#EverythingGetsAThumbsUp: How Avidity Has Overtaken American Culture
An oh-so-brief and intentionally broad characterization of American life in these times of the Avidity Epidemic.
The Illusion of Celebrity
The second precursor of the Avidity Epidemic was reality television. At the same time hip- hop artists were detailing their personal exploits with unbridled ardor, culture’s more widespread love affair with avidity found one of its truest manifestations in reality television, the most hyper-sincere form of televisual art ever invented. The idea of reality television first achieved mainstream recognition with the airing of MTV’s The Real World in 1992, but the form didn’t truly find its legs until shows like Survivor and American Idol became overnight sensations in the early '00s.
Unlike The Real World, whose early seasons presented surprisingly tender glimpses of an evolving youth culture, shows like Survivor and American Idol had no interest in depicting anything that remotely resembled reality. They may have branded themselves with the reality tag, but they portrayed “reality” as nothing more than a game that had one winner and many losers. American Idol, which journalist Rob McKenzie once noted “does not resort to the knowing wink or the clever half smile of the ironist… There is no Lettermanesque arched eyebrow,” achieved resonance by pitting earnest strivers against one another in a manufactured music contest. Survivor went one step further; it placed a group of individuals in a laughably fake scenario and then encouraged the participants to go to great and often deceitful lengths -- forge alliances, break alliances; manipulate, be manipulated -- just so they could win the “contest” and walk away with all the marbles.
The implicit message of reality television programs like American Idol and Survivor, both of which established a template the most consequential entries in this genre still mimic, was that the avid pursuit of victory represented the most legitimate form of social currency. The idea that ambition and success were scarlet letters to avoid, an idea former youth cultures embraced wholeheartedly, suddenly seemed outmoded. Letting an audience see how invested you were in the pursuit of a tangible goal no longer undermined a person’s integrity. In years past, being cool involved distancing oneself from conspicuous achievement in an ironic manner. Reality television and hip- hop erased this sensibility and replaced it with a celebration of performative ambition and avid pursuit. Within a few years, the avid striver replaced the ironic smirker as the most celebrated social archetype.
Even reality television shows that did not involve contests subtly endorsed the importance of avid striving. From The Real Housewives franchise through Keeping up with the Kardashians, docu-soap reality programs gave their subjects weekly opportunities to build and promote their personal brands. Filmed in mansions and ritzy restaurants and other extravagant locations, the shows not only implied that being rich and successful were things worth striving for -- notions that previous youth cultures would have mocked as disingenuous and shallow -- but authenticated the idea that more was never enough. The stars of these shows were always laboring to gain more money, more influence, and more exposure. They were not afraid or ashamed to avidly pursue material wealth and shallow celebrity without ever pausing for a moment of self-reflection; they owned their ambitions and moved on. Kim Kardashian is one of the quintessential icons of the Avidity Epidemic not just because she is #famousforbeingfamous, but because she’s always used her fame to build a personal brand and then used that brand to amass prodigal amounts of wealth she never needed to begin with. Kardashian has never been interested in creating art or dispensing original social commentary; like the best entrepreneurs, she’s focused all her energies on building as big an audience as possible and turning that audience into a paying consumer base.
The third precursor of the Avidity Epidemic was the invention of social media. Sites like Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter, all of which came into being in the mid-'00s (aka the transition years from irony to avidity to irony) may have been conceived as digital mechanisms for genuine human connection and the celebration of people’s idiosyncratic tendencies, b. But they quickly degenerated into superficial instruments of ego flattery, self-promotion, and personal branding. Social media gave users the illusion of celebrity -- all those likes and pokes and followers -- without requiring them do anything worthy of recognition. Suddenly any person could construct a public persona of their own making and disseminate it to an audience.
As Chuck Klosterman noted in the pages of Esquire, “Every online existence is a noncommercial simulation of celebrity culture.” This incited people to identify as “public” people, even if they had no specific talent to share with the world at large. And the metrics built into these social medias came to present life as a “gameified popularity contest measured in friends, followers, likes and comments” as journalist Joel Stein wrote in Time magazine. Believing that everything you said and did was inherently interesting, and therefore worthy of (social) media promotion, was now a luxury available to everyone.
From the early days of social media, it was apparent that irony was not an effective tone of communication on these new digital platforms. It was, and still is, so much easier to give something or someone an enthusiastic thumbs up or sincere endorsement than to affect self-awareness and/or ambivalent distance. Social media stokes the avid in every user and thrives on the obsessed. As Nicholas Thompson noted in The New Yorker, “Obsessive people are essential to sites like Facebook and Twitter. They add energy and buzz... If you’re designing a social network you want people to feel as though effort boosts status.”
The rise of social media cemented the death of irony and the ascension of avidity. Learning how to use sites like Facebook and Twitter (and later Instagram and Snapchat) to effortfully cultivate a social identity or “brand” became a rite of passage for all Millennials as they transitioned from the confines of college campuses into the real world. Furthermore, the wild popularity and profitability of social media sites turned their founders into cultural icons and made start-up culture the new stomping ground of #rockstars. People can endlessly debate whether or not David Fincher's The Social Network The Social Network (2010), which presents a heavily fictionalized version of Facebook’s origin story, is a good film, but there’s no question it brilliantly portrays how the avid founders of digital start-ups see themselves as vanguard cultural figures, even as they strive to do nothing more than use their creations to impress boring venture capitalists to the tune of billions of dollars.
