All posts by Christopher Tirri

Writing instructor. Avid popular culture enthusiast. Amateur urban explorer. Hipster theorist. Devoted Diamond.

Betty Who?: Social Media and the Construction of New Pop Celebrities

Link to project: Somebody loves this.

Overview: The basic premise of my digital essay is to explore the intersection of social media (specifically YouTube and Twitter) and proto-celebrities—those artists that are still relatively unknown but who already have a well-established, committed fanbase and the talent necessary to be “the next big thing.” On a more analytical/theoretical level, my digital essay explores how fans use social media and engage in digital participatory culture to construct celebrities from the bottom up—how we interpret, synthesize, produce, and disseminate texts, images, and meanings that surround our proto-celebrities of choice. I use Australian-born singer Betty Who as a case study to highlight how the digital mechanisms of participatory culture actually work by providing a close-reading of two specific online events related to her music: the viral video “Spencer’s Home Depot Marriage Proposal,” which features Betty’s debut single “Somebody Loves You,” and the release of her second EP Slow Dancing because of how her fans—the “Who Crew”—reacted to it on Twitter.

Process: This project developed, unlike some of the more “traditional” essays I’ve written as a graduate student, out of my passion for pop music, which I always thought didn’t have much of a place in the academy. I first began by collecting and synthesizing a wealth of scholarship that proved quite the opposite: that popular culture could very much be a valuable source of inquiry. The second part of my essay, entitled “Convergence Culture and Redefining Fandom” is essentially my trying to work through all of that source material and to create a theoretical framework.

Moreover, unlike most of the other essays I’ve written, the peer review process had a considerable impact on how I drafted and revised this project. Having to go through multiple peer review sessions forced me to take a more proactive approach with my writing process, whereas I normally would have left most of the drafting until very near to the final deadline.

Affordances: Although I would like to think that most of my digital essay could easily translate into a more traditional form(at), the fourth part entitled “The Twittersphere and the Who Crew” would not because of its reliance on the use of embedded tweets. By embedding those tweets into the body of the post, they become a much more participatory aspect of the essay, in that they provide important visual and verbal cues as well as enable readers to actively form a network between my blog and Twitter with a simple click, like so:

If I were to have written part four in a Word document, I would have had to reduce these tweets to static screen shots or worse, to summarize their content, neither of which would have had the same rhetorical impact.

Constraints: The one aspect of this project that I struggled with the most was, as Naghmeh aptly called it, its “digital flexibility.” I knew that a blog could be multimodal very easily, but I wasn’t sure how to achieve such multimodality without it looking contrived. In a way, then, I became overwhelmed by the sheer amount of the web’s affordances, feeling like I needed to include as many of them as I could. But as the “final” version of my digital essay shows, I decided to use multimodality sparingly and to concentrate it mainly in my case study of Betty Who, which I felt was the place that needed it the most (rhetorically speaking).

After reflecting on my digital essay in this post, I want to try to offer some semblance of an answer to Joe’s question, “What changes when you write for the screen rather than the page?” As I stated above, I believe that writing for the screen enables us as writers to create projects that have a liveliness to them that writings for the page do not. Likewise, we can more (pro)actively create a network among our projects and the work of other scholars, bloggers, users, etc., in a digital environment, whereas simply citing or quoting in a static essay cannot or does not.

But I also don’t think that everything has to/does change when we write for the screen rather than the page, that we don’t have to adopt huge fundamental changes just to “fit in” with digital aesthetics and values, or to “look cool” as if we “get” what everyone is trying to do. To me, that feels incredibly disingenuous. We can write as academics on the web and use very few of its affordances (as I showed with Henry Jenkins’ blog in my post last week), or we can choose to be more conversational and creative—something I think Tumblr is really great for; it all depends on what each of us is comfortable with. And if a work is sound (read: effective, compelling), then why should it have to include multimedia just to grab our attention if that media isn’t going to add anything?

I’d like to conclude my post with the official music video for Betty Who’s song “Somebody Loves You.” It not only feels more apropos, given the subject of my digital essay, but watching it will also (hopefully) give you all a feel for who Betty Who is as we anticipate our arcade on Friday.

The Pros and Cons of Academic Weblogging

In response to the rough draft of my digital essay, wherein I draw from the work of Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture, Caitlin recommended that I link to his blog, which he updates regularly and where he clearly identifies himself as an “Aca-Fan” (an academic fan). After perusing the first few pages (which cover about two months’ worth of material), I came across a series of posts that I thought provided a useful example for exploring the affordances of weblogging. This series is titled “Why Do We Need to Understand Fans” A Conversation with Mark Duffett” and it includes four parts, from March 3-10, 2014. Upon reading the title, I thought to myself, “How convenient/awesome that a scholar I’m using for my digital essay is having a conversation with another scholar I’m using!” For the sake of this post, let’s focus on just the first part (although the rest are equally as riveting, especially for those of us interested in cultural studies *ahem, Michael*).

The post begins with a personal narrative, wherein Jenkins explains how he first met Duffett on a recent trip to England. Jenkins then moves into a critical summary of Duffett’s work that emphasizes new directions it’s leading us in as fan/media/cultural studies scholars, concluding with the statement that it is something “that we all need to engage with.” The rest of the post consists of a transcription of their conversation.

From an aesthetic point of view, the transcription isn’t all that exciting: it’s an intense amount of text that, while formatted in such a way to clearly delineate Jenkins’ words from Duffett’s, wouldn’t lose much if we were to print it out as a PDF:

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Duffett’s actual answer is anything but short (although it is enlightening).

