We are all Gaga now

The price of our collective internet fame

Art: The Martyrdom of St. Lucy, Domenico Veneziano, 1445

In 2019, Lady Gaga, who has 81 million followers, tweeted randomly, “Fame is prison.” 

The responses to any tweet with over 1,000 likes are pretty much a dumpster fire, and this was no exception. She received a lot of one-off responses like, “then you must be a free woman” and “redistribute your wealth and go live in obscurity,” a ton of spam, political memes, and links to longform pieces about the criminal justice system. 

This wasn’t the first time she tweeted about her issues with being famous. Only a month earlier, she tweeted: 

These tweets seem, on the face of it, to be pure complaining. Gaga has an alleged net worth of $320 million. She’s performed at the Super Bowl, and acted in “A Star is Born” with Bradley Cooper. She’s toured hundreds of sold-out stadiums. She has 11 Grammys, and, currently , a residency in Las Vegas. And, don’t forget the Malibu beach house.  Sure, she’s not as rich as Kim Kardashian (who only has her beat by about $30 million), but she has solidly established herself as a top touchstone of the 2000s. 

In another parallel to Kardashian, Gaga has, as she’s become more popular and ubiquitous,  become more of an idea than a person. She’s done so many hyperbolic things, like wearing a meat dress, bleeding on stage during a performance, wearing a dress made out of bubbles, arrived at the Grammys in an egg, and much, much more, that the noise surrounding her eventually eclipsed her music, which is a shame. Because Stefani Germanotta, when she was just starting out at NYU, had enormous talent, and she didn’t need to come out of an egg to show it. 

And if you don’t believe that, check out her performance on Howard Stern. I watch it at least once every six months. 

This is the real woman and the real talent, coming out from under the prison of glitter, plastic, and artifice that she has built for herself (and that we have helped her with). 

Granted, this was all her choice. In numerous interviews, she says she had a choice to either make good music and remain in obscurity, or become outrageously commanding of the attention of pop culture and society, and, in the process, become a parody of herself. 

In a recent interview with Paper ahead of the launch of her new album Chromatica (NSFW images in the article, as if any of us are still going into the office), the writer describes her “on” personality pretty well

"I consent to being nude with everyone in this room," Lady Gaga says, before slipping off her custom Versace robe emblazoned with her name on the back in crystals. "I believe we're making art, this isn't pornography." With nothing on — not even her signature towering heels — the 5'2'' pop star walks confidently onto set for our cover shoot and positions herself inside a cage with hundreds of cameras attached to its frame. The countless lenses focus on her naked form, prepped to capture all angles of her body, as she holds one still pose and patiently waits for further instruction. "Three, two, one." Flash. Every camera goes off in unison like lightning.

And yet, in spite of all of this, the careful image crafting, constantly wearing ridiculously high heels, there is a second Gaga underneath, the real Stefani Germanotta, and we can no longer hear that person’s voice over the sound of her brand. 

This is a problem both for us and for her. 

For starters, there is the physical manifestation of suppressing her own identity, her fibromyalgia and chronic stress from constant travel, putting on shows, and wearing extraordinarily high heels in line with her image. 

And then, there is the emotional toll of always being under the glare of the headlines. When you are a celebrity, you can’t always say what you think - you have to say what pushes the brand forward. Anne Helen Petersen had some of the best celebrity analysis over the past decade, and she had this to say about this idea, of constantly crafting your own image: 

So Jolie’s image mixed dangerous sexuality...and benevolent humanitarianism? It sounds ridiculous. But it was precisely that combination, and the flexibility it permitted, that allowed Jolie to not only weather one of the biggest potential scandals of the decade, but facilitated her rise to superstardom.

It's because Angelina Jolie plays the celebrity game better than anyone else in the business. Her game is subtle, often invisible, incredibly precise, and always, always effective. And by all accounts, she does it without the help of a publicist. To best explain how she masters it today, though, we have to return to 2004 — but this time, to Brad Pitt.

