The Dangers of New Media Celebrities
by Ethan Glover, Sat, Dec 22, 2018 - (Edited) Tue, Dec 25, 2018
With the subscriber gap between PewDiePie and T-Series now over 1 million, it seems like PewDiePie has won another battle for the internet. PewDiePie has become a representation of new media. Of independent creators being larger and more influential than large corporations. This got me wondering if that new form of media is all good.
YouTube has become a place for self-made stars. It's a place where individuals can become celebrities and act as their own cultural intermediaries. Other celebrities have to use scriptwriters and PR agents. They need a conglomerate of people working to make what they do entertaining. But from where I stand, not having those intermediaries seems dangerous. Fans have become closer to celebrities in a more personal way. The communities that form around them, which make mediums like YouTube unique, are prone to cults of celebrity.
18th-century romanticism was a movement grounded in the idea of the individual. That the depths of the inner self can be a creative output. Vlogging can be a way of putting one's own psychological state and inner thoughts on display as performed art.
"Vlogs are monologues conducted in and through a dialogical medium where the modernist ideology of an introspective self with internal depth is simultaneously performed and confirmed as a socio-cultural ideal." -Zizi A. Papacharissi, A Private Sphere
Viewers see YouTuber's as honest, real individuals. What they forget is that no matter how humble the YouTuber, they're not seeing the real person. They're seeing a curated version of that person. A performance for revenue. The danger that I see is that people are developing their sense of self through online communities. At the center of those online communities is a manufactured personality created by a celebrity.
"...online culture pushes most people to construct a public identity that resembles what celebrities have had to construct for their livelihood." -P David Marshall, Seriality and Persona
There are plenty of YouTubers who try to be open, humble and honest. They're doing something they love and sharing it with the world. To them, the self they are showing is their true self. Except it is impossible to show ones entire self through an entertainment medium. That video can only contain so much. And it will never tell the whole story.
"The vlogger exists in an infinite "open-event of being" but once the vlog is recorded, they are consummated and finite." -David R. Smith, Imagining others more complexly
IOC and YouTube Celeb Culture
Most of my ideas for this article come from David Smith who wrote the paper linked above. He did a cultural analysis of the IOC (Imagine Others Complexly). IOC is a movement and idea started by John Green of the vlog brothers to see others as complex individuals.
John Green's philosophy has its influences in people like Walt Whitman and David Foster Wallace. On Whitman, Green says, "Song of Myself is a beautiful poem that is deeply involved with how we can imagine other people more effectively." He goes on to say, "I would also argue that whenever we're imagining someone as more than a person, whether we're Edward Cullan-ising them, or Alaska-ising them or Margo-ising them, we're doing them and ourselves a profound disservice!" John wanted to warn people against celebrity idolatry. Against seeing celebrities as above everyone else. (Paper Towns Tastic Question Today, vlogbrothers)
David Foster Wallace said, "...there is something magical, for me, about literature and fiction. And I think it can do things, not only what pop culture can't do, but that are urgent now. One is that, by creating a character in a piece of fiction, you can allow a reader to leap over the wall of self and to imagine himself being, not just somewhere else, but someone else in a way that television and movies, that no other form can do. Because I think people are essentially lonely and alone and frightened of being alone.” (Endnotes | David Foster Wallace | BBC Documentary)
Wallace also says that American culture suffers from solipsistic delusions. "We are the audience, megametrically many, though most often we watch alone. E unibus pluram." (E Unibus Pluram) "...solipsism binds us all together." (Girl with Curious Hair).
Wallace says that fiction can allow people to imagine themselves as someone else. Someone better. He says that people like the characters in fiction because they feel lonely. His commentary on solipsism takes that point further. On some level, people feel like they are the only ones that exist. So they fight that loneliness with fiction. By imagining themselves as characters with better lives.
Keep in mind, Wallace made these points in the early to mid-nineties. Some would argue that new media like YouTube present an opportunity to bring people closer together. Instead of projecting onto fictional characters, people can take part in an active community as themselves. New media can solve the problems people were pointing out in the nineties. But the idea of self-expression seems to have turned around on itself and made things worse.
