There is a fundamental truth about human nature that many of us try to ignore or deny, and that truth is this:
We crave status.
We may not want to accept this, we may think that it’s shameful or egoistic, but if we cast an inward eye, we know that it’s at least partly accurate.
If pressed, most of us will sheepishly admit that we have the desire for recognition. This desire may not be universally felt to the same degrees, but it’s there to some extent.
Here’s the thing: this is totally natural.
We evolved from primates who lived in small, often hierarchical communities in which survival depended on social acceptance. We as humans still require at least of modicum of social acceptance, too. If we hope to survive in this world, we need to maintain relationships with those around us.
But this fundamental tendency of early hominids is just one of the many evolutionarily advantageous traits that has been extremified and ill-adapted to the modern world, and it manifests as Twitter followers.
Why do so many of us want to be rock stars or famous entrepreneurs or Oscar-winning actors? Folks with status and celebrity are statistically just has happy as normal people, and in fact the spotlight can be extremely damning for some people’s mental well-being. It seems counterintuitive, then, to crave something we know won’t bring us satisfaction or fulfillment.
And yet we still do.
Some may counter that they don’t want to be universally beloved or admired like Hollywood celebrities, but that they have a desire to be “renowned in their field.” I once met a linguistics student who wanted to be as famous as Noam Chomsky. Certainly no Natalie Portman, but Noam is the Natalie of linguistics.
I’ve been wondering where and when and why and how we as humans adapted to the modern world’s conception of social status. I wonder when we moved from the desire to be well-liked among our tribe to being well-liked among everyone.
If you still doubt that we harbor the desire to be perceived favorably, you clearly haven’t spent much time on social media.
No one needs the social validation of 10,000 people on the internet, nor do Twitter followers particularly aid in our survival, and yet there are so many people (myself included) who measure their sense of self worth based at least in part on the amount of followers they have.
Now, I think you and I can both agree that this is a stupid way to evaluate our status in the world. We recognize cerebrally that Twitter followers, Facebook likes, TikTok shares et al. have no bearing on our character, our merits, or our potential. And yet, we often see these metrics as proxies for our likability, which we then use as a stand-in for genuine worth.
This is obviously a perverse system, and many folks (again, myself included) have had to intentionally curb social media use and be continually reminded that internet validation is not a signal of actual social acceptance.
Of course, this is a hard argument to make when so many celebrities and people with status are often materially rewarded for that very status. After all, Natalie Portman is a fine actress, but it’s her brand and image that allow her to take on sponsorship deals (presumably in the millions of dollars) with Chanel.
Granted, I’m only seeing one slice of time, but I would bet that we’re living in one of the most status-obsessed eras of human history. In fact, we’ve coined the word “celebutante” for people like Kim Kardashian who are famous just for being famous. One has to wonder how such a world could come to be.
And yet, as with our conceptions of money and materialism, we profess to not desire status. In a similar way to how conspicuous consumption belies the fact that we secretly want to flaunt our wealth, many people will flaunt their status in a way that is clearly braggadocious. And just as conspicuous consumption can easily backfire and be met with derision and ridicule, people who conspicuously flaunt their intellect or desirability or connections are often mocked behind their backs — like how they’ll be rightly called out for using pompous words like braggadocious instead of boastful. 😂
I think that this can unfortunately be taken too far. People with genuine merit are often accused of virtue signaling or status hunting, when in fact those raising the pitchforks are only doing so out of jealousy. We may justly laugh at the foolishness of someone who wastes hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Maserati, but I suspect it is our envy at play when we make fun of those with status.
So where does this leave us? If status is something that we all desire to some extent, then should we accept it as a fine and natural tendency or try to diminish its hold on us (like the tendencies towards revenge or pettiness)? I’m not sure what the answer is, since I worry that fighting such a strongly held desire is a fool’s errand, but I acknowledge that a craving so powerful can have harmful consequences if left unchecked.
The best way forward may simply be to cultivate our mindfulness that the desire for status is deeply embedded within us, and that its greedy, envious claws may be gripping us tighter than we’d like.