When we barely know someone and are first exposed to them, they seem like a big deal. This is the case whether it’s a friendly introduction or our first sighting of a new celebrity on the red carpet. But as we gain more and more information about them, they shrink.
This might sound a bit counter-intuitive; your friends and family, whom you know most about, are likely a pretty big deal in your life, so why is it that as we learn more about those on our social peripheries, their capabilities seem to diminish? Simple: there’s a threshold of acceptable mystery that we pass through. If I know nothing about you, I can neither accurately praise nor criticise you; all I can do is pay attention, gather information, and decide on a firmer course of action once I’ve done my recon. Once I have this information, I can do one of three things: dismiss you, cultivate you, or destroy you.
Dismissal is really simple, more so in the age of social media; If the process by which I’ve discovered you is your twitter account or your blog, the unfollow button is simple to find. It used to be harder to dismiss people, but when friendships can be lost in meatspace entirely because someone accidentally hit the unfriend button on Facebook – well, it shows how superficial we are with our outer-valence contacts, right?
Cultivation is the long process, it’ how we gain friends worth keeping for an appreciable amount of time. If you’re aiming to do this, you can’t just grab every piece of information about someone in hopes you find something useful. You also can’t be cultivating people and hope to use them for anything; if you’re hoping for a business transaction, whether you’re on the end that’s buying or selling, you’ve got to keep people in the zone of casual disinterest where the acceptable mystery lives, otherwise there are expectations. Sort of like being stuck as friend guy when you’re really rather date a girl – once you’ve passed the mysterious proximity barrier, it’s difficult getting back out to the distance needed to do good business, unless you build that expectation into your friendships by strongly separating your professional and personal lives.
Destruction is, deceptively, even harder to achieve than cultivation. Most of the time you’re stuck burning your bridges, having little real effect on those you’re trying to hurt. Why are you doing that, by the way? If you just don’t like them, dismiss them. If they did something do hurt you, dismiss them. Why go to all the extra effort? Because maybe they’re a threat. The trouble with this is that you first have to define threat. Socially? Commercially? Technologically? Internet aside, it’s a pretty big planet, and unless someone has you cornered, it’s not hard to divide up the world into your own little chunk. The trouble with this is that mutual connections rarely give a crap about petty squabbles, which is where destruction gets so messy; unless you can convince your peripheral friends there’s a real benefit to them in helping you out, someone will always try to fuel both you and the other party.
Why is any of this a big deal? Because recognizing the process can demystify a lot of things. Exposing yourself to people, especially those you initially conceive of as bigger than yourself, can either be enlightening or distressing. Being aware of what makes the lustre on celebrity eventually disappear can help get past the depression of realizing your heroes are just louder versions of yourself.