An investigation into the joy and pain of fitting in: With this series, we’re exploring the pathologies, hierarchies, and quirks of female socialization from high school to the workplace and beyond.
“How did people even measure popularity before social media?” I asked idly while a friend was cropping a selfie for Instagram. “They didn’t,” she replied. As she refreshed the app to watch the first wave of “likes” roll in, I felt a stab of nostalgia. Remember when popularity wasn’t quantifiable? Remember when “trends” were subjective, before there were algorithms to calculate them by analyzing words typed into search engines and shared Facebook posts? I miss the days when the most stressful thing about popularity was the sheer uncertainty of the whole enterprise. Back when popularity was cool and aloof, identifiable only by the feelings of desire, envy, and yearning experienced by those who looked upon it.
Today, there is no mystery. The metrics of popularity are pervasive and unavoidable. News stories, video clips, music playlists — everything comes with view counts, share counts, and crowdsourced ratings. If you look up an address on Google, you see a rating of the location. (My subway stop has 3.9 stars.) If you order dinner on Seamless, you’ll see tabulations of popularity and quality. (If a two-star sushi spot has been rated a thousand times and is still in business, it can’t be that bad, right?) If you add a new contact to your phone, Facebook will announce how much social overlap you have. Some messaging apps even force you to confront the mechanics of popularity head-on — Snapchat compares how much you message you friends, versus how much they message you, and assigns heart and side-eye emoji to your contact list accordingly.
For a while, “popular on social media” was an oxymoron — anyone who cared enough to build a “following” online was, by definition, a loser in real life. But as our digital lives merged with our “real” ones, so did the two forms of popularity. They aren’t one and the same — not yet — but digital popularity has at least enough currency to alter social dynamics in every other medium and space. Dating apps encourage users to link to their social-media profiles. (Some, like Raya, actually use your social-media footprint to determine if you’re cool enough to join.) Social-media popularity can influence hiring, particularly in fields where marketing, publicity, or “getting the word out” matter. At parties, there is often a tacit understanding of whose social-media following is weapons-grade, and whose is just normal, and guests alter picture-posing practices according to how much public exposure they can handle.
Or, in some cases, how much public exposure they crave. There is a direct correlation between the number of people at a party whose names have appeared next to the word “influencer,” and the likelihood of fremdscham, the German term for vicarious embarrassment for those who lack shame. I have attended events where the flash of a phone’s camera turns otherwise rational adults into overeager strivers, dashing across the room to join group photos, shout-spelling their Instagram handles over the din.
Social climbing is simultaneously more humiliating and more boring than ever before. Humiliating, because it’s not enough to crash the party, you also have to charge up your LuMee and strike poses that will look cute online but make you look like a total jackass in person. (In my day, if you wanted your picture taken at a party, you had to interact with the party to lure a photographer. Gate-crashers mingled!) And boring, because the juiciest acts of social climbing have sort of been eliminated. Forget sleeping your way to the top, nobody even flirts their way to the top anymore. They just slide into DMs, an act that is admirably democratic, impressively efficient, and utterly dull. There’s no artistry to, “I sent him a picture of my ass and now I’m on the guest list.” I know this because my boyfriend has the same name as a popular Scandinavian DJ, and the DMs are wild — and coming from a wider age demographic than I would have guessed. You’re never too old to squat in front of a mirror and take a picture to send to a stranger, it seems. The result is the worst kind of eternal youth: all the social posturing of adolescents, with none of the carefree abandon.
Metrics are the death of aesthetics. Now that we can quantify popularity, we can also calculate its trajectories and predict its patterns — popularity is science, not art. And, increasingly, it is work, not play. People talk about popularity the same way they talk about money: Metaphorically, anyone can be “rich,” but we also know how to quantify social riches in numbers, and the type of work that makes the numbers go up — the acquaintances who can bestow popularity, the #Follow4Follow labor that improves it, the bots you can hire to imitate it.
Of course, every method for improving digital popularity has an analog in the, ahem, analog world. Since time immemorial, strivers have been kissing up to the prom queen; glad-handing strangers; and hiring claques to astroturf applause. (And some timeless strivers do all of the above, like a certain popular Twitter user who brought a claque to his first meeting with the CIA. President Trump’s obsession with the metrics of popularity is so great that it may actually replace his superego.) But the real problem seems to be one of knowledge: Not knowing where you stand induces anxiety, but it can also inspire optimism. If you’re not sure whether anyone sees you and thinks of the heart-eyes emoji, you can maintain the belief that the answer is, many people’s eyes turn into hearts when they see me. Back in the day of indefinite popularity, the most magical moments were always when a person who thought herself forgettable suddenly realized that she was loved by many — that time-honored teen-movie fantasy.
When the relative popularity of a person, place, or thing is public knowledge, though, discretion becomes a charade. There used to be real power in refusing to acknowledge social power. Popularity was contemplated only in private; it was a gnawing fear on a lonely night, a plan hatched while standing against the wall at a party, a secret smugness enjoyed while withholding RSVPs. It was a true social construct, elastic enough to accommodate thrilling tricks of confidence: Nobodies who performed their unpopularity with enigmatic haughtiness could be rewarded with real popularity. When there’s no scorecard, everyone is one play away from running the table, and no one can track exactly how it happened. Even those who possessed the powers or popularity did not always understand how they acquired it, or why, much less how to defend it — which is precisely why it was so terrifying and magnificent.