Bassem Youssef: The Dark Side of Making it on Social Media | Transcript

Bassem Youssef discusses the illusions of social media fame in a keynote, advocating for authenticity over online validation and ego-centric metrics.

Bassem Youssef illuminates the complex realities of social media stardom in a keynote that spans his extraordinary journey from heart surgeon to a luminary in both the digital and comedic landscapes. Youssef dissects the fallacy of seeking universal adulation on social platforms, unveiling the mirage of connectivity in an era where genuine interactions are often eclipsed by the glare of smartphones. Through his saga of viral fame, adversities, and the ebb and flow between recognition and anonymity, he exposes the transient nature of online popularity, revealing that true satisfaction lies beyond the ephemeral currency of likes and shares. With a mix of humor and directness, he critiques the digital era’s fixation on ego-centric metrics, advocating for a reevaluation of self-worth that transcends fleeting online admiration. His narrative champions authenticity, the embrace of humility, and the courage to step back from the ceaseless pursuit of digital validation, guiding towards a more introspective and genuine online presence.

Published on March 11, 2024

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Please be seated. Thank you very much. Be seated. Say please. Thank you very much. Be seated. This is like the sign of the times. I don’t see faces; I see mobile phones. There’s absolutely no human connections anymore. “I can see you through my screen. How are you?” This is very claustrophobic, by the way. “How is everybody? How are you guys? Did you have a good day? Alright. Okay. Waiting for me? Thank you. I’ll start believing this way, okay? Alright. That’s amazing. Thank you, guys, for coming. This is amazing. We have two days. Okay, thank you. Okay, okay. There are other Egyptians here too. Anyways, I’m very happy to be here. I mean, this is the last talk of the day. So, thank you for waiting. I have chosen to end the day with a positive note. So, I have called this talk ‘The Dark Side of Social Media.’ So, to keep it optimistic. I think most of you have paid for tickets to be here. Yeah? Are you sure? Because there’s a lot of influencers, and they’re not used to pay anything.

Listen, we make fun of influencers, the fact that they don’t pay. But the fact is, I mean, there’s an urban legend in my hometown about an influencer who lived there, and every day he would go to a restaurant and order lunch. And believe it or not, he would pay for his lunch. He would pay for his lunch. I know, that influencer was never seen again. He’s a unicorn. I think he was eaten by a dragon.

That’s you

No, no, no. What? That’s me. How am I? How am I in this story? So anyways, the dragon, before he eats the influencer, something amazing happened. The dragon put his influencer, and before he ate it, the dragon took out his phone and took a picture of his food. I think it was a female dragon influencer. Anyways.

I know that a lot of people come here, and they used to these kinds of sessions. These sessions, these sessions where these conferences are the same. Basically, you come here to hear people talking about their experiences, their hardship, how they worked hard, how they got rich. And rich here is not about money. It’s about how many followers, likes, shares, and subscribers. This is the new world economy, and you might come here to get inspired. To see your favorite influencer. So they can tell you how they did it. And they come, and they tell you how to pass their experience through you. So they can do the same.

Well, I will tell you my story in a nutshell. And I know that a lot of you have heard it a lot of times. So, I’ll be very, very, very quick. I was a doctor, a heart surgeon, did that for 19 years. And I left all of that. And I did YouTube videos. YouTube videos went viral. Life was good. And then I got offered my own television show. I ended up with 40 million subscribers, 40 million viewers each episode. Life was good. Then got into trouble, got a warrant for my arrest, interrogated, got canceled a couple of times. Life was not good. Had to leave to the United States. Started a different career with my second language in a different country and lost everything. And I know, when I started doing standup, I sucked big time. Life was not good. Then I got a little bit better. And now, I am a touring comedian. I’m doing comedy in Arabic and English. I’m filling theaters. I’m doing a little bit of acting on the side. I’m writing some children’s books. Life is good again. And then, for some weird reason, I got back to the spotlight because of a random interview, and after a couple of highs and a couple of lows, life is good again, for now. Because I’m waiting for this to flip somehow.

