Fame-Shame Culture and Social Media

Guest Ally McGeever is the Young Women’s Engagement and Development Officer in Dublin, Ireland. This post summarizes her recent presentation as the Irish Bible Institute. 

How is fame different to honor? Both are defined by what others think of you, but fame is not conditional on others thinking highly of you, nor do those with the opinions have to be in community or relationship with you.

In this post, I want to explore how fame culture has evolved over time, and particularly how it has recently changed our relationship with shame under the influence of social media.

Fame culture has changed because of social media

If we think of fame through the 1970s-90s they hold generations of celebrities that were known about by many but not known personally by most. This exclusive celebrity culture revolved around idealised examples of ‘perfect humans’, much like the historic fame culture preserved for heroes and royalty.

Today the most famous people in the world are Youtubers, bloggers and Instagramers. They are not nearly as ubiquitously known as the celebrities of previous generations, but their fans know them much more personally. Fame has evolved from a pedestal of surreal idealism, to a relatable, constant presence that feigns connection. We have replaced the want for a king with the want to know (Niemark, 2019); fans have become followers. The most famous people today no longer promote an unattainable brand of perfectionism to be idolised, but a brand of authenticity and relatability. They are marketing a sense of relationship by sharing everything about their life, from what they had for breakfast to announcing that they are pregnant. The market is built on the optional one-way nature of public social media accounts, allowing followers to be in someone’s personal life without the interaction that risks shame. The direction of fame has changed, from looking up to looking in.

The reason for this sudden shift in fame culture is a direct consequence of social media. But it is also reflective of, and reactive to, how honor culture has changed in recent decades.

Social media replaces community with audience

In the past, honor could be (simplistically) defined by how well the people in your community thought of you. With the rise of individualism and independence, our communities have become smaller, reducing the size of our honor feedback network. This can cause significant anxiety because it disrupts the risk of shame. What was once the fear of one in 20 people thinking badly of you in a larger co-dependent community, can now be one in four in the small network of relationships of a relatively independent lifestyle. One way to reduce this risk is to broaden your social feedback network by supplementing (or even replacing) your community with an audience, listening to the feedback of many people who are not necessarily in relationship with you, instead of being reliant on the feedback from a small group of people who know you. Social media offers us an audience to replace community, and a convenient array metrics too quantify honor/shame feedback (likes, comments, shares, etc). Replacing community with audience has replaced the role honor with fame and the practice of relationship with performance.

There are several consequences to this:

  1. We lose connection from community members that are not part of the audience we are measuring honor (now fame) feedback from. This has particularly eroded the important role of intergenerational feedback as the social media platforms have different age demographics. Many people have relationships with relatives and friends who are not on social media to feedback to us in the metrics we pay attention to.
  2. We increase connection with audience members who know us, but are not in active community or relationship with us (eg. Past college friends, friends of friends).
  3. And we connect to audience members who do not know us at all.

Social media increases our risk of shame

Ironically, the consequence of these three factors is an increased risk of shame because you are taking feedback from people who know you less and therefore can judge you more. Here are just a few ways that replacing community with audience increases the risk of shame on social media:

  • Anonymity: by not having to risk ‘losing face’, anonymous and pseudonym accounts can shame others more freely, harshly and irrationally without being accountable to taking any feedback upon themselves.
  • Trolls: social media space has allowed individuals to strategically search out and antagonise individuals that hold opposing views, craving attention by provoking anger, hurt and/or fear in another
  • Not face to face: with the removal of facial expressions and body language that may enhance empathy, it is easier to call each other out and shame one another on social media than in real life
  • Instant/ reactive: social media encourages a very reactive space, reducing capacity for reflection and careful responses. This can perpetuate reactive shaming in a perishable environment, compared to the more measured criticism that might come from a long-term personal relationship.
  • Poor monitoring authority: shaming can happen more easily due to little to no fear of consequence due to the administrative barriers and low effectiveness of reporting offensive behaviour
  • Cancel/outrage culture: these cultures refer to single-topic ‘relationships’ where an individual’s merit or worth is shamed through public call out to the extent of social obliteration (that can have significant personal and professional fallout) according to the trends in values of the social media populous (read more about the impact of this in Russel, 2016).

