Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, recently posted an article that briefly touches on the phenomenon of a “manicured life” in the vast, chaotic frontier of social media (he focuses specifically Twitter, though I believe his thesis rings more true for YouTube–more later). Backed by a convincing vignette by an author at Gizmodo and a psychological study conducted at the University of California-Berkeley, Lehrer attests that social media services like Twitter present us with such a glut of information that we tend to fall into a dangerous animal-reaction lockstep: we interact with the service akin to the eighth grader who went to a new high school with one other friend, and latch on to comfort zones. We follow our friends, Shaq, and maybe Isaiah Mustafa for hip points; we utilize or exploit none of the essentially unlimited opportunities to meet new people.
Lehrer’s argument is actually about creativity vs. uninspired redundance, so I lied a little bit. He wants us to follow strangers on Twitter so that we don’t become hipstarr-drones and have access to perspectives on “God, Detroit and the Kardashians” that we would not normally consider.
The UC-Berkeley study is the crux of his argument: a psychologist put a bunch of people in a room and showed them a Powerpoint of solid colors, asking the subjects to identify the color presented. Later, she asked them to do free-association with the color words (e.g. “blue”-”sky,” “green”-”grass”). The control group presented totally banal responses, akin to the examples I just gave. They relied on the hardwired, comfortable associations that pretty much everyone has. The experiment group, though, was pretty great: she planted a research assistant in the group and told her to intentionally misidentify one of the colors. The experiment group’s association was much more complex; some subjects responded to “blue” with “Miles Davis,” among other nontraditional color associations.
Lehrer interprets these findings as evidence that injecting the unknown and strange into a gray life forces us to tap into the storied human ability to adapt; this adaptation makes stretches our imaginative capabilities and makes the neuron network in our brains look like steel wool on fire. It seems like a miniscule leap of faith to apply these ideas to social media and fame; a service like YouTube allows us to envision fame in unconventional channels, changing the very definition of the word and allowing us nearly unfettered creativity.
YouTube allows users to redefine fame by sheer alteration or interjection: Bear Vasquez attained his shining viral moment by playing the role of breathless documentarian; in reality, he was simply staring at rainbows in his backyard. The child in David After Dentist (and his father) achieved fame simply through a humorous display of the effects of anesthetics. While some chase fame through traditional channels using Youtube– examples of acoustic crooners and sports phenom-prodigies abound– others sit dutifully in the digital room with no walls, looking at a Powerpoint of blues and seeing radiant shades of gold.