Being Popular Online is Being Popular, Period

It’s funny — every day, people I know make brief appearances on television.

Regarded as opinion leaders and experts, they go on different shows as talking heads. They get five minutes on this show or that show to say a little soundbite about whatever is trending in the news, and then they go back to their life.

When they’re done, they share a little snapshot of their appearance on every social media platform that exists. I know why they do it. It’s partly self-promotion — heck, it’s mostly self-promotion — but it’s also a sense of accomplishment.

“I’m on television. Mama, I made it!”

I, too, understand how this feels, because I’ve been on television myself. And yeah, there is still this feeling that you’re doing something not that many people get a chance to do. It certainly makes you feel a little cooler than those losers back in your home town, chugging cheap beer at the local bar and talking about the good ol’ days like some goddamn Bruce Springsteen song.

But I’m often left wondering — does it actually mean anything? Is anyone watching? Does anyone really care?

Probably not. There are a million TV channels now and a billion hours of programming produced every quarter. Most television is very lowbrow and half the news is stuff that originates online anyway. Television isn’t leading, it’s following.

It wasn’t always like this.

Years ago, when cameras were large and expensive, and you needed an entire television network — of which their were only a few — to broadcast moving images, if the camera suddenly fixated on you, there was something special about it. You were on televison. Your image was being beamed into the homes of people all over America. You were special.

But now, cameras are ubiquitous and through social media, we are all broadcast networks of our own. A person with a popular YouTube channel or Vine profile is a veritable NBC or FOX. It’s the same with print media. A blog, Facebook page or heck, even a Medium account, arguably puts you on par with just about anyone else. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s the New York Times or Joe the Plumber writing, it all gets distributed the same way — socially.

The difference is that big companies still have tons of money to produce their content, have even more money to distribute that content, and have the legacy brand cache to make people feel like they should check out their content. And yet, so many of them are foundering in this regard. Which illustrates a much larger point.

That is — online, everyone is in the same pool. Whether you are a big company or just a little guy with a camera-equipped smartphone, you’re fighting the same fight. To me, that means that if you can become popular online, you’re actually doing something significantly more difficult.

Because online, everyone has access to the tools and everyone is looking to acquire the same attention. Think about it: if you’re watching television, the news will be there at 7 every night. But with Facebook, you don’t know what the hell you’re going to see day to day. It’s much harder to cut through that noise. And yet so many people do.

I am happy for my friends that get to go on television and I myself will go on television again, because it makes me feel good, just like I’m sure it does them. But I never want to fool myself into thinking people actually watch it. In truth, you can reach a wider audience with a tweet or an article than entire broadcast TV network.

The internet is the new New York — if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.