Everyone, as Logan Roy says in Succession, “has his own game,” and the game of a celebrity is to sell themselves to other people. For example, Gaga never appears in public without enormous heels, regardless of the time of the day.  In all these hundreds of machinations, carefully-crafted tweets, photos, and songs, Stefani has most definitely left the building and Lady Gaga has become a platform, trapped in a prison of her own projection. 

She was a good thing that’s become too generic to be herself, genuinely interesting, and as we know, good things don’t scale

How do I know? Over the past year or so, I myself have started to become a platform on Twitter. 

Being Big on the Bird Site

I started out Twitter the same as anyone, shouting into the void with a couple of followers that, if I was lucky, interacted with me once a day or so.  At some point over the past couple years, I had a couple big data science jokes that were picked up by other big accounts and retweeted, resulting in more followers. 

Even though I am not any kind of big deal in my industry (i.e. did something significant in machine learning, or programming, or, heck, even written an open-source framework,) it feels like the number of followers bestows a dangerous kind of equivalence on me: I have a ton of followers, therefore, I have something important to say. When, in reality, about 25% of my tweets are actually related to Python, or machine learning, or business, and the rest are like these: 

In spite of the fact that I don’t always tweet anything interesting or important, people always seem to be listening. 

This is extremely dangerous. 

As I wrote almost when I started this newsletter, our internet is now fundamentally broken in that it doesn’t allow us to preserve Dunbar’s number, 

The more people you expose your online persona to, the easier it is for it to be misinterpreted, for things to devolve to name-calling, hyperbole, and insults, instead of the small i internet we started out with. John D. Cook writes,

Trying to please too wide and too critical an audience leads to defensive, colorless writing. You’ll never use an allusion for fear that someone won’t catch it. You’ll never use hyperbole for fear that some hyper-literalist will object. You’ll never leave a qualification implicit for fear that someone will pounce on it.

Also, the more people that you imprint on, the more your permanent internet presence becomes a liability rather than an asset. 

danah boyd has previously called this idea context collapse, or the idea that different parts of your life are constantly together at the same time. For example, in real life, you normally wouldn’t interact with your boss, your mom, your English lit professor, and the CEO of a major company all at the same time. You do on Twitter

So, instead of something nuanced and smart, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek tweet about a three-billion dollar company hiring five people to fix the internet And, naturally, a couple hours later as happens quite frequently on today’s internet, the person who the sub-tweet was about saw the tweet.

I’ve written about this idea previously, that the public internet is a liminal space

Railroad stations are liminal spaces, physical places that are places of transition as opposed to places of purpose (i.e. home, work, coffee shops, etc.). You’re not entirely in one place, but not entirely in the next. As such, they’re places of immense ambiguity for humans, where the rules might not necessarily apply. 

...

Anyway, how this relates to tech today is that we have a ton of liminal places popping up that we haven’t defined as such, and, as a result, we have a problem of not knowing how to deal with them. 

The problem with these spaces is that you can say something that becomes completely misinterpreted, or even a little controversial, and you could get mobbed, fired, doxxed, or worse. 

Basically, I have come to realize that I could be saying something wrong at any time that gets me cancelled.  Because of how many followers I have, I now probably have followers at most of the large tech companies and across a wide range of political and social beliefs. Is it ok to make jokes about X or Y?  Is it ok to complain about something I’m working on? How much is ok to share about my daughter, who is now 5? How careful do I have to be about my location? What are the issues I need to avoid tweeting about today? 

The other thing that happens when you gain a lot of followers, or tweet something that becomes popular, is that all of your tweets are now a platform.  Instead of replies being personal to you, they become a water cooler  where people can congregate and discuss and give their own interpretation of whatever you’ve talked about, about you personally, or about their pet issues. 

Fortunately, this has only ever happened to me with technical topics, which is mostly what I stick to, but it’s still very frustrating when it does happen. 

