If you’re a Simpsons fan you’ll probably recognise this pearl of fatherly wisdom that Homer once shared with Bart:
“No matter how good you are at something, there’s always about a million people better than you.”
Like lots of good lines in the Simpsons, it’s funny cos it’s true comically demoralising. If all you can hope for is to be the millionth-best person at something, why bother? But maybe the gag isn’t as depressing as it used to be. Maybe being the millionth-best at something these days is something to be proud of.
The episode in question (Homer At The Bat, fact fans) aired in February 1992, before the internet really got going. If you were an aspiring yo-yo artist in 1992, coping with the realisation that a million other yo-yoers had you beat, you could try to live your life in blissful ignorance of them. And if you lived in a remote enough area, that just might work.
If you were a young yo-yoer today, on the other hand, these million people would be an achingly visible blight on your career. You’d go to a party, start talking about yo-yos, and before you got a chance to show off your new trick, everyone would be gathered round a laptop watching videos of amateurs far more practised than yourself. Those million people? They’re just a click away now, and you’re going to be compared to them, even if you’ll never meet any of them in real life.
The amount of effort you need to make to enter the global arena, in most walks of life anyway, is far lower than it used to be. Musicians used to have to record demo tapes, haggle with labels and play thankless gigs in sullen backwaters just to get some sort of exposure. Now you just need to get on Bandcamp and all of a sudden you’re playing with the big dogs.
The first people to really feel this effect, I would say, were computer gamers in the late 1990s, when online gaming started to kick off. In the pre-internet era, a teenager into computer games would only ever see their immediate friends and schoolmates play these games. So when you watched the school’s best Buggy Boy player doing their thing, you might as well have been watching the world champion.
Then the internet came along and put us all in our places. Gamers were suddenly thrust into this grand global arena, a colosseum where wins and losses were mercilessly quantified over the years and the leaderboards were calculated. Before long the true champions emerged. You became able to say “I’m in the top 20,000 players of X Wing Versus TIE Fighter” and you wouldn’t be lying. Yes, it was kind of demoralising, but gamers had to adjust – this was how things were going to be from now on. Everyone knew precisely where they stood in relation to everyone else, ambitions were recalibrated, you had lots of people to learn from – and, most importantly, gaming was still fun.
Over the last decade this phenomenon has extended beyond gaming and other nerdy pastimes. Internet video and the consolidation of once-fragmented online communities on to a small number of social networks means that the competent amateurs, struggling beginners, and reigning champions are out there and equally easy to find.
Yo-yoers, violinists, singers, underwater jugglers – in all of these fields, an aspiring newcomer will be able to go online and find those million people that are better than them. But they shouldn’t let this put them off. In a world of nearly 7 billion people, more of whom are coming online every day, being the millionth-best maybe isn’t too shabby after all.