At the end of Bo Burnham's comedy special "Make Happy," Bo raises the house lights, lowers the stage lights and says, "Now we're all the same. I mean you're all facing this way still. [...] I was born in 1990 and I was sort of raised in America when it was a cult of self-expression and I was just taught, you know, express myself and have things to say and everyone will care about them. And I think everyone was taught that and most of us found out no one gives a shit what we think. [...] Social media is just the markets answer to the generation that demanded to perform. So the market said here, perform everything to each other, all the time, for no reason. It's prison. It's horrific. It is performer and audience melding together. What do we want more than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member? I know very little about anything but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it."
I would argue that online communities have made no progress on our culture's 'solipsistic delusions.' Communities have formed around celebrities, but they're not social communities. They are unified ideologies. People looking for a place belong find themselves in these communities and learn what they need to do to get the attention they're craving. What kind of post gets the most votes on the PewDiePie subreddit? What will get you the most liked comment? What do you need to avoid saying or doing to avoid downvotes or shunning from these communities? More often than not, the answer to these questions is to act like or try to be the ideological center. The celebrity like PewDiePie or Jake Paul. Except not like them, but like the persona they are acting out.
Even communities not centered on a person are often centered on an abstract idea. An idea that, over time, one must perform in a very specific way to gain acceptance and attention. Being a part of a community centered around a person or idea isn't just conversation. It leads to creating a self to be performed to oneself and others. A "public self" that is democratized and policed by the greater online "community." It means submitting yourself to the criticism and molding of remote strangers on the internet.
The ideal for YouTube has been that creators and viewers are one and the same. There is no hierarchy of celebrities, the viewers aren't just consumers, they are a part of the process. As Mickeleh puts it in 'YouTube Celebrity Culture,' "The old religion preaches it's a messianic transformation of media. New media: New Rules. Or, New Media: No Rules. [...] YouTube is democracy in action. If you can press record you can have a channel [...] TV creates a gap between performers and audience. Performers: royal, godlike, up on pedestals. Audience: passive, peasants, potatoes, couch potatoes. But according to the religion of YouTube, there is no us and them, we are a community, all one level. We leave comments, we click like."
Anthony D'Angelo gets into why that isn't the case in 'The Science and Dangers of YouTube Celebrity." "I want to explore what celebrity has to do with it and why it affects people so much ...I want to do that by exploring this idea in sociology called para-social interactions. All audio-visual mass media allows for this kind of one-sided intimacy at a distance, something media theorists and sociologists refer to as para-social interactions. When somebody says that they love Justin Bieber, they don"t actually love Justin Bieber, they are in love with the constructed image of Justin Bieber, a persona, and what is important to remember is that this public persona is not a complete picture of who a person is. ... Like even right now, right, you're not really seeing me, you're seeing a version of me that's a little bit more animated, who accentuates a little bit more, ...I am reading from a script, right, I'm editing myself to get my point across the best."
The idea of YouTube and any other online community is great. A place for normal people to get together and have an honest conversation. But within all that noise, it is inevitable that somebody will float to the top. Influencers start to emerge. And the reality is that what people are seeing isn't real. It will always be a performance, scripted or not. Audiences build communities around performed identities that seem authentic and may be authentically performed but as Smith says, once a vlog is recorded, they are consummated and finite. "We are the audience, megametrically many, though most often we watch alone."
"So the question is, how do we keep those things from happening ...? To answer I'm going to borrow from the VlogBrothers here [...] there is this truism that you should imagine people complexly, we need to acknowledge that the images of people we see in our media are just that, images, and images are treacherous. ...We need to be critical of the institution of celebrity in all media but especially YouTube which, by its connective, egalitarian nature puts celebrities closer to fans than ever before..." (The Science and Dangers of YouTube Celebrity)
As D'Angelo puts it, it is the closeness of creator and audience that gives creators more power over their audience. That closeness can cause people to want to sacrifice more of themselves to the community. The potential for emotional connection is a potential for addiction. A potential to see nothing outside of the community.
"You on that side of the camera need to understand that I am constructing everything you see and hear, [...] and you have to understand that I am not necessarily doing that for entertainment I could be doing that very much for my own benefit." (YouTube Culture | Vicky)
They Still Want to Be Your Pal
It's important to remain critical to avoid losing yourself in one ideology or one mode of thinking. A mode of parroting whatever you need to parrot to gain acceptance. But there's another side of this. YouTuber's don't want to feel apart from their fans. The website represents a place where creator and viewer are one in the same, right? Where everyone is friendly and taking part in a conversation.
