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  • MAY 10, 2015

I feel bad for Mike Rossi.

He’s the Boston Marathon dad with an inflated ego who wrote a sanctimonious letter to his children’s principal for not excusing their absences when he took them out of school to cheer for him.

Now, after allegations that he may have cheated in his race to qualify for Boston, he’s the subject of an Internet witch hunt and real-life investigation.

I’ve been running for over two years now, and completely understand the frustration with suspected cheaters. My friends have trained hard, damn hard, to qualify for Boston. Cheaters take the place of runners who deserve to be there. The Boston Athletic Association should investigate and improve conditions so this happens with less frequency. Tighter controls help keep our country’s elite marathon more pure and authentic.

However, Mike Rossi’s quest for attention, in which he arguably invited this level of scrutiny on himself, reflects a deeper and more disturbing trend.

Mike Rossi is a public person, a radio personality and professional DJ in Philadelphia. This is worth considering, because most public people are conditioned to believe that success can’t come without a following. The obvious examples are writers, columnists, actors and even local celebrities. But what about journalists, politicians, PR executives, organizers, business ownersthe list goes on and on.

What careers don’t require us to sell ourselves online in order to stay relevant? Fewer and fewer every year.

Many of us cannot move ahead without bringing hundreds, thousands or millions of fans with us. How do we get those fans? Who cares? The answer is simple: by any means necessary.

Let the antics begin.

I write. I write to make sense of the world. I write for me, but it’s certainly gratifying when my columns help others make sense of the world, too. Along the way, I’ve been told by respected literary agents and editors that writing isn’t enough. It’s just as important, and exhausting, and time-consuming, to reach as many people as possible. This means get on social media and build an audience.

If we can’t bring others with us, we can’t get published or posted. Period.

Agents and editors have sometimes suggested deplorable attention-getting tactics. On more than a few occasions, I’ve been encouraged to lie about my past, exploit my family and commit fraud – all in the name of building my brand.

Not everyone can say no to a lifelong dream – be it a book deal or radio show or election – and not everyone has a solid support system to back them up. My husband and mother would disown me if I disgraced myself. I like them both, so that was a factor when I ultimately said no.

Perhaps I’d have reacted differently, had my writing been my livelihood rather than a supplement. Before they were deleted, Mike Rossi posted videos, tweets and a blog that seemed over the top, even to those who self-promote on a daily basis.

Did he believe that in order to be successful he had to do something outrageous?

He wouldn’t be the first.

Despite my unwillingness to do some things, I’ve done others. I’ve exploited myself and my body, written incendiary tweets, and I’ve even gone the “clickbait” route a few times writing for sites that only post lists about kittens.

I’m not proud of that.

I’ve written with more curse words, fewer curse words and in a different tone at one editor’s suggestion in order to be published. There are some who’d call that “attention whoring” and they’d be right.

What about our audience?

Sitting behind a computer and pointing the finger at someone like Mike Rossi is convenient, it gives us a break from clicking on headlines about Bruce Jenner or naked pictures of celebrities. Those clicks are counted and every single one justifies the story’s existence.

We call for blood while we memorize the scandals of reality television stars or peek through tabloids at the grocery store.

No one’s off the hook. Cheaters, the good folks who run Boston qualifiers, and the Boston Marathon itself aren’t the only ones with lessons to learn here. When we are in competition with the shameless, everyone gets shamed.

I can see the day coming when the urge to relentlessly self-promote will wear us out. Living out loud, and on the Internet, is exhausting and demoralizing. Hate mail sucks, and many people who rose to the top will tell you the things they did to get there aren’t worth it.

Those who lose the stomach for public scrutiny will one day put their skills or talents away, for whatever they’re worth, and choose an anonymous life instead. Their social media accounts will be shut down, permanently.

I can see that day coming. That day when we hang it up, and disappear.

Don’t worry though. There will be plenty of Mike Rossis to take our place.

Catherine Durkin Robinson co-parents twin sons, organizes families for political purposes, writes syndicated columns, mentors kids, runs some races and looks for missing socks. Follow her on twitter: @cdurkinrobinson. Column courtesy of Context Florida.