Are you the millionth best at something? These days that might not be as bad as it sounds

Posted August 18, 2011 in comment  |  2 Comments so far

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.

It used to take lots of effort to jump from personal to local to global context. Now we just get swept out there as soon as we start doing anything

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.

Buggy Boy on the C64

Buggy Boy: global fame is but one lap away

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. Same goes with technology, many gamers produce their own reviews of products and so naturally the best gaming monitor ratings mimic the game ratings.

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.

2 comments so far.  Post a comment

  1. Toby
    August 18, 2011 at 3:25 pm [ Permalink

    I genuinely thought that my obsession with Kraftwerk put me in the top 10 of global fans at one point – I was THAT into them and surely there weren’t many other people prepared to travel to different continents to see them play.

    Thankfully the realisation via the internet that there were people who were a hundred a times more obsessed was like a welcome salve.

  2. Annie
    October 12, 2011 at 11:40 am [ Permalink

    I used to be 13th overall in Singapore for Asia’s first location-based multiplayer mobile game in 2004. The game company actually invited me to their sharing session but I was not available on that day. The game has since died with new smartphones offering increasingly sophisticated gaming experiences.

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