Audiences are prone to seeking out online communities out of loneliness. But so are creators. In 'Respecting Your Audience,' Charlie McDonnell says, "The big YouTubers on this side of things, I think, they don't want to feel "other", they don't want to feel special, they want to feel normal, they want you to see them as human beings, they don't want you to idolize them, they want you to imagine them complexly. And I genuinely think that is all good advice [...] but there is a but [...]. It's your job now to think about us, to imagine us more complexly, because we're people too you know, and we are forgetting that this gap that exists, that we're trying to close, exists between two groups of people, because we're treating it, I think, in a very one-sided way. [...] some big YouTubers, not all, but some, have just as much of an issue imagining their audiences complexly as some members of their audience have imagining them complexly. [...] you already know you are not watching a person right now, that this is a YouTube video, that I have written and performed and edited and uploaded this for your enjoyment."
I can see this dynamic happening where normal people gain fame off of YouTube but they do it alone. There's no agent explaining to them that this is a major lifestyle change. Or explaining that they can't keep being normal people saying whatever they want. Many YouTuber's don't seem to understand that once they hit a certain level of influence they need to be careful. That public voice is for everyone and it has an effect on how people live their lives. Getting too close to an audience means the audience just keeps trying harder to be the creator instead of themselves.
The real irony is that YouTubers don't seem to realize they're participating in very old marketing tactics. The carousel scene from Mad Men illustrates it perfectly. Advertising creates an itch and the product is the calamine lotion to soothe it. If you're part of the "SEO community" you've seen a similar debate to that of the YouTube celebrity community. Content on the web should move away from trying to trick search engines into putting your stuff at the top of search results. Instead, it should be personal. It should engage. It should create an emotional connection between your audience and your content. Between your audience and your product. The difference between the "carousel" becoming a tool for nostalgia and a YouTuber is that the YouTuber is the product. The YouTuber is the content. The content that you are supposed to emotionally and personally connect to.
You can't buy your way to the top of the Google search engine. Lower bid advertisements that connect to people are more likely to appear than a higher bid advertisement that doesn't. There is money in connection. Money in building "communities" that people are emotionally dependent on and need to keep coming back to.
YouTubers may honestly want to connect with the audience. They don't want to be idolized. But by employing the concept of "building community" they inadvertently and inevitably create their own cult of celebrity centered around their projected and manufactured self and democratized by remote strangers.
"...vloggers show a strong awareness of not only a potential audience but are also aware of how the very process of recording, editing, scripting and posting videos makes them not only an object of other people's perception but also how this perception is a limited, imperfect realization of their whole individuality." -Daniel R. Smith
"The vlog itself provides the possibility of infinite speeches and points of view. And each vlog is an insufficient, limited realization of this possibility." -Daniel R. Smith
Vlogs and other YouTube videos should be an expressive art form like romanticism. But there's also an element of advertising. If advertising creates the itch that the product soothes, then the community, the content, and the YouTube celebrity are the product. The itch is loneliness. Inviting people to be a part of and take part in a community creates a feeling of loneliness. I only watched PewDiePie videos for some personal entertainment. But then came the idea of submitting memes, or taking part in a book club. Now there is this community that doesn't exist in my real life that I want to be a part of. Being a part of it means taking away time from my real life, taking away the potential to find a real world community, and instead participating in a cult of celebrity centered around a manufactured self and ideology.
