Questions and answers with Terri Senft, Programme Leader and Senior Lecturer, Media Studies, University of East London, UK. Questions? Email Terri at email@example.com
(Discussion with student reporters from Columbia Journalism Review.)
Question 1: Did you coin the term micro-celebrity? Why that terminology?
To my knowledge, I coined the term micro-celebrity, but the idea has been around for awhile now. I was trying to describe what I saw as a newish cultural phenomenon: the desire to present oneself to others over the Web using tools formerly associated with celebrity promotion.
To understand the development of micro-celebrity, it helps to remember the early days of internet communication, when people usually conceptualized online identity as a place of play and anonymity. The classic example is the famous New Yorker cartoon in the 1990’s that featured two dogs and had the tagline, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
Although anonymity still flourishes in plenty of online places today, it seems to me that identity in a time of “Web 2.0” functions differently. Some of us think of our online identity in terms of our avatars in online gaming, but far more of us think of it in terms of the fonts we use on our home pages, the blogs we’re asked to post to for on behalf of our schools and companies, the networked photos others post of us on Facebook, the follows we receive on Twitter, the serialization of our videos on YouTube. We present ourselves through media, we are experienced as media, and we often experience ourselves as media.
When I took classes on personal identity, I learned about the ‘big three’ (race, class, gender) which then expanded into sexuality, religion, nation, language, age, and ability. I think it’s time to add two new categories to this list: market and brand. To make media (and that is what we are doing when we go online) is to determine an audience—a market-- or one’s message. One of the most successful ways to signal a desired market is to brand. We now have the tools to do this, the desire is there, and often, the process works effectively. Why wouldn’t we engage in these behaviors?
Question 2: In what ways does micro-celebrity resemble conventional celebrity? How does it differ?
P.David Marshall writes that celebrity embodies two contradictory ideologies within American culture: democracy (in which everyone is equal) and capitalism (in which some of us are more equal than others.) Micro-celebrity likewise reflects this tension: while all sorts of people can engage in the practice of micro-celebrity, only some will get the sort of attention and notice they desire. Having said this, I think the differences between celebrity and micro-celebrity are more significant than the similarities.
Celebrity describes a product of the culture industries, and has gradations that are a direct reflection of the market: this is why we can speak of minor celebrities, niche celebrities, subcultural celebrities and so forth. On the other hand, micro-celebrity describes a process by which people express their identities online. If you ask whether someone is a micro-celebrity, you’ve missed the point. Micro-celebrity is something you do, not something you are.
Micro-celebrity looks like celebrity-fashioning, but it’s not, in part because there is no ‘man behind the curtain’ orchestrating our look, our lines, our communication for the world. Certainly, there are those engaged in the practice of micro-celebrity who may well want to become bonafide celebrities of one sort or another, but it’s certainly not the desire for most of us who engage in the practice.
Think of it this way: when I’m going to a party, I often put on my Marilyn Monroe dress. I don’t do this because I’m hoping to get discovered by Hollywood: I do it because it’s fun! Now, I’m not saying people who engage in micro-celebrity are blind to the allure of celebrity, of course not. I’m the product of a mother who thought Marilyn Monroe was glamorous, and I’m sure it’s rubbed off on me, which means Hollywood is having no small influence on my ideas about femininity, sexuality and so forth. But is this the same as saying that I dress like Marilyn because I want to be Marilyn? Certainly not.
Question 3: You mentioned that micro-celebrities are more ‘real’ than their celebrity counterparts, but isn’t their personality still a performance or brand? Aren’t we deluding ourselves the same way we are when we presume to ‘know’ Paul Newman?
The simplest answer to your question is “yes.” That said, aren’t we deluding ourselves anytime we think we know someone else completely?
Sociologist Erving Goffman has an argument I find very useful when we’re thinking about who or what is ‘real’, online or off. For Goffman, identity amounts to little more than a series of performances directed to particular audiences in our lives. If you think about it for a moment, it makes sense. The ‘me’ who is a student differs from the ‘me’ who is daughter, and the ‘me’ who is a girlfriend has similarities to (but distinct differences from) the ‘me’ who is a best friend. Different audiences, different realities presented.
If we use Goffman as a starting point, the question switches from “Are people engaged in micro-celebrity practice just as unreal as Hollywood-style celebrities” to “what audiences are being addressed by each group?” The audience address of a Hollywood celebrity is quite specific: their sole function is to service a paying customer of some sort. The audience addressed by someone engaged in micro-celebrity is much harder to pin down.
When I was studying camgirls (women who webcam from their homes, attempting to gain a modicum of fame in the process), paying customers were often a consideration. When I study academics trying to reach students beyond their university by building themselves into a brand, money might or might not figure into the equation. When I was studying young girls circulating YouTube videos of their dancing to friends inside their high school cliques, money didn’t figure in the equation at all.
It’s important to remember that celebrities are commodities masquerading as people, while individuals engaged in micro-celebrity are people experimenting with branding themselves as commodity. We can never ‘know’ the Jennifer Aniston we want to know, because frankly, she’s not a person, she’s a product. In my experience, the same is not true of people engaged in micro-celebrity, who tend not to have things like managers, public relations assistants and other sorts of ‘handlers.’
