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Managing our publics like pros
In the world of mutual influence in which technologies and humans exist, are our selves changing? It would certainly appear so in an online search. Identity construction online is sophisticated and constant; not just a full-time job but an activity occupying all hours of our lives.
The need to manage our identities is a new phenomenon – right? Well, mostly. One culture that has been dealing with context collapse as an essential part of their work and lives is celebrity culture. And an increasingly popular strategy for pleasing multiple audiences in various contexts is to post like a celebrity.
Enter the phenomenon of , a way of presenting yourself like a celebrity: setting up your profile and “brand” online, gaining followers, and revealing things about yourself in strategic and controlled ways. The goal of microcelebrity is to make your brand – the marketing of yourself – valuable. The entire system around microcelebrity is called “the attention economy,” because with so much information out there vying for people’s attention, anything people choose to look at is perceived as more valuable, including ourselves. Microcelebrity leads social media users like you and I to apply marketing perspectives to our own identities.
Microcelebrity is big business. It can make ordinary people famous, as when Youtubers can become household names with lucrative marketing contracts. But more often, microcelebrity helps ordinary users participate in social media culture while managing their contexts with polish. We understand increasingly that our social media presences are like art exhibits of ourselves, and we spend extra time in curating them.
Media theorist Alice Marwick has written about a paradox in microcelebrity: As ordinary people are acting more famous, famous people are acting more ordinary. Kim Kardashian presents a selfie of herself and Kanye West in a bathroom; Michelle Obama and Ryan Seacrest mug goofily for a selfie. Graeme Turner called this leveling of the everyday toward celebrity culture and vice versa . “Celebrity culture is increasingly populated by unexceptional people who have become famous and by stars who have been made ordinary,” according to author Joshua Gamson.
Social media has accelerated the demotic turn in celebrity. Many people quote Andy Warhol’s comment in the past that each person, no matter how ordinary, would have 15 minutes of fame. Today, technologically connected societies offer a lifetime of potential discovery by audiences. High-profile celebrities perform the masses for the masses. And you all are superstars, to at least a small public.
Why is it important to know ourselves in order to understand social media? I called this book Humans are Social Media because the development of social media culture, including norms and technological affordances, is wrapped up in you, and me, and other humans. And we are also wrapped up in that culture; as we shape it, it shapes us.
I’ve tried to show the ways the partnership between social media technologies and human culture play out in this book. We began with the reverberations of this partnership on identity. We examined our society’s communication practices informing early social media technologies. We looked at how human-created algorithms bounce against human behaviors, reinforcing them but also sometimes being rejected by them. We learned about the ways humans have learned to use social technologies to seek what we want through online activism, branding, and lying. And we looked at the ways our bodies and needs for love play out in the digital landscape, performing new relationships and spectacular selves.
I hope this book has helped you to understand how important your role is as a human in a technological revolution.
And I hope that you will share what you’ve learned.
Question for Qualitative Thought:
Consider the branding practices on social media of yourself or a non-celebrity acquaintance you know. Compare these practices to an actual brand. Are the practices similar? How does it feel to brand oneself – what is emphasized, and what is left out?
On the afternoon of Jan. 26, I was at the Indiana men’s basketball game when a chorus of cellphones in the crowd pinged, alerting them to the news of Kobe Bryant’s death. I was astonished at how quickly fans’ attention switched from the game to utter shock and disbelief at the news of Bryant’s passing.
Soon, it seemed like the entire nation was in mourning.
Sure, we might expect the basketball world to grieve the passing of one of its all-time greats. But grief came from all corners. The Grammy Awards featured poignant tributes to Bryant. President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama offered their condolences. People who had never met Bryant told reporters they felt like they had just lost a family member.
How can so many be so deeply affected by the death of someone they’ve never even met? Why might some people see Kobe Bryant as a family member?
As a social psychologist, I’m not surprised by these reactions. I see three main reasons, grounded in psychology, that explain why Bryant’s death had such a profound effect on so many people.
1. Feelings formed from afar
Psychologists Shira Gabriel and Melanie Green have written about how many of us form what are called “parasocial bonds” with other people. These tend to be one-way relationships with people whom we’ve never met or interacted with, but nonetheless feel intimately connected to.
Although ideas about parasocial bonds were first developed in the 1950s, they’ve garnered a lot of attention over the past couple of decades. For example, loyal fans of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres watch their shows almost every day, with the hosts actively trying to build a warm rapport with their viewers and their audience developing intense feelings of attachment.
But interest in parasocial relationships has exploded in the age of social media. People who follow celebrities on Twitter and Instagram get access to their relationships, emotions, opinions, triumphs and travails.
Even though it’s a one-way relationship – what are the chances a celebrity actually responds to a fan’s message on social media? – fans can feel a profound level of intimacy with the famous people they follow. Kobe Bryant, with over 15 million followers on Twitter and nearly 20 million followers on Instagram, clearly had a massive following.
2. The ‘what if’ factor
Still, there was something about Bryant’s death that seemed particularly tragic.
There’s no way to measure whether the outpouring of public grief surpassed that of recent celebrity deaths like Michael Jackson, Prince or Robin Williams. But it’s certainly possible that the unique circumstances surrounding Kobe Bryant’s death evoked stronger emotions.
Bryant died in a helicopter during extremely foggy conditions. This can lead to a lot of “what ifs,” otherwise known as “counterfactual thoughts.” Work by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has shown that when we can easily come up with ways to undo an outcome – say, “if it had been a clear day, Kobe would still be alive” – it can intensify the anger, sadness or frustration about a negative event. It makes the death seem that much more random – and make us feel like it never should have happened in the first place.
Furthermore, Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in the accident, along with seven others. This broadens Bryant’s identity beyond the basketball court, reminding people of his role as a father of four daughters – three of whom will now have to live without their sister and father.
3. It’s about us, not him
I’d also add that our grief over Kobe’s death may actually be less about him – and more about us.
According to “terror management theory,” reminders of our own mortality evoke an existential terror. In response, we search for ways to give our lives meaning and seek comfort and reassurance by connecting with loved ones. I found it striking that following the news of Bryant’s death, his former teammate Shaquille O’Neal said that he had called up several estranged friends in order to make amends. Bryant’s death was a stark reminder that life’s too short to hold onto petty grudges.
Similarly, after the loss of loved ones, we’ll often hear people suggest hugging those we love tightly, or living every day to the fullest.
Many had felt like they had gotten to know Bryant after watching him play basketball on TV for 20 years. His death was random and tragic, reminding us that we, too, will someday die – and making us wonder what we’ll have to show for our lives.
- First_Lady_Michelle_Obama_and_Ryan_Seacrest_selfie_Jan_2014 © The White House is licensed under a Public Domain license
a way of presenting yourself like a celebrity: setting up your profile and "brand" online, gaining followers, and revealing things about yourself in strategic and controlled ways
Graeme Turner's term for the leveling of the everyday toward celebrity culture and vice versa (Understanding Celebrity, 2004)