It's Not Working Out
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel did a great job of exploring the loneliness of artists and performers in the second season. In Episode 7 "Look, She Made a Hat" Miriam "Midge" Maisel sets up a time for her boyfriend to meet with a recluse artist so he can buy an original painting. What we get is a scene where the artist shows disgust at the idea of one of his paintings going to a doctor who only wants it because of the idea of having an original. When the artist asks Midge why she bought a particular painting at a museum she said, "And then suddenly she [the woman in the painting] caught my eye. I thought, 'I know her. She has a secret. She knows a joke that I don't.' I thought, 'Maybe if I take her home, she'll tell me the joke.' And that made me smile." This story is what impressed the artist. The idea that Midge had a personal connection to the woman in the painting. So he shows her a secret back room with his masterpiece which is never shown on screen. The artist explains that he painted this masterpiece for himself. Not for a doctor to take home, or to put in a museum "next to mummies." He meant for it to be in his house with his family, which he never obtained. He explains that he'll never have a family because everything he has he put into the painting. There's nothing left. He says that "If you want to do something great, you want to take something as far as it'll go... you can't have everything. You lose... family. Sense of home. But then... look at what exists." His creation is a result of loneliness. A result of sacrificing himself and all that he could be to the art.
In the final episode of Maisel Season 2 "All Alone" the final scene centers around a performance by comedian Lenny Bruce. He sings a song about a man (Lenny) who divorces his wife and goes on to say that being alone results in wealth and fame. It is his dedication to the art and sacrifice of his personal life that allows Lenny to be who he is. Seeing this, Midge find inspiration not to give up her comedy career, but to accept loneliness and keep moving forward. She knows she can't have both. So she decides, in a 5-minute phone call in which she agrees to go on a six-month tour, that she will be alone for the rest of her life. She understands that making that decision is a selfish one. That her selfishness is what will drive her forward in a career of comedy but also fuel her loneliness.
To quote Bo Burnham one more time from the song 'Art is Dead.' Entertainers "will be rewarded for never maturing, never understanding or learning every day can't about him, there's other people [...] I must be psychotic, I must be demented to think that I'm worthy of all this attention, or all of this money you worked really hard for. I slept in late while you worked at the drug store. My drug's attention, I am an addict, but I get paid to indulge in my habit. It's all an illusion. I'm wearing makeup. [...] Some people think I'm funny. How do we get those people's money?"
I think online "communities" centered around celebrities are partly a way for celebrities to try and remain attached to the normal world. YouTubers especially don't want to think of themselves as above anyone. As anything different than the average person. They don't have the writers and editors. It's not so obvious that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Drifting away from normal people by living a different lifestyle can leave one feeling empty and lonely. So they try to stay connected. Instead of embracing the entertainer's world, by hanging out with other entertainers and living larger, they create a product called "community." Within that community, they project their need to stay connected onto their audience. The audience becomes a part of that manufactured world. The result? Both artist and consumer leave their own worlds for this "community." Isolating themselves in the way that Midge decides to isolate herself from the idea of family.
I'm not saying that being a part of a YouTube community means you can't have a family or friends or romantic relationships. But the more you sacrifice your time and energy to them, the more you limit your ability to be a part of real communities. I don't think there is any good in being a part of online communities other than to fill a hole of loneliness in an artificial manner. What I'm getting at is the reality that YouTube celebrities are just performers. You don't know them, they're not your friend. When someone says PewDiePie or Shane Dawson "helped them through some tough times" what does that mean? What did they do? They provided a place to escape from reality. There are too many people living in these escapes rather than facing reality and making it something worth living. Creators and viewers are different people. They live in different worlds. Midge learned the important lesson that she can't live in both worlds. That's not to say that YouTubers should be lonely either. Family and friends are important to maintain. But friends don't include the viewers who have their own lives. Their own lives that the YouTubers know nothing about. Just as the viewers know nothing about the YouTubers real lives. Hiding away in online communities provides no value to any relationship.
We want to be a part of these online communities where we know the rules. We know what we need to do to get the likes and shares and even attention from the attention whores in chief. The internet celebrities who have made a living out of creating an itch and providing the scratch.
People are sacrificing their time and their own self to internet celebrities. Just to be a part of the self those celebrities have manufactured. To feel like they are a part of what gets that video 5 million views. To feel like, in some way, they've hit the attention whoring peak just as their heroes have.
I think we need to take a step back. Lower our expectations for what online conversation should be. We can have serious discussion online. But we all need to remember that we don't know each other. We are all strangers with our own lives. Any "personal relationships" we build online, we build on idea and fantasy, not reality.
For the good of ourselves, we need to keep the relationship between artist and audience separate. We can find creativity and happiness in the real world with real people. Not isolated in online, self-indulgent "communities."