how they would lose their sense of self to treat every person upset with them online like a reclamation project. Everyone thinks that people have some way to tell the difference between the teeming millions mercurically upset by not-really-anything, possibly projecting, probably overreacting, and possibly deliberately trolling, and THEY who are sincere and legitimate about a very important issue.
My experience is that most folks thinks fame wouldn't change them. THEY would still be totally chill and cool.
Oh my sweet summer children.....
If fame didn't change you, you would die of a broken heart from a billion cuts, and that would be around 2pm on day two. More than anything, you want someone to see you as a human and talk to you as a person––not a projection of what they think you are (bad OR good). You want them to just see another person who can be connected with. But not everyone ever will, and if you don't protect yourself, you will be eaten alive by those people who feel entitled to the most personal parts of you, yet who will never take the time or energy of trying to get to know or understand such parts before demanding them. You would doubt yourself into a little green globule on the end of a drumstick and you wouldn't be able to do the work that was making you famous in the first place.
I've already got a mental map in my head of people who I respect and whose criticism I'll let in. With them I still have the same rejection sensitive dysphoria and need to please so acute that I'm in therapy to help me with boundaries. But with everyone else....I already notice that self-care involves walking away from most conflicts and thinking very very carefully about the ones I choose to try to resolve. I'm "done" faster. I ban people like whack-a-mole. I simply ignore things. I don't have time for that. I leave comments in moderation if they missed the point. Those twenty potential fights have begun to push up towards thirty. And I end up thinking of more and more ways to protect my outward-facing self from being pulled down into that quagmire of anger and eviscerated.
And perhaps worst of all, I lose less sleep worrying about it. Because the armor works. I put it on and I am safe. And I hate it the whole, self-cared-for, safe, uneviscerated time.