So, what could possibly be advice that I can give to you so you can follow that trajectory so you can have the opportunity to replicate this journey? Absolutely nothing. There is no manual. There are no guidelines. “Oh, but you must be funny.” I know so many people who are much funnier than me. “You must be talented.” I know dozens of people who have more talent than me. “But you must be working hard.” I know at least 50 people who are working harder than me, but they didn’t make it. There is nothing I can tell you today. Instead of like, “Shut your phone down.” There’s nothing I can tell you today to make you earn more followers or to get richer with likes, subscribers, and shares. Yes? Is it luck? Maybe it is luck. But maybe we can do something today other than talking about our experience. Maybe instead of talking about how to conquer social media, maybe we can talk about how not to be conquered by social media.

Yeah, we are all on social media. We want to be on social media. And we all hate social media. And we have to admit it. Right? Right. Right? We have a love-hate relationship with social media. Don’t you agree? Yes

Okay, the people who said yes, why? Why? Give me a reason. Give me a reason. What? Consuming. Okay. What else? Other than wasting time, we all waste time doing things. But what is really happening? What? Embarrassment. What? Expectations. What? Attention. All of the stuff that you have said can actually revolve around one thing, and that is our ego. This is how social media makes its money: from our own narcissism. That is its real currency. It’s not the likes and the shares. That’s what they make you want to believe. It’s really about the ego. Social media platforms might be free, but they come at a price, and that price is your own self-worth. That becomes more and more dependent on a virtual digital currency.

It’s all about us. “How many likes am I getting? How many likes am I missing out on? People are loving me. People are hating me. If I’m having so many likes and shares, how can I be wrong? And if I am that right, how come so many worthless people can be hating on me?” We are all on social media. But we resent it. And we wish we didn’t become part of social media. The thing is, we are chasing that dopamine rush that we felt when we first posted that photo or picture or post, when that got that traction that created that dopamine rush inside of us. We feel that sense of self-importance, that inflated self-worth. “Everyone loves me,” and since then, we have been slaves to the algorithm. We have to be consistent, post more, post bigger, post larger, get that attention that we need. This is like being in a relationship with a narcissistic psychopath. I know I use that analogy a lot. The more you know about these people, the more that you use them. But in this case, narcissistic psychopath in the beginning of a relationship, they do something to you. They do what is called love bombing. I’m sure you’ve heard this right. They give you all the love and the attention and the care, and then suddenly they take it away from you, and then they make you crave for that feeling again. They make you in a constant chase of this feeling of high, this dopamine hit that keeps you chasing with the algorithm, and it’s never enough. Then you end up resenting yourself, and you resent others. You get into this rabbit hole of judging and criticizing others, comparing yourself to them like a jealous ex-boyfriend. And all of that happens because suddenly your mirror, mirror on the wall is no longer telling you that you are the fairest of them all.

Let me give you an example of how your ego plays tricks on you. I’m sure that you did that one time. You post something, a picture, a post, or a video, and then you have a lot of comments cheering for you, supporting you. But you scroll down to that one negative comment, right? And then you let it ruin your day. It’s not even your ego; it’s your inflated ego that became so inflated because of social media, because you became programmed by that dopamine hit. “Everybody should love me. No, they shouldn’t. And you should stop seeking that. You think you are more famous than Taylor Swift? You think you are more skilled than Mo Salah? And you think you are much bigger and stronger than Big Ramy? I once saw Big Ramy putting in a video of him working out, and a skinny guy commented to him, “You’re doing it wrong.” All of these people have got haters. They are trolling them every day. Trolls will always be there, and they are there because they are dealing with their own insecurities, and they are dealing with their own egos. And they try to level the ground, to drag you down, so they feel good about themselves. So don’t let them do that.

