Beware of Pedestals in the Attention Economy

The Devil's Horns

Danah Boyd wrote a fantastic post last week about Internet fame and its negative impact on individuals. It is easy to buy into the rock star kool aid when people frequently sing your accolades (and fallacies) online and at events, especially when popularity is valued by society as an achievement. But accepting a pedestal as an individual, and viewing a personality in a higher light presents numerous difficulties, many of which are hard to surmount for those who don’t expect to ever receive such accolades.

As the attention economy strengthens, we have failed to provide a balanced view of attention, and how to truly address it. The Boyd post talks about Kiki Kannibal’s trials and objectifcation as a teen Internet celeb, and then Boyd’s own experiences. Having had a turn at microfame, it is easy to identify with Boyd’s comments.

When Now Is Gone came out in 2007, there were so many people saying how great it was, touting the accomplishment of publishing a book, and me as the author (please forgive the rare digression into first person). The lavished perception of brilliance was intoxicating. My wife Caitlin wanted to kill me, and this was the beginning of a long year of difficulties that almost cost us our marriage. Fortunately, we worked things out.

Looking back, I had a timely intervention just weeks after the book came out at the hands of the Fairfax County Police. It came in the form of my third reckless speeding ticket in six months. Speeding to make appointments and work tasks seemed necessary because I was so busy (and important) in my own mind. Virginia DMV had a different take, and felt it would be better if I didn’t drive at all for three months, and suspended my driver’s license.

Employees drove me to appointments, and I spent many, many hours in the DC Metro system. It was virtually impossible to think I was a hot shit personality while I took the bus and metro to meetings. Big blogger boy on the back of the bus. Yeah.

This forced humility was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. As the attention continued, the license suspension reminded me not to take it seriously. And when people became overzealous, I pointed out that I put my pants on one leg at a time, just like they did. Later in 2008, I did a stint of volunteer service at Alexandria County jail; again, a great reminder of where I could be if my self centered speeding and possibly worse manifestations of selfishness had continued. But for the grace of God, as they say.

Applied to the Larger Attention Economy

It has been hard watching several peers succumb to the big Internet influencer hype, a result of the attention economy. Perhaps my reaction has been stronger and more severe than most, partly because I knew these people before they assumed their pedestals, and partly because I see the worst in me when their behavior takes a more ego-centric bend. Truthfully, it scares the crap out of me.

So many of these so called rock stars have fallible sides which we don’t see, or turn a blind eye towards. This is no different than the recent difficulties Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lance Armstrong are experiencing in the larger public limelight. These two men have done great things, but because we put them on and they accepted such high pedestals, their very flawed defects have decimated public trust.

We need to be careful about turning great acts into great myths and legends. Our culture creates unsustainable images that cannot help but disillusion and disappoint both the people who assume these pedestals and their fans. There are no social media Gods, but there are illusions that can cause us to become distracted and lose months, even years of time chasing things that don’t really matter.

In the end, it is our actions that make us noteworthy as people, both good and bad. Greatness is a daily act. So is failure. In an attention economy you can live on a success for a long time, but sooner or later, you have to do something else worthwhile. We have an equal opportunity to do good or act poorly every day, and in fact, rare is the person who isn’t human and doesn’t do a bit of both. That’s why it’s important to beware of pedestals.


  • Geoff, what you’re talking about here is the hardest thing– and the most important over the course of a lifetime.  Nice post. 

  • In the late 90’s, a friend had his 15 minutes of Rock Star fame when he immediately had Clinton & Monica t-shirts for sale on the (then, very young) Web once the news broke. It completely went to his head, and once the spotlight went out (it was more like a camera flash), he was the most miserable I ever knew him to be. As a friend, I wish his momentary stardom never happened. About three years ago, he jumped to his death. No doubt he had other issues, but I’m confident his Rock Stardom played a part. 
    I applaud your back of the bus candor and your keeping your feet down here on the Common Ground with us riffraff. That said, the Fifth Estate has been an awesome read so far! As I’ve been reading, multiple questions have arisen that you somehow amazingly answer in the subsequent paragraph. Thanks Hombre.

