Oh, endless cyberspace, you’ve outdone yourself. Take a look. Atrocious, isn’t it? It’s the website of a FoxNews affiliate showing a slideshow of images taken from a website called ‘walmartpeople‘ (and I found it over Buzzfeed, and you found it at postmodernize.com, but at some point all chains of agency have to stop at the unmoved mover, don’t they?). Before picking this apart, we’re gonna veer off before coming back. Bear with me.
Over at The New Inquiry (great site), Rob Horning wrote up a talk he gave fairly recently. The ideas are layered and complex, not to say circuitous, but the basic idea is that 1) in the information economy, attention is currency; 2) participating in social media regularly gives people a kind of microfame; 3) this microfame is measured, of course, in attention; 4) the pulses of attention social media provides regular participants is comparable to the juice/action that compulsive gamblers get from laying a stake on the table; 5) just as problem gamblers will eventually end up selling heirlooms for more action when the disposable income runs out, the microfame of social media junkies compels them to divulge ever more and ever more questionable and intimate information about themselves to keep getting the pay out. More prosaically, 1) teen-age girl uploads a normal profile pic, and somebody says she’s pretty, and she feels like a triple-digit gift certificate. 2) She uploads pictures of herself in church clothes in front of church with her parents, and only her grandma ‘likes’ the picture. The positive feedback from her peers is missing, which is feedback in itself. 3) She uploads pictures of herself in a bikini at the lake with her family, and the attention starts flowing back in. 4) Skyping with her friends, somebody says she’s hot and tells her to flash. She does. 5) Screenshot, retweet, young life totally ruined for evar! 6) Best case = she goes off to join the peace corps in a couple of years somewhere the Internet hasn’t reached yet, good luck; probable case = she goes off to college in a couple of years, there’s more similar behaviour, and she winds up a divorcee who can’t look at her gas range without regretting that she never made the bastard shell out for a Viking; worst case = crack pipe with the kids in the skids and/or suicide.
Perhaps a more apt analogy than the gambler is the crack whore, whom you’re welcome to call a sex worker with substance abuse issues, if you think that makes the world better in any way. You get a high, and you need to chase the high, so you go out and peddle yourself for whatever you can get. Sometimes you get a tip, and sometimes you get bruised and beaten for doing the same thing that was fine last time. It’s a dangerously sensational metaphor, but the shoe fits too well to take it off.
And now let’s return to the ‘Walmart people’. For the record, I don’t enjoy unkempt butt cracks any more than the next Guy, and I know about as much about ‘fashion’ as Hippocrates knew about ADHD, but I can’t imagine the sense of aesthetic appreciation that would lead many of the people in these pictures to dress as they do. As for the parents whose kids are guzzling motor oil in the buggy while the parents are comparing ceiling fans, some of them are sure to be absolutely terrible parents with no excuse. Still, we can probably agree that none of us can gather enough information from these pictures to identify any of the subjects as ‘Walmart people’. Walmart is hardly another planet, and if you’re paying a premium for locally produced toilet paper made of recycled coffee filters (100% Arabica only) and old silk stockings, you’re at grave risk of having a snarky future post pointed your way. Shopping at Walmart is not a sin. As for appearance and parenting skills in a given moment of time on a given day, let’s admit that we just don’t know enough to laugh. You might be witnessing a private tragedy, or some coping strategy to prevent one, and there but for the grace of compound interest go I. Can we agree that, just by virtue of being at a certain place and a certain time with a certain mullet, none of these people have done anything wrong? No? You’re a jerk. How about now? Okay.
So the Walmart people are objects of ridicule, but they haven’t done anything wrong. There’s injustice, and somebody is at fault. Ready super sleuths? Let’s start at the bottom of the food chain: walmartpeople.com. Not only did these sons of ETF managers base their website on the principle of making a spectacle of people just going about their day, they coined the term ‘Walmart people’ to brand the ridicule. Looking silly isn’t just a sin, it’s a product – with a name – which you know – and it’s made of people. Bastards all.
But wait a tic. Why would anybody sink so low? Turn off your AdBlock and you’ll see. They’re doing it to sell you depleted uranium shells, chocolate flavoured laxatives, and home-bunker building kits, or whatever AdSense says is right for you. (Largely unrelated discovery that tells you a lot about the world: MSWord’s dictionary recognizes ‘AdSense’ as a word, but not AdBlock – Game Over. Please insert coin.) That’s the logic of the commercial Internet, and pop communication generally while we’re at it, but remember your scripture: who is more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him? Considering that FoxNews is parasitic onwalmartpeople.com, and buzzfeed is parasitic on FoxNews,* does the burden of guilt accumulate with each link in the chain? And if you’re consuming any of them, making you the one holding the hot potato, aren’t you the source of all evil?
Yes and no. Yes, because you are feeding the monkey and none of this could happen without you, but you’d probably be just as happily entertained by videos of cats playing the piano, amirite? That’s an error of omission, of not thinking about what you’re doing, not about actually going out and making anybody more undeservingly miserable than they were an hour ago. Do better, but you’re provisionally absolved.** Anyway, there’s a viler, baser, scummier batch of knaves to draw and quarter. But who?
Remember that microfame business up above? High > craving > desperate act > attention > self-destruction? What was all that about anyway? Well, if microfame is like hooking for drugs, what could be worse? The ‘Walmart people’ get the ridicule of negative attention that eventually comes from microfame, but importantly they didn’t take pictures of themselves buying toilet paper and post them for somebody else to make good coin on Viagra ads – presumably.*** That’s right, what’s worse is the pimps of microfame. The villains of our story are the wretched turds with the cameras in their hands: the micropaparazzi. Here’s the error of commission, the wilful debasement of other people. There might not ever be a good reason to do that, but you can bet that ‘I had to! I’m the guy who took the picture! This proves I have good taste, I have a good eye, I’m quick on the draw, and I’m practically famous!” will not convince anybody worth talking to.
So put away your camera and stop taking pictures of strangers. Unless you can help them, leave them be; it’s none of our damn business.
*NB: See those ads next to this premium content. No? Turn off your AdBlock. Just for a sec. See ’em now?
**Who made me judge, fit to pronounce absolution? You tell me.
***Here’s some provisional evidence that might indicate some walmart people are pissed off about the pictures. But there’s another reading: going meta and talking about the shame is a way of getting the next microfame buzz. It would be like the teenage girl posting a picture of herself on facebook with a caption like “Don’t look at me. I’m ugly.” If you think that interpretation is a stretch, looky here. How do you explain that? And if microfame has gotten this bad, well, I’m afraid there’s not much left to hope for.