Because they are human, people engaged in micro-celebrity are just as capable of one-sided presentation, spin and outright lies as are the rest of us. The difference between these people and bonafide celebrities is that for the latter group, misrepresentation is not a accident or a strategy: it’s a structuring fact of existence.
Question 4: Does the rise of blogs and Youtube democratize the celebrity-selection process?
Yes, to the extent that celebrity can ever be thought of in the same breath as democracy (see my remarks on P. David Marshall, above.) I prefer the term ‘popularize’.
Question 5: What about the fact that the celebrity of micro-celebrity seems based around people who aren’t that talented or who only have one talent, does that prevent them from going mainstream?
People engaged in micro-celebrity tend to reach certain audiences because they give interesting perspectives, offer what others see as useful information, seem quirky, or present something that touches others emotionally. They may strike viewers as professional, attractive, funny talented, gifted and so forth. However, and as one million episodes of Star Search have shown, none of this means these individuals have what it takes to enter today’s film, recording, or advertising industries.
Question 6: The means of production is inexpensive, but do you think that the various stages on which micro-celebrities are performing (like youtube) are becoming more commercialized?
Certainly, and I suppose the convergences we are seeing between content in places like MySpace, YouTube and MTV is fueling lots of hopes among folks who would like to transmit their micro-celebrity activities to celebrity cash. Personally, I wouldn’t quit my day job.
Question 7: Is micro-celebrity being studied in the academy? Is there any prejudice directed at studying micro-celebrity? Are there any other academics working on micro-celebrity?
I get about one or two pieces of email a week from students interested in writing about micro-celebrity. I can recommend two excellent academics doing this sort of work: Alice Marwick from New York University (see http://www.tiara.org/blog/) danah boyd from Microsoft (see http://www.danah.org/) There are probably lots and lots of other people out there. I often don’t know what’s being researched until someone’s standing next to their book at a conference!
Question 8: Is there more of a proprietary feeling among audiences of various micro-celebrities than there would be with fans of actors or more traditional celebs?
This is a hard question for me to answer, because I don’t study fan communities in depth, but I think it says something that I bristled a bit when reading the word ‘fan’ used in combination with micro-celebrity (even though I’ve used it myself!) Take my own case of micro-celebrity: there may be people who think of themselves as my fans, but the idea of it sort of weirds me out. That wouldn’t be the case were I trying to position myself as a bonafide celebrity.
This talk of a ‘proprietary feeling’ is interesting to me, as well. We feel proprietary when we own something (or want to own it.) Again, while some folks probably do feel proprietary feelings for people engaged in micro-celebrity, I think a far more common feeling is a demand for accountability and connection to ones community. We don’t expect Jennifer Aniston to email us back, but many of us do feel sort of left out if we comment on someone’s LiveJournal and they don’t respond to us.
Question 9: Does micro-celebrity threaten traditional celebrities? Does it cheapen them in some way?
I certainly don’t see the process of micro-celebrity as threatening the culture industries. If anything I’m a bit alarmed by the idea of armies of people busy doing the industry’s dirty work for them. It reminds me much like kids working for ‘street teams’ today to bring in information on the latest clothes and sounds, only to have that information packaged and sold back to them as commodity by giants like Sony and MTV.
I think in the future, people who want to become bonafide celebrities will be expected to operate as their own promotion machine long before they are managed by places like Hollywood. Tomorrow’s starlets aren’t going to be ‘discovered’ working at the corner store; they’ll already have MySpace locales, online portfolios, and networks of viewers long before Hollywood finds them.
You ask whether the process of micro-celebrity ‘cheapens’ traditional celebrity. Let’s be clear on what celebrity is not, and what it is. Celebrity is not an impartial declaration of merit or talent; it is an economic mechanism designed to keep consumers from asking questions about media ownership, control, and taste-making.
Earlier I noted that celebrity runs on two contradictory messages: fame can come to anyone, yet only some people will be famous. Some people engaged in the process of trying to become celebrities figure this out, while others never quite get it. One of the things that fascinates me about micro-celebrity is the degree to which it helps people ‘get’ the culture industries quicker than they ever have before. As Mark Twain once said, “You learn some things swinging a cat by the tail you learn no other way.”
Question 10: Is there a way to commercialize micro-celebrity? Are companies trying or are the audiences too small to effectively hawk commercial products?
Today, thanks to Google Adsense and programs like Amazon’s “power sellers’, no audience is too small to hawk commercial products.
Question 11: What role does discovery play in all of this? Do audiences get upset when their micro-celebrity gets discovered?
That’s a really good question but I don’t have enough data to give you a quotable answer. I’m going to ask people for feedback on my LiveJournal on this one
Question 12: Do you think reality television is related to this phenomenon?
I think reality television is related to nearly every significant media-based performance of identity of the last decade, but that’s just me.
Question 13: Do you see any political undercurrents to micro-celebrity culture?
I certainly do! But this is the topic of my next book, so you’ll have my fully formed thoughts on the matter when I do.