    • I am one of the riffraff!  But I am very sorry to hear about your friend.  This stuff is so blown out of proportion, it’s frightening.  Reality is perception, but if perception of goodness is fame, then we are in deep dog doo.

      Thanks for the props on the Fifth Estate.  That book includes another 4 years of hard experience that Now did not benefit from. I worked my but off in social media, and I hope this book reflects some of those lessons learned, and is valuable. 



  • It would seem to me that there is a difference between being placed on a pedestal and “assuming” their pedestal.  You’ve didn’t earn to be on a pedestal…but you did earn the idea of being viewed as a thought leader when it comes to social media.  The “newness” of and the social nature of social media is what ended up creating these pedestals.  And those that are on these pedestals usually got placed there by others.  It’s how one responds that makes the difference.

    • Interesting choice of words, “didn’t earn.”  I would argue I did earn it because I worked my ass off with actual work, and shared those experiences. I continue to do so. My motive is very business centric (credibility with clients), and a personal commitment to fostering excellence within my profession. 

      But once you get credibility and reputation, it’s how you handle it. Choosing not to believe the accolades beyond acknowledgement of past work is simply realistic, IMO, a painful realism also earned through experiences and error as discussed in the post.

      I would also argue that we will see more internet famous people, not less as time continues.  We seem to be heading towards a pop culture, not a culture based on meritocracy…  I hope I’m wrong about that.

      Thank you for your comment, Jonathan.

      • My bad and apologies for the context of the words “didn’t earn”.  My point wasn’t that you weren’t deserving…you were and are…it was that people are placed on pedestals by others more so that specifically earning it themselves.  Strictly that.  

  • I have been watching all of this “social media celebrity” stuff for years. You summed it up nicely. Thanks for this.

    • We only have our experiences to share. This is just one lens.  I’m sure others have their own views.

  •  Interesting perspective that it’s not all the responsibility of the pedestal-sitter; that we, the adoring wannabes, have some responsibility too.

    • Anyone can succeed, wannabe is a position for someone who is currently committed to working towards success.  But it takes work, not admiration, to make it.  And remember, it Always takes two to tango.

  • I love this post, Geoff. And this, my friend, is the life I try to live. Humility and grace are so important, and so oft forgotten. And while you’re not on any pedestals in my world, I consider you a dear friend, a big brain and someone I really and truly like. Your accomplishments are terrific, but it’s what you have – and are – inside that I like the most.

    And one of the things I most admire about you, my friend, is that you routinely stop and take stock of yourself and your actions – then you periodically say something like, “this makes me see the ugly side of me and I don’t like it – and I will change that – or at least try to, on a regular basis.” Or something along those lines. That is rare. And part of a process of regular self-reflection that is a crucial element of keeping it real. And I think the important message is always about keeping it real.

    No one is superior – we all put our pants on one leg at a time.

    Thanks for a delightful post – and for sharing that part of you that I like the best.



    • Kramer, learn how to do HTML.

      Other than that, you rock. ;-) 

      • Look you asshatish social media ninja, it was an accident! And I already fixed it. Gah.

      • If its any conciliation to Goeff, I had no idea (sill kinda dont) who you are until Danny’s (or was it Gini’s?) blog post linked back to you. 
        But I like some of the writing you do so I visit with you every once in a while. Dont get you panties in an up roar…I visit many blogs, no need to get excited :-)

        Hey Danny, is Geoff a punk? 

    • Thank you, Shelly.  BSM, before social media, I learned that I was my own worst enemy.  The only way to become a better person was through regular inventory and sharing that with trusted advisors.  By clearing the air, and then learning to trust the greater forces at play, my life has gotten better and better through the years and now the decades. All great spiritual disciplines stress the importance of reflection and meditation, and I hope to one day be able to spend more time in this exercise. 