Because of  the sum of all these phenomena, I find myself self-censoring and not tweeting about the things I really want to talk about, which, as a writer, is pure torture. 

All of these are things I’m weighing in my head every time my finger hovers above the tweet button, and I think what sometimes comes out is that my latest tweets are devoid of my actual personality, and have assumed some parameters in the space where it’s “safe” to play.  I have become Gaga. 

We are all Gaga

Up past a certain number of followers, Twitter starts to become noise not only for you, but for your followers too. How many good opinions are we not getting because people are self-censoring, or don’t want to deal with the blowback from stating specific truths? 

It doesn’t even have to be anything political or controversial. It can be something as simple as stating, “I like dogs,”  to which someone, of course, will reply, “But you didn’t say anything about cats. How can we leave them out? Are you against cats?” And someone else will chime in about parrots. Someone else will say, “I had a dog once, worst dog in the worst, absolutely terrible.” Someone else will, for no apparent reason, post a picture of a dolphin. A brand might come in and try to sell you dog food. 

Ultimately what happens is that each tweet needs to have some sort of disclaimer. 

I’ve seen a number of different tweets about this idea recently: 

People, this is no way to discourse online. 

In previous generations, our gaffes, misconceptions, logical fallacies, typos, and goofs were confined to being told as family stories for years to come. Now, regardless of the size of our social networks,  they can travel all the way from today’s tweet,  to our boss,  two bosses from now into the future.  

But because of the large-scale and liminal nature of current, big networks, everything about us is kept in a permanent record that we aren’t at liberty to modify. We are all in danger of becoming the Milkshake Duck, even if we don’t realize it. 

What will Gaga do next? 

There are no rules about this stuff, no case studies, no guidelines.  We’re still 10 years into a never-ending sociological experiment about what it means to be human under a pressure-filled microscope in an age of scale. But for Twitter specifically, here are some things I see people doing to mitigate the effects of this Gagaization: 

  • Soft-blocking

  • Closing their DMs so that random people can’t contact them directly (the problem Keybase had)

  • Setting their tweets to autodelete so that people don’t dig in their history of controversial tweets

  • Changing their avatars in some cases

  • Having a second, locked profile that they use for their “real” opinions

  • Adding modifiers to make their tweets less incendiary (“I don’t know who needs to hear this, but…”)

These all suck. 

Ultimately, the only way out of this is to reclaim Dunbar’s number, which means smaller social networks that have more context, more support, less ability for more controversial thoughts to get out into the public. There is, it seems, no good way to think out loud in public today. Google was going in the right direction with Circles, but it was an idea too early and too ill-implemented for its time

The second way people are turning to “small i internet” is chat groups. Facebook and Twitter have become extremely noisy. Where they’ve failed, Telegram, Slack, Whatsapp, and iMessage have stepped in.

They’re an outright replacement for the defining mode of social organization of the past decade: the platform-centric, feed-based social network. For me, at least, group chats aren’t the new AIM. They’re the new Facebook.

Since 2016, I’ve been pulling friends off of Facebook and into small chat groups. These chat groups are a delight for me, a treat, a chance for real interaction with live humans instead of algorithms. I can talk to people directly without worry that something I say will go viral. I have room to think, to feel, to share personal information, quickly - all things the internet was originally designed for.

As the private conversations become more meaningful, the public ones become more and more anodyne and extreme. What gets lost is nuance, and the context-full discussions we need to have to make sense of the world, since we’re all CEOs now

The other way is for big accounts to show grace when things happen. Ultimately, it’s the only way forward, but it requires an enormous shift in thinking and reaction that the big platforms don’t incentivize. 

I think, in general, we need to incentivize people to be nice and to be aware of context collapse, even as we all participate in it.  And maybe to watch the Gaga “Edge of Glory” video again, a couple of times, and think about what This All Means. 

What I’m reading lately: 

  1. How are there this many different McDonald’s?

  2. Feature stores for ML:

  3. Apple and the new cloud


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The Author:
I’m a data scientist. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.