But it’s not just about the negative comment. It is the feeling of being trapped and stuck. There are many articles that talk about how young influencers have this feeling of burnout, this depression, this loss of motivation. And it happens to people that are still 20 years old or a baby who wants to be an influencer. When you start piling up followers, social media has a tendency to inflate your self-worth, self-righteousness, and the level of perceived skill. All of that happens at an accelerated rate. You keep feeding the beast, feeding the algorithm. You have to stay consistent, and now your self-worth is connected to how well you’re doing, how many likes and shares you’re generating. But you can’t keep up because the one thing that you are known to do is not working anymore. So you become resentful of yourself. You become resentful of others. You become more judging, more depressed, and more agitated, and you end up coming to a session like this.

So, I’m not telling you anything that you don’t know. You’ve already been through this. You’re living it. That feeling of being stuck, I’ve been there too. I got famous because of one thing. I cannot call myself a content creator. And yet, I know exactly what you’re going through. The fact that you are going every day, posting yourself, putting yourself on the line, asking for people’s approval. This is very difficult. I did it on a different level. I did a little bit of content creation in the beginning, and then I went into television and became known for political satire, and people wanted me to continue doing that after I left Egypt. But then I did something different. I started doing stand-up comedy in English. And I was attacked. I was ridiculed. I was belittled, and I lost a lot of followers because that’s what we are afraid of. We are afraid of losing our capital, our fortune. So we have to do what the audience asks us to do. We have to be like gladiators in the Colosseum, right? Fight, fight, die. You become a freak show. You become a spectacle to satisfy other people’s dopamine hit. And you have to comply. You have to continue feeding the beast. You did the dance. Do it again. Do it better. You wrote a post; write more. You spoke up; speak more. You are funny; be funnier. “I want you to entertain me. I want you to be there for me because I am bored, and I want you there for my own entertainment.”

And at the end, your hard work, your days of preparation, shooting, and editing is just scrolled past in seconds on social media. And you keep doing that because you’re afraid to lose capital, lose the followers. And God knows, I lost a lot of followers. And when I had to leave Egypt, many wanted me to continue doing it. And I didn’t want to do it anymore. So love turned into hate, adoration turned into oblivion. And I lost so many people following me. I was a has-been, a washed-out star from the past. And as I said, I sucked big time. And I remember my fans coming to me in the English stand-up comedy show, and I saw disappointment in their eyes. And it was terrible. My ego was hurting. And I felt terrible, but I had to put it aside because I was learning something new. And when you learn something new, it is normal to suck at the beginning.

And I found out that the best way to deal with a hurt ego is to let go of that ego. I remember many nights going back home after a bad night, crying myself to sleep. I was destroyed. Sometimes I would say that there’s no hope for me anymore because there were two Bassems. There was the Bassem that was famous with millions of followers, and there was the other Bassem that was starting something new. And I was bad at it. I was trying to compete in a new arena where most of the people there are half my age. But in time, I became better, and that gave me the skills to improvise and to actually be able to speak to people in their language. If I continued to reminisce on the past, I wouldn’t have been here today.

So I lost so many followers. Maybe you should too. You might want to go through that humbling feeling again, and it will be difficult, but believe me, it is rewarding. Lose your followers if they are holding you back. Lose the dead weight. And I know it sounds weird, counterproductive, but the matter of fact is, you all got into social media because of the freedom and independence you wanted to get from it, right? “And I can do what I want. I can be anything I want.” But what you are actually doing is what other people want you to do. What’s supposed to be your liberation turned into your own imprisonment because you are afraid to do something new that might cause you losing followers. But you have to remember, this is how you made it in the first place. By being unique, by being different, by being controversial. But you got too comfortable, too complacent, too predictable. You became food for that beast.

So, I would tell you, lose the follower; you will gain others, maybe more, maybe less. But there will be different kinds of followers, followers that would appreciate what you’re trying to do. It’s not instant. It takes time. And you will have to deal with your biggest enemy, which is your ego. Don’t be a prisoner of your ego and don’t be a prisoner of your phone. That’s why they call that phone a cell phone. Don’t be in that cell again.