      Living is a meditation. It is a working meditation. So is parenting.  We must be present, and it is a choice to focus on these things in a mindful fashion and seek maximum impact in the moment. I see these thoughts as synonamous with the larger issue at hand.  This fame stuff is yet another distraction from living. Truly living.

      Thank you for your support.

  •  “It has been hard watching several peers succumb to the big Internet influencer hype, a result of the attention economy. Perhaps my reaction has been stronger and more severe than most, partly because I knew these people before they assumed their pedestals, and partly because I see the worst in me when their behavior takes a more ego-centric bend. ”

    This resonated with me, a lot.  I’ve had to distance myself from a few people that I’d considered friends (you know, people that I share an emotional connection and trust bond with, on things other than ‘transparency and authenticity’), as they apparently wander further and further into their egos.  I try to behave with compassion, and consider that we all do whats best for ourselves at the time, but that doesn’t mean I need to read all about it on my assorted feeds.

    Whenever we as people assign numbers to others, its very easy for our minds to define others value based on those numbers.  It’s how our pattern-seeking brains work.  Twitter then comes like high school.

    Don’t be a Mean Girl (or for you 80s children out there, don’t be a Heather.)

    • Thanks, Jeremy. I have watched you, and could tell you were having a hard time with it. I identify.  We can always hope these people will come back to us so to speak. And if not, let them be a lesson to us. I think I’ve finally got to the point where I can shake my head, and simply walk away.

      • Creepy! Yes at this point its been more interesting to me to refilter how i experience my internet feeds, focusing less on marketing/pr/SM people (smart or not), and more on people who are creating things other than marketing tactics.  My stream contains many more authors, content development folks, storytellers, showrunners, creative people.   My experience on Twitter is so, SO much richer than when it was filled with “what does x mean for facebook” “you have to be authentic and transparent” and “brand #epicfail because they didn’t give me free crap cause i complained” stuff.

        Those who remain (many of whom i see checking in on this post), keep doing what you’re doing.

    • I’m right there with Jeremy, and he and I have talked about this a little bit. I, too, have seen this happen firsthand with people I once considered “friends,” but I think what was more bothersome to me was that I saw people I knew IRL continuously contribute to the circle jerk and fawn over whatever Person With A Blog On a Pedestal was the flavor of the week. It’s just downright ridiculous.

      I’ve worked behind the scenes in the entertainment industry off and on for a dozen years, and have come in close contact with many real, ACTUAL rock stars and celebrities of similar “real fame” nature, as in, have been on MTV, etc. I’ve never been one to get star struck, because they’re people first and artists second. They all usually appreciate that, and some have become real friends, in the definition Jeremy gives above. So, maybe because I’m used to seeing actual “fan boy/girl” behavior around real, literal rock stars I’m able to see the forest for the trees a little clearer. Regardless, it just seemed absolutely ridiculous to me that people should act in similar ways about a person who happens to have a blog and maybe a book. I understand highly admiring and respecting people, but the behavior I saw, online and off, was enough to disgust me to the point of just walking away.

  • Super post. As I always tell my students when lecturing, “There is no glory in being an expert. An EX is a has-been and a SPERT is a drip of water. Aspire to be a beginner. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind, there are few.”

    • LOL, we only have experience. But things change quickly so, it is never good to rest on your laurels.  Your students are lucky to have you!

  • Geoff- Shelly pointed this article out. I have not had the pleasure of meeting you IRL, but must say I have more respect for your work, and you, based on reading this. The pseudo-celeb situation now really has me just one thing…..tired. Lots of people THINKING that they are great things, instead of focusing on DOING great things. Thanks for summing it up so well.

    • We’re all human. I wish we could simply put the conversation on to our acts rather than us. Thanks for coming by, Jeff!

