Facebook and Faux-Fame

by Derrick G. Jeter

In 1774, the great Irish statesman, Edmund Burke said, the “passion for fame [is] a passion which is the instinct of all great souls.” This very well may be true, but it is clearly the instinct of all small souls, especially these days. We live during curious times, when the passion for fame has become all consuming. I wonder if there has ever been a more self-absorbed and narcissistic time in history. Perhaps when the whole earth gathered in Shinar and decided to build a tower in order to make a name for themselves (see Genesis 11:1–4).

Andy Warhorl may have made famous the quip about everyone having their fifteen minutes of fame, but he didn’t foresee the technology of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, nor the onslaught of “reality” television programs, which potentially gives virtually everyone more than fifteen minutes of fame. For example, I opened a Facebook account at the beginning of this year and within a couple of weeks I could boast of more than 150 “friends.” This certainly doesn’t make me famous—I don’t even have enough “friends” to warrant a “fan” page—but it could make me narcissistic, especially if I compare my number of “friends” with someone who has fewer “friends.” Of course, there is always someone else who’ll have more “friends” than I do, but narcissism doesn’t care about that, it might only spur me on to finding and friending more people—whether I know them or not. Isn’t it curious, just as a side note, that we’ve reduced the richness and tenderness of the word “friend,” which once stood for an intimate relationship between two people, to one of course acquaintance, to say nothing about turning a noun and into a verb: “I’m going to friend you on Facebook.” I was joking with my true friend, Randy Peck, who lives in Alaska, and with whom I’ve known for almost forty years, that we could start a real friendship now because Facebook says we’re friends.

But back to my point. A few years after Edmund Burke’s comment on fame, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds . . . would prompt a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises.” And today, apparently stupid enterprises as well. Back in Burke’s and Hamilton’s day, and even up until a number of years ago, fame only came to those who actually had accomplished something. In times past there was an unmistakable link between fame and achievement, if not actual greatness. It used to be that a famous person’s well of skill or talent was deep enough that any drawn bucket was full of recognizable substance. Today, you just have to have the talent for being a jackass—for making a fool of yourself. That, coupled with a good publicist or enough hits on YouTube, will propel you into the low lights of reality stardom. These days we are dipping our bucket into the shallow and muddy waters of a pothole. Don’t believe me? Just watch one of the many mind-numbing “reality” shows on television like The Bachelor with the parade of blonde nitwits who are sure they are in love with a man they just met. Or, how about one of the many The Real Housewives Of . . . (New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Orange County) offerings. Could anything be more idiotic then following the lives of rich, whining, narcissistic women? Perhaps watching almost anything on MTV. But if this doesn’t convince you that we are living in a time of faux-fame pay attention to the news. For example, a father and mother foist a hoax on local and state law enforcement by pretending their son was floating across the Colorado sky in a homemade balloon, which landed them on CNN’s Larry King Live. Or this from another couple: crash a White House State Dinner in hopes of generating enough publicity to win the staring role in another fake reality show—Housewives of Washington D. C.

None of these fake-fame factories requires talent, character, nobility, sacrifice, or courage; they merely require hutzpah and an unhealthy dose of self-importance. These poor souls who’ve sold their integrity for fame are content with a Paris Hilton type of fame—the distinction of being famous for being famous. But what they haven’t learned is the truth that a life of accomplishments without fame can be a good life, yet fame without accomplishments is no life at all—it is the shadow of substance, ephemeral and meaningless.

Those looking for easy fame, whether through “reality” television, YouTube, or even Facebook, have also failed to consider that fame is fickle and fleeting. The famous always fade from memory. At one time Henry Ward Beecher was consider the most famous man in America. And though an award winning biography about him has been published within the past couple years, few could tell me anything about this once famous man without first having to Google him or turn to Wikipedia. H. L. Mencken, who was also a once famous man, wrote, “When I hear a man applauded by the mob I always feel a pang of pity for him. All he has to do to be hissed is to live long enough. . . . The mob is faithful only in its infidelity. It always stones those it has worshiped.” Just ask Tiger Woods.

Wise ol’ Solomon, a still somewhat famous man, prudently said, “There is no remembrance of earlier things; / And also of the later things which will occur, / There will be for them no remembrance / Among those who will come later still” (Ecclesiastes 1:11). Later he repeated this theme and applied it to people: “For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die!” (2:16). All of us, the famous and the anonymous, will die . . . and will be forgotten. Can you name your great-great-great-great-great-grandparents? Few can. We forget. And if this essay were, by some miracle, to be discovered and read 50, 75, or 100 years hence few, if any, would know who Paris Hilton or Tiger Woods was, just as most of us today can’t say anything intelligent about Henry Ward Beecher or H. L. Mencken.

Does all this seem too fatalistic and depressing? If so, let’s listen to one more piece of advice from ancient Solomon: “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep his commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (12:13–14).

The flower of fame is sure to fad—no matter how many “friends” you have—because people forget. But God doesn’t. And He will either applaud or boo based on whether we remember Him.

Oh, and by the way, Beecher was a preacher, social reformer, and abolitionist during the American Civil War. And Mencken was a reporter who coined the famous phrase, “The Scopes Monkey-Trial.” Just in case anyone asks.