Now… thank you. Now, I feel I’m like some sort of a life coach giving you useless advice or a monk living in the mountain. “Lose your ego, be one with the universe.” But honestly, I have no solutions for you, nor do I have any quick fixes for you. The only thing I can tell you is check your ego, as plain and as boring and as cliché of an advice it is. I want you to apply it in life in general. You’re getting too angry in discussions? Lose your ego. You always feel that you are right? Lose your ego. You feel entitled in a friendship, victimized in a relationship, uncomfortable in admitting that you are wrong? Lose your ego. You compare yourself with others, wanting to be consistently validated in life? Maybe you need to lose your ego. Something that we sometimes will miss out on life. We forget how privileged we are. We are sitting here discussing the dark side of social media, where others don’t even have a single byte of internet. So maybe sometimes, you need to check your privilege. Maybe even sometimes we can do the unthinkable: to pay for our lunch.

There is a famous movie by Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves. It’s called The Devil’s Advocate. You remember that?


That whole movie is summarized in the last sentence that is said by Al Pacino, who played the devil in the movie. Al Pacino in the movie said, “Vanity is definitely my favorite sin.” So maybe it’s okay to lose a bit of your ego, a bit of your pride, and maybe a bit of your followers and your capital, because there is no point of gaining millions and millions of followers. But at the end, you end up losing yourself.

Thank you very much. Thank you very much. If I’m going to be here for another 5 minutes, so if you have any questions, I’m ready to answer.


When will you go back to Egypt?

When will I go back to Egypt? That’s not a question; that’s a hypothetical.

What’s your question? How do you deal with bullying online? At the beginning, that was terrible for me. But now, when I don’t have time, I go to the bathroom. And while I am doing my thing, I just answer them and I bully them back.

Okay, I have a question. When any influencer or content creator decides to go on social media, they have something to present; he believes in a way or another he can get something. When is the turning point? When he starts feeling that it’s getting stressful? When you enter social media, all that you need is for people to know you, to love you. Then it becomes, all of a sudden, very stressful.

Because social media is about people feeling bored very quickly. So, when he doesn’t have that reward, he feels that kind of stress. And the thing is, he’s trying to gauge that kind of traction that he had in the beginning. Let’s say, for example, he did a post: 50,000 likes, but then all of the other ones are less. Maybe you should actually be happy with the less because these are the people who kept being there with you. Our problem with the stress on social media is that we keep wanting to expect the original dopamine hit that we had in the beginning. And the thing is, products, Nike and Adidas… Not everybody wants the Nikes, not anybody wants Adidas. You have to, at the end, just settle for the fact that some people like you and some people don’t. Some people still want you, and some people don’t care about you. And you just have to be content with your share of the market. This whole thing about “I want everybody to love me” is crazy; it’s not going to happen.


Hi. I want to know, how do you find the strength to keep your convictions? In a world, for example, standing for Palestine will bring you lots of enemies.

As a matter of fact, that made me lose a lot of stuff. I had a lot of opportunities in Hollywood, and I got canceled a couple of times after the Piers Morgan thing. But then, on the other side, my shows are selling out. So you lose something, and you gain something. And I did it– this very sensitive topic. You have to be very careful if you are speaking about Jewish people or about Israel. This is how they kind of like they want to trick you. If you want to speak about governments, about policies, this is how you can get your message across without stepping on the insecurities that they have in the media. So it’s about basically engineering your message. It was just like about strategy, about how you engineer a message.

