Hacking the Kardashian Effect

It’s been about a week since the Milo Yiannopoulos scandal, so I’m either late to the game or it’s finally safe for me to write about it. To recap in a sentence: professional provocateur makes a career out of baiting liberals, but upon ironically provoking his own crowd by mistake he is eaten alive by conservatives. I am truly fascinated with Milo. Disgusted, but fascinated. The Guardian offered this concise summary of him in their article profiling his (rise and) fall:

“He is a gay man who hates the gay rights movement. A libertarian who calls an authoritarian president ‘Daddy’. A vigorous opponent of Black Lives Matter who says he can’t be racist because ‘I just like fucking blacks’. A self-styled second-wave feminist who sells hoodies reading ‘Feminism is cancer’. A conservative pin-up who claims: ‘I don’t care about politics.’ A writer and speaker who claims his provocative statements are just ‘facts’ while celebrating the ‘post-fact era’.”

Until then I had never heard of him, as I suspect was the case for most, yet every major news agency profiled his fall. To give context some profiled his rise as well, as did the Guardian article I hyperlinked above. The underlying premise of this article and others asks, how could someone so unlikeable become so famous? The answer according to these news stories is that he made a successful career out of appealing to a particular demographic, thus the real enemy is this demographic. I don’t think this is quite enough: it may explain his moderate fame as a writer during Gamergate or as a Breitbart contributor, but it doesn’t explain what made him front page news in every American outlet for a week.

I’m going to make the case that Milo’s rise to fame was fueled by the same thing that fueled Trump’s path to the presidency. It’s the same force, actually, that created the Kim Kardashian empire. It’s created more people than we think. I first started paying attention to it in 2009 when I saw the following interview of Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag on Conan O’Brien. I’d encourage you to watch the whole thing (especially for a downright uncanny depiction of the presidency at the end), but I’ll mostly be using a 3 minute clip starting at 1m20s.

Touring to promote their then-new book How to Be Famous, and in the penultimate season of what would come to be six seasons of the The Hills, Spencer and Heidi offer tips on the path they took to scrape together enough media attention to become “famous.” Spencer suggests that there are several paths to fame, and he selected just one: Being the Villain.

I thought that was absurd, but only at first. Because there he was being interviewed on Conan O’Brien while starring in a popular reality TV show. Meanwhile I was watching him in my pajamas at home on my television like any other anonymous common peasant. His trick clearly worked. If you pay attention to his mannerisms and the way he reacts to others’ disapproval it’s clear he has completely settled into the role. He was fully aware that when Conan had first announced them they received loud boos from the audience. It didn’t bother him: it was actually feeding him.

This is the idea, that fame and exposure are not subject to the approval of the public. Yiannopoulos, Trump, and Kardashian did not rise to power on a wave of public approval of their choices, lifestyles, or opinions. The difference between Kim-personal-assistant-to-Paris-Hilton and the Kim Kardashian was a sex tape with a D-list celebrity rapper. Put another way, we often think that we vote for someone’s fame with our approval and vote against their fame with our disapproval, and that the famous have merely received the most votes of approval. This is an illusion.

The subconscious hubris we live in, the delusion that society is guided by our approval or disapproval, is out of date if it ever existed at all. Television is not measured by approval, it is measured by viewership. Even that sentence is out of date, for we are living in the internet age. The internet is not measured in approval, it is measured in clicks.

Think about how clickbait works. These are the content-bereft articles, videos, and ads you find in your social media feeds and on the sidebars of youtube videos with catchy headlines that exist solely to generate clicks that can be used to earn site traffic, usually for advertising income. As this Wired.com contributor explains, clickbait works because of four psychological principles: emotional manipulation, the information gap, anticipation, and the gambler’s paradox.

Notice that clickbait doesn’t work by obtaining your approval for the headline. As a consumer of the web you are just as likely to click on “10 Reasons  _______ Is Actually Incarnate Satan” as you are “10 Reasons _______ Is The Next Ghandi” and the click is the only part that matters. Your click is equally attracted by your approval as your disapproval. That’s why the way to fight clickbait is to not-click, making the bait unprofitable.

