Give Power to the Fans: Social Media and the Construction of Celebrity

For my digital essay, I’d like to try to combine my interests in rhetoric/composition and cultural studies and explore the notion of celebrity in the digital age—how the proliferation of social media and the growing number of fans using that social media dramatically alter not just how we think or talk about celebrities but also how we construct them in the first place. I’d like to address a specific trend I’ve noticed in the little bit of research I’ve done so far on the intersection of celebrity culture and digital media, which is the tendency to focus on how celebrities use social media to brand themselves, creating Twitter accounts or Facebook pages that act more like blatant PR than genuine fan interaction. Ideally, I’d like to work with David Marshall’s assertion in Celebrity and Power (1997) that audiences possess a creative and generative power in the construction of celebrity and examine how social media enhances that power. Although Erin Meyers treads similar territory in her book Dishing Dirt in the Digital Age, she focuses specifically on celebrity gossip blogs, arguing that gossip bloggers occupy the paradoxical space between insider and outsider. But gossip bloggers like Perez Hilton are a special breed, in that they don’t necessarily provide the best way to look at how the “average fan” uses social media to construct celebrity, although they undoubtedly extend the information network for those fans.

But I’m aware that I couldn’t possibly tackle the entire scope of “celebrity” in the scope of this essay, so I’d like to focus on new or emerging pop stars like Betty Who and Lorde because, while their success varies in scope, they both owe that success to social media. Although Betty Who is still a rising star, she gained intense media attention after her song “Somebody Loves You” was used in the video “Spencer’s Home Depot Marriage Proposal” that went viral recently. Likewise, Lorde has gone from relative obscurity to selling out 40K+ concert venues all by herself in the span of a year largely because of how her song “Royals” went viral. (It might also be worth noting that both females come from “Down Under”—Betty Who from Australia and Lorde from New Zealand.)

To help foreground my topic, I’d like to describe a very curious phenomenon that was, and still is, occurring on Twitter as I did some preliminary research last night. Betty Who was “livetweeting” the release of and subsequent fan responses to her new EP “Slow Dancing,” which hit the digital shelves of iTunes around 8:45pm last night. One major component of this livetweeting is the series of screenshots Betty has been taking to express her happiness about her EP’s sales, the last and most recent of which she posted as I began writing this blog (although now much time has passed due to revisions):

Going from #13 to #1 in less than 24 hours is pretty much the opposite of “slow dancing,” wouldn’t you say?

However obvious it may seem, it’s worth reiterating that chart positions on iTunes are based on sales and that the people most responsible for those sales are, well, the fans.

And as I followed my Twitter feed last night, the “Who Crew” (the charming name Betty Who has given to her fans, much like Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters”) was in top form, tweeting furiously and plugging the EP as often as possible, insisting that their individual body of followers purchase the EP for themselves and become new members of the Crew. And the best part was seeing how many of these tweets that Betty has been retweeting (although she hasn’t retweeted any of mine, not that I’m bitter about that or anything…).

This lengthy story about the ongoing tweet-athon among Betty Who and her Who Crew hopefully gives you a sample of how powerful fans can be in creating and sharing new celebrities through word of mouse, a term I borrow from Jim Banister.

So, to co-opt some of Michael’s organizational principles from his post this week:

Key questions: how does social media afford fans the opportunity to actively participate in the creation of new celebrities? How does social media resemble, counteract, or enhance previous information channels within celebrity culture? What exactly are the contours, nuances, and dynamics of the participatory culture that exists among fans on social media?

My subjects: Betty Who and Lorde (although I’m open to additional suggestions!)

Texts: David Marshall’s Celebrity and Power, Erin Meyers’ Dishing Dirt in the Digital Age, Graeme Turner’s Understanding Celebrity, Jim Banister’s Word of Mouse, Paul Booth’s Digital Fandom, and plenty more (I’m also waiting to hear from the library on a few). I’d also like to incorporate close-readings of some of Lorde’s music to show how she references, explicitly or otherwise, her fans, digital culture, and celebrity culture.

Format: This is where I’m having the most issues. I initially was going to use WordPress, but I’m not sure if a single post or a series of short ones would adequately reflect my project, although I do want a medium where I’m able to incorporate links, videos, audio, etc. From an aesthetic perspective, though, I’d love to create something like the following page from Gee Thomson’s book Mesmerization:

He may think we losing our minds to popular culture, but the man can create a stunning image-word web/map/thingy.

My fear with this option is that I’m not sure if a program exists that does this kind of work. I think Prezi might be the closest tool? If so, how complicated is it for someone like me who is ridiculously feeble with technology?

6 thoughts on “Give Power to the Fans: Social Media and the Construction of Celebrity”

  1. Chris,

    To begin with a confession: I know Lorde (yeah, professor!) but have no idea who Betty Who is. So I don’t have any real sense of why you’d need two case studies rather than one.

    Because that seems to be what you are proposing: A case study of constructing celebrity—by artists, managers, and fans—in a digital age. I think it sounds fascinating. And since I know Lorde, and I’m old, I’m thinking Betty Who is probably the more interesting focus.

    Why not WordPress? I can see how other formats would be technically more adventurous, but since in a conceptual sense you’re kind of out there already—why not give yourself the security of a relatively familiar format?

    I look forward to seeing how this project develops!


    1. Chris,

      As someone who enjoys music but doesn’t go in for the fan/celebrity aspects of media, I am really interested in what you’re asking about participatory culture. I’m also with Joe–I think WordPress is the way to go.

      Are you planning to analyze more than one artist, or take one as a case study? Because picking one would help keep things somewhat consolidated and then you could make the move outward from there in your conclusions.

      Hope this helps. Look forward to seeing where you take this!

      1. Janel and Joe,

        Thanks for much for your feedback already! I think you’re both wise to recommend that I choose one artist as a case study, but now I’m not sure which! My original intention was to use Lorde because of how much she has saturated the market recently, but perhaps Betty Who would be the “better” option since her celebrity is still in its nascent stages. So, since Joe has put his hand for Betty Who, figuratively speaking, what do you think, Janel?

        Also, I’m a bit relieved to hear that WordPress would work, especially because I’m much more comfortable using it as a medium! I’ll get to Prezi someday, SOMEDAY!


  2. Chris,

    To add my vote for WordPress, there are a few free skins on WP which can give you this sort of look that you are hoping for. You probably won’t be able to get as close as you want to the exact format since WP restricts a lot of editing unless you pay [ANGER], but if you’re unhappy with your options in WP then Blogger–with its many free, editable options–is beckoning. You can change so many things in Blogger … but I’m going to restrain myself from gushing.

    Also, Google Sites is really easy to use and highly editable (and so easy for the html/xhtml uninclined to use).

  3. I think that Prezi would be a great way to do it, based on how I’ve seen that program used. I’m just unsure how you’d make it accessible (is Prezi something you can make available on the web? I have no idea.).

    I think you could make it work for WordPress as well- It might be a little more linear and less visual, but I think it could still work.

    Great concept!

  4. I have less a constructive thing to add than to give the obligatory cultural studies fistbump (hooray critical approaches to everyday stuff!), and to say I’m excited by the concept you’re approaching here. Whenever I talk to my students about celebrity (which happens, because my office hours are an excuse to talk about whatever), I find myself using the term “constructed people” to refer to what happens to someone who gets famous–and it strikes me as being a totally weird process that I’d want to read more about.

    And here you are, providing that reading!

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