All of which brings us back to Joshua and Amanda, the two quintessential avid Millennials with whom we started this journey a few thousand words ago. Like all members of their over-programmed generation, Joshua and Amanda didn’t spend their youths lolling in front of the television, passively digesting and internalizing the contradictions and absurdities American society thrives upon. They were too busy prepping for standardized tests and filling the résumé sections of their college applications with endless extracurricular activities. They spent their youths shuttling between tutoring sessions and soccer practice, always under the watchful eye of adults who constantly pushed them to do and achieve more. They were bred to embrace conformity and accepted this programming without question.
As David Brooks illustrated in his brilliant article "The Organization Kid", one of the first comprehensive examinations of Millennials, members of this generation have always gotten real pleasure out of trying to please their superiors. As children and then as college students, they didn’t question established belief systems or foment detachment from mainstream ideas. They accepted the system as constructed and did everything they could to climb higher and higher up the social ladder.
When they weren’t spending hours completing their calculus homework, Joshua and Amanda and their ilk were gorging on Snoop Doggy Dog and Jay Z CDs -- Millennials are the generation most responsible for elevating hip- hop to its status as America’s preeminent form of popular music. They were the first wave of young people for whom reality television programs held more cultural relevance than scripted television programs; they watched Survivor and American Idol in their college dorm rooms and preferred Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County to The O.C. They were the pioneers of the social media landscape, the first wave of Americans for whom online profiles and 24/7 social connectivity made self-promotion and brand cultivation second nature. And this weird mix of cultural influencers bred them and all the other Millennials to frame every desire, whim, and idea -- their entire lives really -- in the terms and tones of conspicuous achievement. They resisted any notion that ambition and success were inherently phony. Irony held no purpose for them because they had no desire to just sit back and poke holes in the established order.
As Rudnick and Andersen argued in Spy, the Irony Epidemic was, in one sense, little more than an excuse for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to live in perpetual adolescence. “If everything is a pose, a sitcom riff, then you're still a kid, just goofing around,” they wrote. The Avidity Epidemic springs from the same point of origin, it’s just that Millennial tastemakers didn’t’ spend their adolescences goofing around. They were too busy trying to achieve. Chasing success and endeavoring to show off one’s accomplishments to as large an audience as possible was the primary virtue of this demographic’s adolescence. That same virtue is now the underlying principle of our avid age.
What are the exact manifestations of the Avidity Epidemic?
Avidity is an aesthetic present in so many of the cultural vogues that have pervaded American society over the past ten to 15 years and a state of mind embraced by people everywhere. It's a calculated reflex that refuses to acknowledge its own sense of calculation. Avidity is the proliferation of the term “aspirational” and the desperate, obsessive striving it connotes. It’s a rejection of ambivalence, cynicism, and avoidance and the near obsolescence of introspection. It’s the rise of the “winners-win” mentality, no questions asked. Avidity flattens cultural products and turns them into commodities whose worth is solely determined by metrics. It’s the fetishization of big data and the desire to optimize each and every daily activity, from the truly mundane, like walking, to the ungodly banal, like replying to emails in the most timely manner possible. It’s a performative approach to life that prizes passion over all else and uses passion to justify any pursuit a person desires to chase. It’s a state of mind that pushes people to “better their best”, as opposed to just “be their best”, and encourages all of us to travel absurd lengths just to become more productive versions of ourselves.
Avidity is the idea that happiness and fulfillment are entirely products of individual self-determination and that a person’s inability to achieve either of these desired states is simply the result of not #hustling enough. Avidity takes a virtuous trait, like the desire to start a new business, and supersizes it beyond any sensible limits, until it hardens into something menacing and unseemly like #disruption. There’s a reason start-up culture encourages its acolytes to disrupt every industry they can; avidity pushes the entrepreneur to see life as a zero-sum game where success is best achieved at the expense of someone else’s failure to innovate.
Avidity is newfound ubiquity of “thought leadership” and the continued marginalization of actual thinking. As David Sessions observed in The New Republic, the last few decades have given rise to a new class of “intellectuals” like Clayton Christensen and Thomas Friedman, who reject nuance and skepticism in favor of oversimplified, and often vapid, worldviews they then promote with evangelical fervor. Avidity is the popularity of TED talks and the vacant-eyed audience members who eat them up without questioning the quality of their content or the messages they seek to instill. It’s the idea that mind altering drugs like LSD should not be taken in relaxing settings to expand consciousness but should be microdosed in professional settings to increase productivity and maximize creative output.
Avidity is the rise of geek culture, not in the sense that thick rimmed glasses and bookish blouses are now considered fashionable but rather, as Matthew Kitchen wrote for Esquire, in the idea that “geekdom isn’t about the specific aspects of culture one obsesses over anymore… it’s simply the inclination to obsess about those things in the first place.” It’s the tacit encouragement we all receive to flaunt our most idiosyncratic hobbies in the loudest manner possible, and the way we are judged not on the intrinsic merit of the hobbies we choose but the degree of obsessiveness with which we pursue them. Avidity can be found in adult fantasy football leagues and cosplay conventions and the idea that participation in these adolescent trends is somehow principled if the participants exhibit ungodly amounts of enthusiasm rather than treating these hobbies with a more tempered form of energy and effort. In contemporary society, the more you like it the more real you are, and avidity is all about keeping it real to the nth degree.