This week GQ profiled a fellow named Jake Novak. You may be familiar with his work. Last June he released a TikTok pitching himself to Lorne Michaels as an SNL cast member. He made this pitch through the magic of rhythm and rhyme and was roundly pilloried for it. As Novak explains in the profile, a Vulture interview last August, and a CNN op-ed this past June, his video inspired a harassment campaign that drove him off the platform and infiltrated his daily life, where strangers filmed him at his Disneyland day job and sent threatening messages to his friends and coworkers. He eventually returned to content creation earlier this year, but the specter of his experience still haunts him. He feels paranoid in public and anxious about what might be happening online. “It's like, how many people out there know who I am, and if they do know who I am, what is their opinion of me?" he asks in the GQ profile. "Maybe they like me, but they also could think I'm a joke or really want me to die.”
All three of the above pieces make cogent arguments that online harassment campaigns are unacceptable and dangerous, and that social media platforms must take a heavier hand in preventing them. For obvious reasons I agree with these arguments. At the same time, it seems to me that Novak and his profilers are conspicuously avoiding an important part of the story: that his video was not good. It was bad in both concept and execution. I do not say this to suggest he deserved or asked for what he got. It is no great crime to make a bad comedy video. But there is a category error in a discussion that groups him, as GQ does, with “West Elm Caleb,” “Star Wars Kid,” and others “publicly excoriated after going viral for behavior shorn from context.” Novak did not go viral for behavior shorn from context; he went viral trying to go viral. An honest assessment of what happened to him and why it matters should start by recognizing his “audition” for what it was: a naked plea to be made famous.
This is no great crime either. Lots of people ask to be made famous every day. It takes only a little self-awareness to understand that the proper way to make this request is by producing quality work. The meritocracy may be a myth, but at the end of the day most people in show business are trying to make good art in a system that only occasionally rewards it. One offers basic respect for one’s fellow artists—and for one’s art—by at least attempting to bring something interesting to the table. To ask for the end without the means is not only bad etiquette, it is self-defeating. Unlike solo content creation, television is a collaborative effort. If you want people to want to work with you, you’d best present yourself as someone who cares about the work.
It often seems to me that people in Novak’s position don’t understand the magnitude of what they’re after. Fame—by which I mean popular recognition, but also access to mass media platforms and their resources—is a form of power, and like all forms of power it is inequitably distributed. Whether you get it has very little to do with whether you deserve it. How much people like you, how much other people want to commodify you—the work itself is only one small factor in these calculations. It is also the only factor an artist can truly control. This leaves them with one real choice: between making what they think is good and making what they think everyone else will like. Between art as a discipline, in other words, and art as a means of self-advancement.
Everyone is free to choose the latter. Clearly many do. Perhaps it’s often the rational choice in a world where art is so closely interlinked with commerce. One should make it with the understanding, however, that their choice is cynical, and the longer they make it, the more likely they are to encounter people who treat them cynically.
Me, for instance. The longer I write and think about famous people, the more fame strikes me as a terrible elemental force. The bargain is attractive enough: you give up a little piece of yourself in exchange for a certain level of freedom. But this is only the beginning. That piece of you becomes an idea, and that idea gets divided among thousands or millions of people’s imaginations. They will do whatever they want with this idea. It’s theirs, now, not yours. As it spreads farther, it will become more abstracted. There will be very little about it that is real. Sooner or later it will inspire shocking things. This is inevitable, a matter of numbers. People will transform the idea into obsessions, hatreds. They will go to great and shameful lengths in its service. The idea of you will be an idea of themselves, of how they ought to live. You will have no control over this. If you are lucky, by this point you will exist in a wholly different world than them. They will be invisible to you, outnumbered anyway by the ones who don’t do anything so disturbing—just spend vast amounts of their own lives thinking about you and yours. The life of a stranger, their imaginary friend.
None of this will be your responsibility. It’s not your fault some people are maladjusted, uncared for, driven to antisocial behavior. You didn’t make them do anything, they would have idolized someone else if you weren’t there. And yet—you did make the trade. You did give up that piece of yourself to whoever wanted it. Maybe you were only trying to be a little famous, just enough to make the art you dreamed of making, which has enriched so many lives. Fame doesn’t care. It’s all part of the trade. There’s only one domino in your reach and you already tipped it. None of this is fair to you either. That’s what makes the bargain so terrible. Most people can only dream of what you have—control over your own life. But they can hardly understand the forces you’ve given yourself over to; you don’t even understand them. And these are forces no person can control.
Humorism is reader-supported. If you like this post, please consider upgrading your subscription.
I propose that there are two respectable attitudes towards fame: one, wanting nothing to do with it, and two, viewing it as an unfortunate side effect of one’s work, which one must constantly endeavor to mitigate.
The problem, as Jake Novak's story reveals, is that platforms incentivize the unrespectable attitude. They require a constant churn of content that can only possibly regress towards the naked pursuit of virality. Then they reward this pursuit with what I will call naked fame. In return for the diligent production of viral garbage, creators like Novak win all the attention we associate with stardom and none of the material benefits: the money and security and institutional support mechanisms that theoretically insulate you from the gawkers showing up at your job, the scary emails to your friends and family. Novak got a crash course in celebrity, from the demented online comments to the constant anxiety about going out in public. He just didn’t get the parts that supposedly make those things worthwhile. Again, I’m not saying he deserved it—no one does. That’s why it’s important to recognize that this thing nobody deserves is an intrinsic part of this other thing everyone wants.
I will admit that I approach this from my own experience as someone who attained extremely minor online notoriety. I don’t want to get into it here, but let’s just say I have some working knowledge of the appeal and the detriments. My theory is that the human brain is only capable of handling a large village’s worth of attention, maybe a midsize town. Anything more than that and it starts eroding. Attention makes everything you say more consequential, and at a certain point you can’t account for the consequences. There are just too many people. The compromises it takes to care about some and not others—these things chip away at you. A degree of humanity is lost. Certainly there are those who can handle this, but I don’t think anyone can really know in advance if they're one of the few.
Probably the inverse is true as well. My brain is full of people I have no business knowing about. They have names like “Jake Novak” and “Try Guys” and “The McElroy Brothers.” There is no earthly reason for their lives to concern me. It’s bad for us both that I know anything about them, let alone the personal affairs of comedians I like or strangers I follow on Twitter. None of us are winners here. But perhaps we would not lose quite so much if we all had a healthy fear of getting what we ask for.