Fame in the Digital Age

By Lineyah Mitchell

In the age of the internet, the concepts of fame and celebrity are changing rapidly. Traditional celebrities were actors and actresses, musicians and artists; all people who have high visibility in careers dedicated to consumers. Celebrities were an elite group who were almost worshipped by average people. Fans and journalists alike have always spent lots of time trying to learn more about the private lives of celebrities because there has always been a large and obvious distance between public figures and their fans. All of that, however, is beginning to change, and that change can be largely attributed to the internet.

Jackie Aina, photo courtesy of @jackieaina

Jackie Aina, photo courtesy of @jackieaina

One of the biggest changes to come with the internet is social media. Through avenues like Youtube, Twitter, and Instagram, anyone can gain an audience and become a public figure. We’ve seen this with the explosive rise of internet celebrities in recent years; anyone can amass a following and become a public figure, becoming equally as, if not more, famous than traditional celebrities. Youtuber Jackie Aina, for example, has a combined 237 million views and almost 3 million subscribers, with her subscriber count increasing by around 1,000 per day. She also has around 400K Twitter followers and is working to make substantial changes in the world around her, sharing experiences as a US army vet and speaking out about the exclusion of women of color in the beauty industry. Similarly, Huda Kattan started out with a Wordpress beauty blog and after some success founded her own cosmetics company. Both the company and the blog were named Huda Beauty. The success of these endeavors gained her over 20 million followers on Instagram, further catapulting the success of her business and turning Huda Beauty into a household name. These internet celebrities have become famous based on their audiences’ receptions to their genuine personalities and passions, something that distinctly separates them from traditional celebrities. We love online stars because they choose to share so much of their lives with fans, and the relationships they have with these fans feel like relationships between friends, rather than the distant relationships of one-sided admiration fans have with traditional celebrities.

Social media has had an effect on the way we interact with traditional celebrities as well. Since traditional public figures have more control than ever over their public presence and personas, we have come to expect the same level of openness that we get with internet celebrities from them. Today’s most beloved celebrities post regularly on Instagram, Twitter, and Youtube, are relatable during interviews, and attempt to have seemingly genuine relationships with their fans. As traditional celebrities have realized the value in social media popularity, they have utilized these platforms with varying degrees of success. Will Smith on Youtube, Ariana Grande on Twitter, and Selena Gomez on Instagram have all expanded their online presences and done it well. Of course with the good comes the bad, and we have also seen celebrities’ online presences act to their detriment, as in the cases of  Roseanne Barr, Kevin Hart, and, most recently, Demi Lovato.

The roles played by public figures like celebrities and politicians are also becoming very muddled. Celebrities are becoming more outspoken in politics and activism, using their influence to expose their wide audiences to movements and causes that matter to them. Meanwhile, politicians are engaging more publicly in non-political matters, using social media to show off their more personable sides in the hopes of widening their voter base. There is an interesting, simultaneous increase in the apparent intelligence and credibility of celebrities and the breakdown in professionalism and credibility of politicians. For example, Beyonce, Jessie Williams, Colin Kaepernick, and many others have spoken out against injustice and advocated for equality, effectively breaking a stereotype of shallow and vain celebrities, while Virginia’s Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General (among many others, including the POTUS himself) are all embroiled in scandals of racism or sexual assault.

Similarly, more and more companies are seeing real financial consequences, positive and negative, from their online actions and presence. Wendy’s using Twitter for comedy, even going so far as to release a mixtape, was met with a massively positive reception, while a failed campaign from Burger King, an ad promising free burgers to everyone who got themselves impregnated by an Olympic athlete, almost led to a steep fine. Scandals like these are becoming more and more common as Twitter especially shines a light on these missteps.  In the past month alone we’ve had scandals from Gucci and Adidas involving racism, Amazon involving immoral business practices, and Topshop involving sexual harassment of employees and blackmail. Twitter has forced companies to take greater responsibility; when every action they take comes with heavy consequences, it becomes easier for consumers to see missteps and to hold corporations accountable when they’ve offended us or violated our values.

Laura Lee in her apology video, photo courtesy of the Daily Mail

Laura Lee in her apology video, photo courtesy of the Daily Mail

This, too, is a consequence of the changing nature of fame. Now, more than ever it is easier to hold public figures accountable for their actions. All actions, past, present, and future are much more visible now, so it is much easier to see when someone says or does something that we find unacceptable, and stop supporting that person or company. The internet has brought accountability to the world of celebrity, so even though it seems like anyone can become famous now, those in command of large audiences must either be conscious of what they release or risk losing that audience. Laura Lee and Roseanne Barr, for example, both had racist tweets exposed, causing high profile scandals, and both faced heavy criticism online from critics and disappointed fans alike. Following the scandal Roseanne was dropped from her eponymous TV show and she, in her own words, “lost everything”. Laura Lee, after losing thousands of subscribers in response to her scandal, released an apology video which was widely criticized as inauthentic and even misleading. This video resulted in an even more rapid drop in viewership and subscribers, from which she has never really recovered.

There are also those who have been embroiled in scandal, often repeatedly, who have managed to avoid any such deep and long-lasting consequences, such as Kevin Hart (whose only real consequence was being removed as host of the Oscars), any of the Kardashians, or Donald Trump. There have also been those who have faced online criticism that we may disagree with; Ariana Grande being blamed for Mac Miller’s death, or Jameela Jamil receiving backlash for speaking out against uninformed celebrity endorsements, for example. These individuals and their many scandals have forced us to ask ourselves and each other hard questions on an almost daily basis. Do people really change? Do the actions of individuals determine their character? Do an individual’s contributions to their field outweigh their behavior? The internet has blurred the line between fame and infamy and left it up to us, the audience members, to answer these questions, and to choose who gets to keep their power.