When I was in high school, springtime was an intense season. It wasn't so much about classes or tests (my teachers had given up on me by March) or sports or prom or finding a summer job. No, spring was yearbook season. And every year, one of my friends and I would stage a high-stakes competition of who could snag the most yearbook signatures.
Silly? Yes. Shallow? Sure. But for my friend and I—who tracked stats on a ludicrous variety of things—it was a strangely compelling way to end the school year, our own geeky popularity contest. And since there were only two of us competing, it was the one popularity contest each of us had an actual shot at winning.
Thank goodness I'm out of high school now. Thank goodness I no longer measure success by grade point averages or girlfriend accumulation or yearbook autographs. I'm more mature now, and I can go about my life without every little thing I do being numbered and measured and calculated and tallied for the world to—
Oh, wait. We're living on Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and LinkedIn now, aren't we? Man, we're all totally wrapped up in a brand-new popularity contest—one in which the whole world is taking part.
Lady Google and a Man Named Paul
According to Forbes magazine, just three short years after she released her first track, Lady Gaga is already the most powerful celebrity in the world. It wasn't money (Oprah still makes more) or her physical prowess (I'd bet Madonna could take her) or her yummy lemon squares that pushed her to the pinnacle of celebritydom. No, Gaga triumphed because she's got the numbers: Internet numbers, that is.
Run a Google search for "Lady Gaga" and you'll come up with more than 400 million hits. For perspective, she has more Google imprints than the United States has people or Minnesota has mosquitoes. Over 32 million folks have "liked" her on Facebook and, in mid-May, she became the first person ever to snag 10 million Twitter followers. If the world was high school (and it is), Gaga would be voted homecoming queen, hands down.
"Lady Gaga beat Oprah this year because of her social media power," Forbes editor Dorothy Pomerantz told Reuters. "She can use Twitter and Facebook to work the 'little monsters' into a frenzy that leads to record sales and media attention. She's the best example of how celebrities will need to manage their careers in the coming years."
But we don't just measure our celebrities by their online stock value. We measure each other, too. And the results of that can be rather depressing.
If you Google my name, the search engine returns fewer than 20,000 results—which means Gaga is more than 20,000 times more important than I am. I'm even less popular than Constance Forslund (who played Ginger in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island) or Sonia Dada, a funk fusion band that only my editor and a handful of folks in Chicago have ever listened to. I'm even less stimulating, apparently, than "zzzzzzzzzzzz." And I can tell you it's truly humbling to find out that a 12-letter cartoonish onomatopoeia for sleep is more relevant, in the Internet's ever-wakeful eye, than I.
I am more popular than, say, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II (a Supreme Court justice from the late 1800s) and Alice Otterloop (the main character in the cartoon Cul de Sac) and the random keyboard strokes ";sdlkfj." But that last one was close, clocking in at over 16,000. And if you take out the semicolon, well, I lose again, by a landslide.
And even those statistics overstate my Internet importance. I share my Google footprint with other Paul Asays, including an overachieving one in Indiana who writes and blogs and runs triathlons.
A triathlete? Really? I can't begin to compete with that.
Everybody's Doing It
If you think that me Googling myself is selfish and unseemly, then we largely agree on the topic. But I have lots of company. According to Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, about 57% of us now do online searches for ourselves—up 10% from just four years ago. Sure, some of us namecheck ourselves to find out if our Internet reps are relatively unsullied—that no one's saying bad things about us behind our digital backs. (Or at least we tell ourselves that's what we're doing.) But lots and lots of us are all too aware of the Internet popularity game and are actively monitoring our status. The results, by the way, can be frustrating for more than 60% of us, who find more information about various doppelgängers than we do about ourselves. And if your name is Britney, Lindsay or Paris, you can just forget about it.
It's not just Google, of course. Reminders of our popularity (or lack thereof) lurk everywhere. Facebook tells us how many "friends" we have. Twitter nags us about how few "followers" we have. LinkedIn reports our "connections."
Talk about still chasing yearbook signatures. And now the stakes are much higher than a friendly passing period preoccupation. HR personnel scour personal Facebook profiles before making hiring decisions. Entrepreneurs use social networking sites as business platforms. And teens are more and more conditioned to think of themselves as "brands."
Are All Numbers God's Numbers?
Numbers like these can be especially tricky when you add God to the mix. In the evangelical community we brag about how many teens we reach, how many orphans we've saved, how many lives were committed to Christ because of a big Christian movie. We point to good numbers and say they're a blessing from God.
But what about when the numbers aren't so good? Does that mean the blessing's been withdrawn?
When I was a newspaper religion reporter, I had coffee occasionally with a pastor who led a prominent church in town. He'd been there for about five years, and he admitted to me that for the first four he was incredibly frustrated that the church hadn't grown during his tenure. In fact, it had shrunk a bit—unusual for a guy who'd experienced tremendous growth at his previous church. The numbers were exasperating, he felt. Some nights he'd lie awake fretting over them. He told me that he had to finally force himself to stop worrying about the numbers: "They were becoming my god," he said.
That stuck with me—perhaps because I'm sometimes inclined to do the same thing. Maybe all of us are, in a way. If we weren't, Facebook wouldn't keep pressuring us to snap up a few more friends, never mind the ones we added yesterday.
More people walking through the church doors on a Sunday morning isn't a bad thing. More readers checking out this article on pluggedin.com won't hurt one little bit.
But our lives should revolve around God, not Google.
That may sound a little pat, so here's the rubber-meets-the-road application: We should concentrate on the real influence we have on our friends, on our family, on the communities we're involved with on a flesh-and-blood level. The numbers? Cover 'em up with masking tape on your monitor.