The super-famous do not rise to power on waves of total support or total disgust. Like a metal ball caught between two mutually repelling magnets, they are instead rocketed to power by the polarization between total support and total disgust. The best thing that can happen to you as a person looking to become super-famous is to polarize everyone. The perfect scenario for your marketability is that 50% of people like you and 50% dislike you, and as you turn up the emotional heat from like & dislike, to love & hate, to idolatry & condemnation, your path to fame will literally pave itself. When this happens you no longer have “a demographic,” your demographic is everyone. This is what I call, with a bitter sense of irony, the Kardashian effect.

This is where Trump came from. He polarized the media very early on, and as I’ve shown it has never been more true that there is no such thing as bad publicity. The exposure gave him a broader audience that enabled him to attract support he would have ever been able to reach on his own. The other Republican candidates couldn’t compete because they had stereotyped themselves even before Trump nicknamed them: Lyin’ Ted, Low-Energy Jeb, Little Marco. His name was trumpeted not just from conservative news outlets but from all news outlets, and it was trumpeted constantly. As CNN’s Jeff Zucker expressed,

“If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run… Trump delivered on PR, he delivered on big ratings.”

The worst thing that can happen to you as a person seeking super-fame, on the other hand, is to be boring or easy to ignore. The biggest trap we fell into with Trump was not that we didn’t stereotype his antics or give him a nickname. It’s that we rewarded his behavior with our public and vocal derision. Don’t mistake me, there does come a time when it is important to stake a claim and denounce a person and their behavior as unacceptable. Even more so with values: we should always be engaged in public discourse about ideas and values that are noble. But in those critical early hours of a person acting-out for media attention, it’s best to just let it go.

When a child is throwing a tantrum, the solution is not to beg or plead with the child or even to condemn the behavior. If the tantrum is an attention-seeking behavior, experts will tell you that the solution as a parent is to ignore it rather than to reward it with attention, which will backfire and feed the behavior. Slavoj Žižek makes a similar case that worse than punching a Nazi is to ignore them so specifically that you do not even acknowledge their presence, making them a “non-person.”

We have the idea that there is a spectrum of things that are “good-neutral-bad” and that it corresponds to the spectrum of responses “approve-ignore-disapprove.” I instead make the case that neutrality & ignorance are not on these spectra at all. They are the definition of things not on the spectra. And sometimes things belong in that space.

In one final example of the media’s power to feed an adverse situation, even with the best intentions of covering it accurately and informing the public, look at copycat suicide. The Aurora Bridge in Fremont has the second-highest death toll for jumping suicide of any bridge in the country (behind the Golden Gate Bridge). Seattle media had to rethink the ethics of reporting suicide in the 90s after a highly-publicized jump attempt inspired 30-50 more suicides in the immediate wake of the story. The total death toll is 230, yet even before the jump-barricade was erected in 2008 we weren’t hearing about them. When stories ran in San Francisco that the Golden Gate Bridge kill count had reached 499, police intercepted 14 jump attempts before a 15th jumper broke through and fell to his death. In general it is now customary in journalism to discourage suicide reporting except in special cases.

Do I think Milo Yiannopoulos is out of the limelight forever? No. He’s only out now because mainstream conservatives are too disgusted by him to talk about him: the agreement between liberals & conservatives about him has turned off the moral magnet. He’s no longer polarizing. I don’t think that means he will be unable to turn the moral magnet back on and return someday. I suspect he can still generate controversy and polarize people as well as ever.

People like Milo, Trump, Kim Kardashian, and Spencer Pratt will not stop appearing in our media, not as long the media is willing to feed us the bait and we’re willing to bite. If we want to turn off the Kardashian effect as consumers we have to resist our emotional impulses and exercise a degree of self-control with our discourse and metaphorical clicks. If media wants to cooperate then perhaps it is time for journalists to exercise ethical discretion not about what stories to cover, but about what not to cover.

Cover photo adapted from pieces that appeared on LoveAntiques.com. The originals were mailed to Kim & Kanye as a gift and prints were temporarily sold with all proceeds going toward charity. Read more about it here.


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