There’s a famous blogger who lives near me. We don’t know each other, I’m as far off their radar as could possibly be. But it reminds of what San Francisco felt like when I first moved here six years ago; less a city full of anonymous strangers and more like the timeline come to life. You’d see your heroes in the corridor, in the street, at the airport, at a party, and you’d have been reading their work, watching their videos, retweeting them for decades.
Oh, that house over there in Berkeley? That’s a famous journalist who writes wondrous things about climate change. Oh, that park near those colorful houses over there? That’s where the best writer in the video game business walks their dog. Oh, that curiously-shaped building next to the freeway? Your favorite novelist lives there.
(This reminds me of the one time I went to a conference in Brighton when I was 19 with my dad. In the morning we stumbled out of the hotel room and went downstairs and I found that the entire place was full of people from the timeline. It was terrifying.)
This proximity to my favorite people, my writerly heroes, was and still is a confusing combination of odd and lovely whilst also terrifying at the same time.
First off, the nice stuff: living in San Francisco sometimes feels like everyone in this city is working closely together, writing on top of each other, figuring things out at the same time. I think that’s why I love seeing that famous blogger hop on their bike each morning because it reminds me that I’ve gotta try harder, too. To the blog! But, also, nevertheless: it scares me because everyone is now a public figure. You can’t just be a person who blogs or paints or whatever and then walk around the world with the safety of anonymity.
Speaking of which, I’ve only had one modest dose of this—a tiny, almost insignificant portion of fame, but, but, but…I did not like it.
One summer, during lunch, I hopped on my motorcycle and drove to an office downtown to meet a friend for coffee at a startup. I took the elevator up and I got thoroughly confused by the lack of signage—I appeared to be stuck in a beautiful labyrinth. Just as I had resigned myself to this fate, someone bumps into me in the corridor: “Yo Robin! How’s it going?”
Now, as much as I love hearing my own name shouted loudly in public places, it was a bit odd because I’d never met this chap before, and had no idea who they were. They didn’t introduce themselves either! Did I know them? Had I forgotten them? I shook their hand and introduced myself but it felt weird. As if, had I asked them who they were, it would’ve been a grave insult.
Oh you don’t know me???
It felt like…something had been taken from me in the exchange.
But I was probably being weird and paranoid, never mind that. This perfectly nice, nameless chap buzzed me in and walked me round the office, leading me down one corridor after the next. Yet it was the strangest thing; everyone knew who I was. Each person in turn walked up to me, shook my hand, or shouted out my name. “Ohhhh! You’re that guy! Hi!!!!” and it was overwhelming and uncomfortable and odd. I felt awful that I didn’t know anyone but I felt this odd pressure to behave in a certain way. The spotlight was on me, there was some expectation I had to meet. Did these folks see some boring design tweet I made? But—after chatting with folks it was kinda clear they weren’t all that interested in learning who I was either. They wanted the proximity to something they thought I had.
Who I was wasn’t really the point.
I think that’s what fame ultimately is; it’s de-humanizing. It makes human people into circular avatars. And I know all this sounds like bragging, but it ain’t. It made me horribly uncomfortable and I can only imagine that this short-lived experience is how actually famous folks experience the world around them—distant from others in a way that they can’t ever put into words.
I hope I’ve never treated anyone this way before. As a figment of my imagination, I mean, rather than as someone I should ask questions about.
Someone I should relearn from scratch.