Social existentialism, and the Yourdon-Fry effect

“I’m no stranger to celebrity myself,” said the man. And in a way it was true – he had spent many years working closely with such types. Who was he? It doesn’t really matter – he could have been a journalist, a PR guy, a lawyer, a waiter, a taxi driver or indeed, even a biographer. Each role provides no more than a context within which people can relate.

And then, something like social networking comes along and throws any such context out of the window. I confess – and now it’s my turn – that while I am (indeed) “no stranger to celebrity”, I still did get a certain buzz when I saw that Ed Yourdon was following me on the microblogging tool, Twitter. This guy is as close to a celebrity as a software developer can get – back in the Seventies he was among the luminaries of the time, talking about modularity, cohesion and coupling alongside Barry Boehm and Fred Moore, Tom De Marco and Larry Constantine. These fellows were way before my time – when I arrived on the scene in 1987 they had already entered into the collective consciousness, for all I knew having left the empty husks of their physical being behind them.

Which begged the question: when I ‘followed’ him, in Twitter parlance, was I up to something a little less salubrious than just wanting to ‘join the conversation’? I’m now sufficiently advanced in years to have moved up the stack a little, and I have on extremely rare occasions seen signs of what it might be like to have a following. But – when engaging with the great Mr Ed, was I incorrect to have felt a little rush that maybe such a great man (still great, I should add, despite having been wrong on Y2K) might have noticed me touching the hem of his virtual coat?

From my own music experiences and others’, I’m pretty comfortable with the general idea of being a ‘fan’. Despite it admittedly being short for ‘fanatic’, some of the best artists and producers in the world have confessed (if that’s the right word) to holding certain of their peers in awe – Alex Lifeson of Rush, for example, remarked he found it difficult to know what to say when he actually met his guitar hero, Jimmy Page. A little aspiration goes a long way in this short life we all have, and no doubt many a little league sportsman only got to the international stage through wanting to be like their idol. It’s a human trait, which we all deal with admirably, for the most part.

The downside is two-fold. Before pondering too carefully the grammatical accuracy of the last sentence (not to mention this one), let me spell it out: first, the nature of modern celebrity can create idolatry where none should exist, through a complete absence of merit. Rare is the human who is immune to participating in such a thing: we watch Jade Goody as she succeeds and fails, all the while commenting how she shouldn’t have been filmed in the first place. What hypocrites we are. Like watching a poorly concocted film which is designed to pull on the heartstrings but which still makes you cry, we are all victims of our own humanity, as malleable and ductile as a rare metal when it comes to being influenced by the press.

The second difficulty is caused by our penchant for hierarchy. “Why can’t we all just get along,” says the pacifist – but even if we could on the surface, the very nature of our aspirationally conditioned being lies just below. We could blame evolutionary drive and the survival of the fittest; or the hang-overs of feudal society; or indeed the dark side of our meritocratic society. The best rise to the top, that’s the theory, and we all aspire to be there as well. Sometimes people even do reach such heady heights through their financial acumen, their innate skill and artistry, or their abilities as an orator. Other times, they get there through sheer determination and hard work, while others get lucky, or simply know where to stick the knife in. It was ever thus.

Which all makes the world-is-flat, peer-to-peer nature of social networking somewhat confusing. Strip back the layers of course, and for many it is not in the least about being social: that loose category of “famous people” are not, in general, trying to join conversations or make new friends with the masses. No – online tools are a marketing tool, and a very good one to boot. Communities can indeed be built, and harnessed to great effect – as proven by a number of artists (including Marillion, which is well known to be at the vanguard).

What’s perhaps very interesting about it all is that, while there is an obvious imbalance between those forming communities and those participating in them, each side does have to give a bit more of themselves. For an artist, a broadcaster or an industry guru wanting to engage with a community for reasons altruistic or otherwise, this does require a certain level of two-way interaction. For some, this comes easier than others – without knowing the chap directly, I suspect from his previous form that this is the case for Ed Yourdon, who does appear to be engaging because he really wants to.

As too does one Stephen Fry – our very own, quintessential conundrum of an Englishman, himself checking all the boxes of what it means to work as a polymathic, and no doubt workaholic artist within this meritocracy. He’s also (if a polymath can be ‘also’ anything) a dyed-in-the-wool technofreak, which means he has adopted such social networking technologies as blogging, podcasting and Twitter with gusto. But where does this leave the assembled masses, who in the past may have been sated by a quick dose of Fry on a Tuesday evening? It’s a tough one – today, anyone that has heard of the man can not only link to him in some virtual way, but also send him a direct message in the knowledge that it may, not many instants later, turn up on his ever-present iPhone (and indeed, his Web page).

It’s sorely tempting to see this ‘opportunity to interact’ as a real opportunity to interact, and I confess to have succumbed on a couple of occasions. There’s the rub: I’m probably as human as the next guy, and indeed, perhaps more so. Even as I write this, I feel just a little of the uncertainty a certain, hypothetical cat may have felt, sitting in a certain, sealed box next to a certain, ill-placed vial of prussic acid. Thus spake Schroedinger: even the act of measuring, or in this case commenting, can have an impact on the situation itself. I rightly question my motives – am I just writing this very piece in the hope Messrs. Yourdon and Fry might read it, decide I’m an all-round good chap and immediately engage in correspondence? Do I think I might be raising my standing among those who agree with me, or am I indeed looking to chide those who are a little too blatant in their social activity? Is this really just a resentful backlash against those who have surfed the social waves to become famous in their own right, or am I deviously looking to achieve the same for myself?

Here’s the truth of the matter: if this ramble is to illustrate anything, it is of the inherent imbalances that must exist in this new set of contexts, in which most of us will only ever be a bit player. As it is, the imbalances are legion. There’s not just the fact that those standing on top of their own meritocratic mountains will find it difficult to take in all the many messages they receive from those further down, or indeed elsewhere in the range. For some it has proved impossible to respond to everything – as both Ringo Starr and Neil Stephenson have pointed out. As second point however (also made by Mr Stephenson) is that some people are generally far too busy actually doing the things that make one popular, to reap all the rewards of said popularity. Success is perhaps most of all a combination of both talent and hard work: however much one has of the former, all can fail if there is an absence of the latter.

Perhaps in a few decades time, we shall look back in hindsight and make sense of all that is happening now. Realistically, what we are experiencing is only the tip of the iceberg – while some of us are already videoing and posting their every move, all but a few points of the world’s population is still going about their business without recourse to any such tools. Warhollian fame still requires TV – but the highly integrated, digital age looks set to supersede such old-fashioned concepts, as the our Bebo-centred youth culture is already illustrating. We are likely to see the online world in the same way our forebears saw metalled road surfaces – the elder generations may have used them to their advantage, but the youth have never known any different. In the short term, we can all be thoroughly indulgent, testing the waters and pushing the boundaries of social networking; no doubt as things evolve, so will a number of new contexts, within which we will all learn once again to relate.

Social existentialism, and the Yourdon-Fry effect

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