The different forms of social media shame are diverse, some highly justified and consistent with the values of real life society, others exclusive to virtual etiquette and others seemingly trivial but still effective in evoking feelings of deep personal shame. The specific risks will be determined by the audience demographics and personal brand of each account. Here are just a few examples of topical social media shame risks:

  • Coffee—To much bemusement, the subject of coffee has become a multi-faceted flash point for social media shame. One can unwittingly provoke shame feedback by sharing a post where they are holding a disposable cup, intergenerational shaming can be provoked by the perception older people have of irresponsible spending habits of millennials, and a thriving online community of ‘coffee snobs’ can call you out for your poor taste in the type of coffee you drink. In short, caffeinated social media posts are high risk these days.
  • Travel—The value systems of tourism are also dynamic, complex and high risk for shame feedback. One can be shamed for not traveling enough, for traveling too much and damaging the environment, for traveling in a way that is perceived as culturally insensitive or socially unjust, or traveling in a way that is perceived as unoriginal and too mainstream.
  • Global crises—There is a constant threat of shame and guilt being perpetuated on social media in relation to environmental and human right crises, with the social media audience highlighting the unconscious ways one is perpetuating these disasters and personalising one’s responsibility for our unjust and endangered world.

 Shame ‘immunity’ through the personal brand

In this high risk environment, social media makes us deeply aware of the space between how we see ourselves and how others see us. One way to respond to the high shame environment is to create shame ‘immunity’ through the personal brand (Rosario, 2015). This means you can maintain your honor and avoid shame by curating the perfect presentation of yourself by selectively sharing content that perpetuates positive fame and minimises exposure to shame. This is a direct reaction to replacing community with audience, becoming more performative in our behaviour, and less authentically relational. The cost is reduced connection with self and others as you must live up to your personal brand in the overlap of virtual and physical social spaces, and interact with others who are also presenting a brand instead of authentic self. This results in less authenticity, reduced depth of relationship and rising social anxiety.

Further Reading:

Reflection Questions:

  • How would you communicate the Gospel message to a culture that no longer wants a king/hero, but wants to know someone personally free from risk of shame?
  • What challenges could the personal branding phenomenon pose in our faith community, relationships and personal prayer life?
  • Compare and contrast how ministry can serve desires for both community and audience?

resources for Majority World ministry

5 Comments on “Fame-Shame Culture and Social Media

  1. I really appreciate what was shared here. I’d love to read a discussion on possible answers to her questions.

    I have one request: Could you edit her post to replace “loose” with “lose”? She a couple of times refers to “loosing” something when it should be “losing.” I’d love to share the post but some who are sticklers for detail might discredit her logic and research because of incorrect grammar usage. 🙁

  2. I like the insights you’ve shared. They help to make sense of the way social media is being used. I also like the questions you have asked – very helpful for thinking through how to communicate the Good News in our contemporary context.

  3. Fantastic post. There has been a noticeable shift in American culture (my own home culture) that reflects a move by degrees away from the Law/Justice worldview. I have had discussions about worldview and have posed the same examples of the power of shaming that is being used in media to effect change—for better or worse is up for debate depending on who is shamed and for what. I have thought that those incremental changes are towards Honor/Shame, but Fame/Shame really captures what is happening in the western world quite well.
    I love the questions for reflection. Where are these being discussed in earnest? That would be a worthwhile discussion.
    Thanks for posting.

  4. Great post, showing how the mania for authenticity self-destructs into sham via social media. One way of introducing the gospel in this context is to say that we have a better route to authenticity.

    The social media route assumes that the brand creator already knows what their ideal self is, and they create a brand to approximate that idea in their heads. The gospel says the opposite. Though we have Jesus as a model, we don’t know in advance exactly what our ideal self will look like since the Spirit works differently in each of us.

    We discover our personal ideal self as the Spirit continually works on us at inner levels that are too deep for us to touch directly. As deep level changes gradually surface in our feelings and conduct, to us they are more discoveries than achievements, and when we talk about them, we are celebrating authentic, deep change not pretending anything. Neither are we “performing” or boasting. We are the real deal–real children of the Real God. Sounds like good news to me!

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