05/23/2011 10:40 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2011

A Digital Happily-Ever-After

Nearly 23 million Americans tuned in for the royal wedding April 29 -- and about 2 billion viewers worldwide. Some of the wittier tweets out there suggested "planning a royal wedding" as a way to reduce the U.S. deficit. Even here in Serbia, countless people were eager to see the fairytale's happily-ever-after, and popular jokes said the government should call a state of emergency, or at least call the day off.

Yet amidst this "live royal frenzy," the most unbelievable piece of trivia appeared online, not on TV screens. As the bride's sister, Pippa Middleton, emerged in her slick white dress, a number of viewers focused on her derrière only. In a matter of hours, 50,000 of them swarmed "The Pippa Middleton Ass Appreciation Society," which by now has over 200,000 Facebook fans.

This raises interesting questions of how we choose to use our spare time and the role of social media in this process.

Consider the role of Ushahidi. You may not have heard of it, but Ushahidi is an open-source software that allows users to crowd-source information in crisis situations by using multiple channels: text messages, emails or Twitter. For example, when the Kenyan government cracked down on mainstream media that reported on ethnic violence in 2007, bloggers suddenly became the main source of information. Yet when the news about attacks started pouring in too quickly and proved too much for bloggers to handle, several programmers developed Ushahidi to effectively map the attacks throughout the country based on reports from the web and mobile phones. The platform has since been used to collect crisis information anywhere from the U.S. to India.

Now, what does this activism have to do with the wedding? Well, Ushahidi is the favorite example of the prominent social media scholar Clay Shirky. He claims that in this digital age, people prefer to use their free time or "cognitive surplus" to produce and share media and information rather than simply consume it. Shirky says that societies can foster such behavior if they culturally reward people whenever they devote their time and talents to something that is not just self-amusement but a contribution to public good and civic values.

He also says there will always be "lolcats," cute homemade images of cats that users post online. These are prime examples of using your spare time for information sharing that has no civic value whatsoever. I guess "Pippa's Ass Appreciation Society" is the perfect "lolcat" example for Shirky.

Still, the argument goes that if societies develop mechanisms to "culturally reward" such behavior (for example, by "telling you you're a good person"), they can undergo transformative change. However, it seems to me that our digital fascination with "lives we'll never lead" -- such as the almost Pixar-animated wedding we witnessed last month -- is, in fact, the paradigm of what is culturally rewarded: fame, obsession with looks, fashion trivia and "Somebodies vs. Nobodies" seem to be on the minds of the majority.

Robert Fuller, who wrote extensively on how our societies spur the desire for fame, said that "fame promises an escape from whatever ghetto we're in, real or imagined. It deters detractors and may even squeeze a few crumbs of recognition from those who have begrudged us a smile while we were clawing out of Nobodyland."

In a world that sees people as Somebodies and Nobodies, Fuller explains, indignities are everywhere. And the primary source of indignity is "rankism." Rankism is "what Somebodies do to Nobodies." Of course, not all Somebodies abuse their power advantage, their rank, just as prior to the civil rights and women's movements, not all whites were racist or all men sexist. Most of us have experienced indignities from "Somebodies" who perceived us as "Nobodies." So, "who hasn't fantasized of getting even ... by shoving our Oscar, Emmy, MVP award, Pulitzer, Nobel, or simply our promotion, in their faces?" But seeking status and fame as a weapon against rankism is useless, equal to a member of an identity group trying to pass as the member of a dominant one: A black man as white, or gay as straight.

The right antidote to indignity is "recognition." That's gained through the contributions we make to others and from their acknowledgment. And such contributions, Fuller says, don't need to be Oscars to gain us the dignity we need to prosper. On the contrary, "they can be quite humble, but they must be accurately understood and acknowledged by all involved." The solution lies in a "dignitarian" society, the one where rankism loses its appeal and "although some people are better known than others, we seek salvation not via the vain pursuit of fame but through service." However, as long as the societies we live in perceive the abuse of rank as "business as usual," there will be man-made indignity, and fame aspirations.

Without much philosophizing, one can argue that talking to other people about celebrities is plain fun. It gives us material filling those uneasy moments of silence, and provides an easy way out of talking about ourselves by discussing someone else.

And of course not everyone was interested in the wedding. The BBC reported how difficult it was to tailor the program for April 29 that would cater for everyone, as the audience was split between the ones poised to consume every second of the wedding, and others completely uninterested in the event.

To go back to my point about digital media and Shirky, his argument regarding our spare time and "cognitive surplus" could only thrive in such "dignitarian society," where service is culturally-rewarded. Obsession with the unattainable body image, privileges reserved for the famous and fairytale happy endings we so desperately wish to believe in, all embody the notion that some people are higher in rank, better than others, and that such privilege is desired -- welcome, even -- and that its abuse is simply "the way things are." As long as this is the case, our spare time, or cognitive surplus, unfortunately will be used for daydreaming about or working towards being one of the few, not for service and contribution.