  • The greatest people are the ones that do great things and no-one knows about it, except those that have benefited.

    I don’t need you to tell me you’re great; I’ll make that distinction myself. Often, you’re anything but.

    Great stuff, sir, as always.

    • That reminds of something Denis Waitley said in Psychology of Winning. Rarely are winners famous and rarely are famous people winners. He also noted winners are caught in the act of winning, that the media finds them, rather than them finding the media.

  • Geoff, may I call you Geoff?

    Pure, WOW! Nowadays it’s so easy to have our ego fueled and fanned by FB likes, Twitter followers, 4sq friends, people who look at our instagram, etc. But fame or ‘rock star’ status can be ever so fleeting that the pursuit of it can, as you tasted, be quite bitter.

    The growing need for outward validation is tricking down to our youth. We see it every day. When their parents are no longer happy with being good people and doing good work, but rather chase or seek fame/infamy/notoriety the message that our self-worth is set by others become very powerful.

    There’s a big difference between being confident and being cocky. For many though, these words are more synonym than intended. I think the only kool-aid we should be drinking from is a big jug of humility.

    Appreciate your sharing your insight and creating a space for conversation.


    • Good point on today’s youth. As a new parent, I am very aware of this. I feel like I may have a bit of a leg up because both of my parents were somewhat famous, at least within their professions. Neither of them really took it too seriously. I hope I can pass that on.

       I think confidence and cockiness can be a fine line at times, and many mistake one for the other.  In the end, it’s probably best to focus on ourselves. It’s kind of like getting mad at the guy who flips you off in traffic then speeds away.  He’ll never really know or care that you’re mad.

      Thank you for a thoughtful comment, Sara.

  • This is exactly what Danah’s post brought to mind. It’s such an easy trap to fall into. On the one hand, if you want to be successful, you have to promote yourself, whether you do it on your own or you hire someone. On the other hand, if you buy into the “poo don’t stink” perceptions others may have of you, the crash landing from that pedestal is hard indeed. 

    We were just talking about this at a workshop: it’s not about you as a business owner. It’s about the people you’re serving up solutions to, whether that’s in the form of a blog post or a product or a service. 
    This post is a wonderful warning from a person who has been there – we need more of these.PS- I like your first person. It doesn’t come off as self-centered or arrogant, just honest and direct.

    • It is a tightrope, but as you said if you keep a service attitude, an attitude to help those you are working with!  It works. It really does!

      I hear you on the first person, but I’d rather save it for the rare post and comments.  I really enjoy writing in the third person a bit more, and it keeps me honest ;)

      Thank you for your readership and support, Tinu!

  • Jesus, Geoff.  You eloquently and succinctly nailed the A-Lister Syndrome on the head.  On target, well-written and dead right.  And keep those pictures of Soleil coming.

  • Geoff:  Thanks for pointing out Danah’s piece and for sharing your thoughts about it as it relates to social media industry influencers and pedestals – and sharing your personal story.

    Your conclusion is brilliant:

    In the end, it is our actions that make us noteworthy as people, both
    good and bad. Greatness is a daily act. So is failure. In an attention
    economy you can live on a success for a long time, but sooner or later,
    you have to do something else worthwhile. We have an equal opportunity
    to do good or act poorly every day, and in fact, rare is the person who
    isn’t human and doesn’t do a bit of both. That’s why it’s important to
    beware of pedestals.

    Why can’t the attention economy put good causes, charities, or shared learning on that pedestal?  Why does it have to be a person?

    • Good points, Beth. I’d rather focus on causes myself, as you know. Thanks for coming by!

  •  The bus/metro part got to me – as I see it all the time in LA. I thought, though, that DC was different and that many people used the mass transit system.

    And I can totally see you as a lead foot.

    • Mmm, a guy like me loses freedom when he doesn’t have his own wheels.  Thanks for coming by, Jeremy!