One more question, one more question. It has to be a really good question— It’s a good one. If it’s not good, you’re going to buy everybody lunch. “In my journey, what’s something that I wish that I’d done better?” That’s a good question. I’ll tell you, the one thing that I actually regret is that I wish that I was less stressed and less anxious about work when I was doing the show, the show that I had in Egypt. There were the worst days of my life. I was very stressed, I was very pressured, and I was very nervous. And I was not kind to the people around me. And that’s why when I meet people from the show, the first thing I say is, “I’m so sorry for being so mean. I’m sorry that I wasn’t nice enough.” The thing is, we are really sometimes in a place that we are privileged. The stress makes us lose ourselves sometimes to anger and to anxiety. And I wish I could go back to enjoy that time, and I’m trying now to be better at it.

Just a second. “Tell me, what is the question you’re talking about?” “Tell me about the question that was better.” Security, be ready. Because if this question was bad, he’s going to be kicked out. “Make the ego better, you mean?” You cannot get rid of your ego; your ego is part of your survival. But what I’m saying is, don’t put your ego ahead of you. You just have to remember that you need to be humbled every day and remind yourself how small you are and how far you came from. The problem is not our ego. The problem is the inflated ego. Alright, know yourself, know your worth, but know exactly how much that you can give to that ego in order to take over. It’s a kind of a mind game.

There’s a session right after me, right? As are you sure. But you ready to come on stage? So I’m scared, and you are very sparkling, and like I cannot see you because actually, the light is reflecting on your dress. What kind of dress is this? I feel like I’m in the 1920s. What are these jiggly things? Yes. What is what? Why am I doing all of this? For money. That’s the only thing you do. I’m going to say something in Arabic. I’m just going to speak in Arabic. In my show, I always say, the people who say money doesn’t buy everything… I talk to people from Saudi. I tell them, by the way, people who hate on Saudi because they have money and they say money doesn’t buy everything… Money does buy everything. But it doesn’t buy Mohamed Salah. But they will buy him. Next year they will buy him.

“Why, why Piers Morgan chose to meet me?” So the story of Piers Morgan, I was already scheduled with Piers Morgan’s show in March because I had a European tour, so my PR team got me into his show. And the thing is, I came on his show when Piers Morgan blocked me in. I kind of like attacked him on Twitter because he was supporting Trump. And after January six, I was angry. So I kind of hurled some insults to him. So he blocked me. So I was walking into the studio. And the moment I sat down, it’s like, “Bassem, you seem to have more followers than before. But I blocked you. What happened?” So I said, “Well, I cursed you, and you blocked me.” So we had the interview, and it was very nice. So when you are someone in the media, when you have an interview with someone, and then something happens from the region that related to that guy, they invite you again. So they had the Cleopatra thing with the Afrocentric. They invited me again. So when they had the Palestine, “We know that guy in the Middle East. Let’s invite him again.” This is how it happened.

“Yes, sister?” “Yes?” “Why do people love me?” Not everyone loves me. There are people who hate me; it’s normal. Why do people love me? I don’t know, ask them. Because I make them laugh? I don’t know why. What the question is, should I continue social media or go back to medicine? Don’t go back to medicine. It’s a terrible job. You’re doing well. You just needed someone to validate your thing. “Look, I don’t want to be a doctor. I want to be a failure.” “Please, I want to be a failure.”

Yes. My next stand-up is actually tomorrow. I’m traveling tomorrow to Miami. Tomorrow, I’m traveling tomorrow to Miami. I have an English lab. Sure, okay. Actually, I haven’t announced this, but I’m announcing this for the first time. May 24th in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Arena. It will be a double show, me and Maz Jobrani together. Yeah. Together, yeah. So May 24th. So. Okay, one more question, and we’re done.

When people turn on you? People who turn on you were waiting for the moment to turn on you. Social media is a very unnatural state of mind. Nothing in the world will actually make you meet all of these places in that space. So you have to understand, in social media, it’s fake. Really, why there’s even at the lowest of my low when people were like attacking me on, say, social media, people in the street, people that came to my show, were very nice. So all of what you see on social media is not real. As a matter of fact, many of the people that will curse you and curse you on social media, when they meet you face to face, they will take pictures with you. Yeah, that actually happens.

Well, thank you very much. You’re amazing.


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