Michael Harris is the author of Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World and The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in an Age of Constant Connection.
In a gilded ballroom, beneath a Waterford crystal chandelier and the stern gaze of Her Majesty’s 10-foot-tall portrait, I sat and clawed the pants of my tuxedo. This was the autumn of 2014 and I, along with the other winners of that year’s Governor-General’s Literary Awards, had been summoned to Rideau Hall for an evening of praise and celebration. I tried to enjoy the moment despite my mounting anxiety. But, as I sat in my chair and watched the other winners make their speeches, I couldn’t relax. I was thrilled –of course – but also desperate for the ceremony to conclude. It seemed to me that the whole, luxurious affair concealed an existential danger.
When at last it was my turn to climb onstage and shake hands with the Governor-General himself, I was nearly blinded by the light, the embarrassing attention – the praise. I received my award from David Johnston and, as we shook hands for the photographers, I murmured through my smile, “Is that enough? Can we stop?”
His Excellency said we could. And then I blanked out for the remainder of the ceremony.
During the party that followed – a blur of polished smiles and Order of Canada pins – a drunken young man cracked his tumbler against mine, saying, “Cheers, you won; that means you were every jury member’s second pick.”
Praise is always fraught for creative folk.
One of the other recipients, when delivering her acceptance speech, said, “I feel that I stand in a new light.” But that’s just it. The light arrives, which means we are seen; perhaps we even think we are seeing ourselves for the first time. And then, inevitably – oh so cruelly – the light shuts off. And if it was this light that allowed you to see yourself, then aren’t you lost when it’s gone?
That night I lay in bed, in the dark, buzzing still from the party. And a little voice came to me then: this is the most precarious moment of your professional life.
If we hang around long enough, every writer – every artist – finds out about the problem with praise. Here it is: if you believe the praise, then you’re letting other people control what you think about your work. And – because you’ve become, by this point, so intimately invested in that work – you’re also letting those people control what you think about yourself. That’s dangerous for a bunch of obvious reasons. But the harshest – the really toxic reason – is that, once you’ve been pumped up by the praise of others, you can be squashed by their criticism. If you were buoyed by the kudos, you’ll be sunk by the boos.
Many writers and actors and artists make a point of not reading reviews. This involves a tug-of-war between the desire to be talked about and the desire to not go crazy. Gretchen Rubin doesn’t read her reviews because “negativity bias” keeps her from reading them with a neutral gaze. Jeanette Winterson doesn’t read reviews because “it’s too late.”
I don’t read reviews for the same reason I don’t ask strangers what they think of my face: It’s asking for trouble.
As dangerous as all those awards and reviews and star-ratings are, they at least aren’t dangers that most people have had to face. The bulk of us have, historically, not been confronted with constant, public appraisals. And those who were – the artists – well, we were asking for it.
But now all that has changed. A radical uptick in social-media use has produced an economy of praise into which all users are drawn. Today, we are all performers and we all have to decide: Will I read the reviews?
We’ve become blasé about the dopamine hits we get from each incoming message or alert. A blip of hormones, a flush of brain activity on a scan. Scientists at Harvard showed us years ago how sharing information about ourselves stimulates the reward systems in the brain – just as surely as sex and food.
We begin to understand – however vaguely – that the pellets of affirmation we gather online are a form of psychological calorie, dispensed by our devices. And our cravings keep getting increased as the years go by. Instead of sugar, we crave social grooming. Instead of fats, we hoard external validation. We’re now gluttons for the praise our devices dish out. So much so, they change our behaviour and our thoughts. Everything we do online is a contrivance to get more views, more retweets and, ultimately, more praise. In The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu writes that we’ve seemingly, “devolved into a chaotic mutual admiration society, full of enterprising Narcissi, surely an arrangement of affairs without real precedent in human history.”
We’re living through a shift-point. We’re suddenly more aware of our child-like hunger for praise. Everyone wonders how worthy their once-anonymous self might be. We change our profiles to reflect an aspirational self, a persona that draws the approval of others. We publish only good news, only filtered photographs – and this compounds our anxieties. Sherry Turkle writes, “I have found that when people use the aspirational self as an object for self-reflection, it can make them feel curiously envious – of themselves.” The desire for praise twists in on itself, redoubles. We pretend to be what others might approve and, in the process, we forget to value the broken birds that we are.
Meanwhile, we’re more than willing to answer the calls for praise that issue from our growing list of contacts. We groom one another constantly. Facebook users generate four million “likes” every minute. Ordinary limits of space and time – which once truncated the amount of praise a person could expect in the course of a day – have been obliterated. I can praise 20 people while standing in line at Starbucks.
For the first time in our history, more people have access to the internet than not (51 per cent of the world’s 7.6 billion people can now hop online). That means more people on the planet could share this article tomorrow than could not. More people could like it on Facebook …
The writer’s ego reels.
Something primal is going on here. Social media is popular across cultures and age groups because it fulfills a basic human need: that desire for social grooming.
There’s a simple reason that Facebook doesn’t offer a thumbs-down icon and Twitter asks you to tag things with hearts. The attention merchants know that it’s praise and approval that keeps us coming back. B.F. Skinner’s idea of operant conditioning (positive reinforcement) comes into play. We’re social animals and we’ll behave in whatever way produces loving feedback from the pack.
But how large a pack can we manage? The evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that our brains set us up nicely for communities of 150 (which is roughly the size of the communities we lived in for most of human history). As our devices now hijack those primal instincts, creating a pack of billions (with every member crying out for social grooming) is it any wonder we feel a need for more and more praise – more likes, more hearts, more followers?
As new as it all feels, it’s also the oldest story in the world. Many ancient technological advances extended our sense of self. Consider the most basic tool for self-reflection: By the 16th century, the surface of glass could be improved so that, once coated with a silver amalgam, it turned into a fine mirror. For the first time, it was possible to look at ourselves as others saw us. A stunning achievement. And with it came an inflation of the human ego. “Self-consciousness, introspection … developed with the new object itself,” writes the great historian Lewis Mumford. We learned to worry more about how others perceived us. “Indeed,” writes Mr. Mumford, “When one is completely whole and at one with the world one does not need the mirror… .” From that point on, though, we turned “to the lonely image to see what in fact is there and what [we] can hold on to … .”
Not for nothing is there a dystopian Netflix drama called “Black Mirror” – the spectral reflection offered by our phones does enhance the problem first encountered by the 16th-century mirror gazer. We search those glossy surfaces all the more for some sign that our personal place in the world has been improved, expanded. We hope to affirm a grander sense of self by studying “the lonely image.”
Backstage, before that ceremony at Rideau Hall, I worried about how much the award mattered to me, even as I felt it would be an enormous gift. How my heated ego recast itself, spreading out and spreading thin, so that who I was became what I was dubbed – in this one glittery moment.
They lined the recipients up before two enormous doors. I turned to the playwright Jordan Tannahill and tried to say something.
But then the doors were drawing inward – by what force? – and a string quartet was playing. The esteemed guests in the hall were turning the lamp of their collective attention to shine – on what?
On us: you, me, all of us. The lucky and the unlucky; the worthy and the unworthy. Some of us randomly decorated and other randomly unnoticed.
Anyone who spends a portion of their days online. We, all of us, are drawn into that same dangerous ballroom. It doesn’t feel that way when we glance at our follower count on the subway, when a few strangers celebrate a selfie. But our addiction to those chilled metrics of affection are gently warping us nonetheless.