  • Powerful post Geoff.  When people fall prey to their own press, they do it at their peril.  Staying humble, and remembering that we “all put our pants on one leg at a time” (thanks @ShellyKramer:disqus…when/if we wear pants:) is what makes those at the top of their game admirable, and the ones that think they’re “all that and a Snickers bar” well…not made of the stuff that true greatness is.

    Another observation.  I’ve watched someone(s) who went from rags to riches in terms of popularity (ego) and pedestal pinnacle, and it wasn’t pretty.  When someone’s head doesn’t fit through a door, it’s probably time for a bit of introspection.  I’m not talking about the awesome, confident people who, tongue in cheek can “play” omnipotent king/queen…the ones who don’t take their popularity seriously…I LOVE those people!  But those whose egos are, in the words of the movie Top Gun are “writing cheques their bodies can’t cash”…not my cup of tea.

    Another observation: some of the so-called mighty also create an aura and a clique around them that makes the average person feel like they’re back in high school…not in the cool group.  I know many people who won’t comment or engage on blogs because they don’t think they’re “cool” enough, successful enough, whatever enough.  Such a shame.

    “Beware of pedestals”…great advice for those who put themselves on them and those looking up at them.  Cheers!  Kaarina

    •  I hate the High School thing. It drives me bananas. I am way too old for a permanent reunion. It was bad enough the first time.  I mean, we’re talking social media marketing right?  This is not world politics and revolutions.

      •  So true Geoff.  I love the line “I am way too old for a permanent reunion”.  Me too, my friend, me too!

  •  Sometimes I think that attention and praise are lavished only as a means to manipulate the object of that attention.  Correction:  it’s always done to manipulate the object… the intent varies.

    And yet, sometimes ego seems to be necessary, regardless of its source.  Self-confidence is a positive manifestation of ego, as long as it’s warranted.  

    It’s OK to think and act as if you are good at something.  It’s when we think that success serves to define us as a complete individual is when we run into problems.  Yes, sometimes you need that boost of confidence to take on something new and challenging.  But when you start ranking the value of other people based on their importance to you… that’s when you get into problems.  I can forgive a bit of it:  the object of attention and praise is essentially being brainwashed if they heed their own good press too closely and few of us can listen impartially to our press.

    But society’s partially to blame:  we want to celebrate heroes and larger-than-life personalities, almost as much as we like to turn the tables when their weaknesses are exposed.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Geoff.

    • It;s a fine line, though. I agree, I know I’m good at what I do, but I also have a healthy respect for change and my own fallacies. I have learned that to get comfortable is to fall behind.  Of course, we see this in all facets of life.  And I agree, society and the media is definitely to blame for this. It’s our values,a nd the stories we choose to read/watch.

      Thanks for the comment, Mark!

  • One of the things we talk about internally all the time is the concept that every, single one of us puts our pants on one leg at a time. It can be with clients or those people we perceive to be Internet celebrities, but whenever I hear someone in our office ooh and awe at another person I say, “Remember he/she puts his pants on one leg at a time.” It’s also something I think about constantly as my businesses grow and you, my friend, have permission to remind me of this blog post if I ever get too big for my britches.

    • LOL, no doubt.  I’ll always remember that email where you made the joke about holding your hair while you lost your lunch waiting for an answer.  It was funny, but so human?  We all throw up at times, and it is never pretty. Even those who think they are above it all need their hair held back or their face wiped afterwards.  Thanks for a real business owner’s perspective, Gini!

  • Insightful post Geoff, perspective is hard to come by when you are sitting on a high pedestal above the average Joes.  You have a tendency to stop learning if you believe you know it all.

    • Nice to see you, Andrea.   For those of you who don’t know, Andrea used tobe the boss of me.  Poor woman.

  • Geoff,
    I appreciate your honesty. Really. But something about this post just doesn’t sit well with me. Can’t quite come up with the right comment, though. Gonna chew on this one a bit longer…

  •  Great post man and very personal. I appreciate that. 

    I’ve never had a pedestal, i’ve been raised even close to one so I can’t say that I understand what the fall feels like. I do know that many of the web-lebrities out there are perched on very weak pedestals. 

    What really gets me are the self-proclaiming types that build their own pedal on ego and not merit. For those types, the fall will be the hardest.

  • This is an outstanding essay, Geoff. As you clearly stated, it’s really easy to let your ego take charge of your existence and give the false aura of “Big Man” invincibility once you’ve made your mark. Thank you for taking the time to vividly illustrate your own life lessons and how you brought yourself back into focus.

    All the best,

    Mike (@brightmatrix)

  •   “Want to know how much they’ll miss you when you’re gone?  Put your arm in bucket of water and remove it.  Look at the size of the hole that’s left”   Humbling parting words from an honest co-employee at a company I worked at.  It applies to Internet “hot shots” as well.   Our lasting legacy is our character—not our fame.   You’re doing great, Geoff! 

  •  Geoff, very well put. There’s nothing like having responsibility for a major project or brand to truly feel one’s (humble) place in the bigger picture. I think of my own CEO, who, when credited for the company’s turnaround, always credits the team and notes what an honor it is to serve a global icon – implying that even at his level, he’s merely passing through and is a steward of a brand that will always be bigger than any individual.

  • There’s no better elixir for getting back your humble than doing community service or riding the bus. This is the rest of the world outside the bubble. And it’s a whole lot bigger. As you say, it’s real outcomes that make a difference. And the unsung hard work is always done at the base of the pedestal. It gets a bit shaky at the top.

    As more people on the bus look to “experts” for help in using social media to get a job so their house doesn’t foreclose, or raise money for medical research to save lives, doing the real work with a focus on positive outcomes is what matters.

    Attention is fleeting for those who seek it. But it endures for those who let their work and actions do the talking, and walking on terra firma.

    Besides, you meet the most interesting people on the bus. They always teach me something.

  • Ah Geoff, what a wonderful post. Love it. Ties in neatly to the current #Kloutapocalypse, where social media types are waking to find that the world has indeed ended as promised (our scores have dropped precipitously overnight–many to 1) but not as we had imagined.  ;) Disclosure: I have whined about it too.

    I would echo what Shelly has so eloquently expressed (although I can’t claim her level of friendship–yet) and would add that I love your comment about living being a meditation.

  • I really appreciate what you’ve shared here today and find it relevant for any person out there, whether they are a SM rock star or just getting started and feeling pretty darn proud of themselves, the ego can get in the way of what is really meaningful for us, or what should be.  I think you nailed it by calling it an ‘attention economy’; that may be in existence already, I don’t know, but it definitely applies here.  Thanks again. An eye opener!

  • There’s something to be said for just doing what’s right, getting things done and living a quite peaceful life. 

    Being full of yourself is a great position to be in to learn very valuable lessons in life… When there’s little substance and only a bunch of hot-air or diluted thinking holding you up on that pedestal, there’s certain to be a loud crashing sound to everybody’s delight.

    This is a great message Geoff: let the meaning of your life be established by your actions today; good or bad, and never think more highly of yourself than you ought.

    Cheers to that sir!

  •  Humility makes you human.

  • Geoff, 

    Right as rain. Dr. Patch Adams recently said that only reason he chose his path to be a speaker and activist was because we live in a society that reward fame over intelligence or compassion or prudence. 

    What I like about him as a role model of sorts is that while he as pursued fame for the purposes of helping others, he never lets it detract from his mission. In fact, he kind of ignores it.

    The thing about pedestals is that they are manmade, which always much shakier than nature. Thanks for sharing these life lessons. And know you’re not alone; we all have plenty of tests and trials to help us find humility. 


  •  Thanks for this thoughtful post.

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