As I was reading through the transcription, I couldn’t help but recall Kenneth Goldsmith’s discussion of the audio/video transcription assignment he created for his “Uncreative Writing” seminar and how difficult he says it was for students to capture the nuances of human speech in alphabetic text. Without using the clunky system of symbols to signify pauses and emphases, the transcription feels extremely dense and static; yet, if Jenkins had used that system, he would have rendered the transcription nearly, if not entirely, unreadable to unfamiliar audiences.

Digital writing offers a simple solution: embedded video. I felt like Jenkins’ does this series of posts a disservice by not including any audio or video because doing so would have allowed us to gain a better understanding of how he and Duffett interacted. Hearing or watching Duffett answer Jenkins’ inquiries would have been more in line with Jenkins’ interest in convergence/participatory culture, would have helped break up the textual monotony of reading such a text-heavy transcription. But as Jenkins’ other posts show, he clearly in no stranger to the use of embedded video, so I wonder why he chose not to include any to enhance this series of posts (the one in part four has little to do with the actual conversation at hand), especially since the linguistic accuracy of his transcription suggests that he recorded his conversation with Duffett in some capacity.

But what I appreciate about Jenkins’ blog as a whole, though, is how it utilizes digital media to escapes the confines of printed (read: hard copy) writing. By creating and maintaining this blog, Jenkins is able to extend his scholarship, to update his previously published work—to avoid what Janel called “the horribly static codex.” As we witness the shift toward Digital Humanities, perhaps Jenkins can provide us a model for how to reconceptualize scholarship and what it means to be a “published scholar.”

Betty Who?: Social Media and the Construction of New Pop Celebrities (A Digital Essay)

Greetings, whistle-pigs! Er…groundhogs.

I’ve created a WordPress site that will serve as the platform for my digital essay. The link is: popexaminer.wordpress.com

A. Brief Summary: My digital essay is not only argument-driven but also theoretically-based, meaning I’m trying to pull together various threads of scholarship into one “cohesive” whole: celebrity, media, and fan studies, as well as interdisciplinary work on social media. In doing so, I’m pursuing the question of how fans use social media to construct new pop celebrities, as the title of my essay implies. What is live on my WordPress site thus far is a series of five posts that serve as the theoretical framework for my project. What I have left to compose is my case study, which will focus on Betty Who. By the end of my essay, I hope to prove how a “proto-celebrity” no longer needs to rely solely on the machinations of a PR team to gain and sustain media exposure; rather, fans do much of the footwork these days out of sheer interest in the proto-celebrity at hand and in sharing them with the rest of the world in the hopes of creating a fan community.

B. Gaps and/or Problems: As I stated above, the most obvious gap is my missing case study on Betty Who, which I’m still working through. In terms of problems, I have two concerns: (1) how “multimedia” or “digital” my project is, and (2) how my tone translates onto a blog. I’m afraid of sounding disingenuous by pandering to what a “blogger” should sound like, but I’m also afraid of sounding too academic. At the end of the day, though, I’d rather sound academic (and risk sounding pretentious) than phony.

C. What Sort of Feedback Would Be Most Useful: Here are some guiding questions that way I can avoid micromanaging. How can I better include more “affordances” of the web to make my project seem more multimedia? Keep in mind, though, that my case study of Betty Who will be very multimodal. Are there any places where you think I could condense or pull back on some of my theorizing/frameworking? How well do you see my own authorial voice coming through (since I draw from the work of numerous scholars)? Additionally, I’m conceiving each post as both a separate entity and a part of a larger whole. Does each post achieve those criteria? If not, which ones could I improve, and how could I improve them? Finally, one smaller point: is it redundant to repeat the same, long title for each blog post? Would it be more effective if I just titled them “Part x of ???” or something that more accurately reflects the specific post’s argument, paired with the “Part x of ???” parenthetical?

Mining the Archollection, Writing the “Stuff of Life”

In his chapter on remix, Adam Banks draws from the work of Catherine Latterell because of her attraction to the concept of remix as something that “allows students ways of juxtaposing texts and ideas from academic and popular culture as well as other forms of public discourse and encourages students to create a wide range of print, oral, and digital texts” (88). Although Banks is clearly interested in these pedagogical values of remix, he advocates that our definition of what remixes, mixtapes, and samples are and do should also emphasize how they enact a “synchronizing of generational commonalities and tensions that allows, even demands, innovation while remaining linked with histories and traditions” (90-1).

So, even if we aren’t explicitly utilizing African American rhetoric within our first-year composition courses, how can we get our students “to remix history in order to point a new way forward” (100)? Furthermore, how can we get them to recognize composition as one giant “digital humanities project, as a thorough linking of texts, techne, and technologies” (155)?

I’m especially interested in how Banks calls for a “linking of texts” that preserves their “histories and traditions” because it feels (at least to me) like he is proposing a New Historicist approach to composition, which could have numerous exciting possibilities. And I very much agree with his assertions that we, as teachers, cannot “create any syllabus or teach anything without the explicit and implicit borrowing and reuse that DJs have celebrated and mastered,” and that “[e]very course we teach is a mixtape” (138).

But what are some examples of texts that we can introduce into our first-year composition classrooms that carry with them historic import?

Well, I’d like to think that material culture (or Material Culture?) is a fine place to start.

In my past two years of teaching E110 here at UD, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching my students’ reactions when I introduce their final writing assignment of the semester: a material culture multimedia project that asks each of them to examine a significant object from their own lives. They first write a personal narrative detailing how that object has helped them understand who they are as individuals but also as members of various communities (family, school, hometown, teams, etc.). They must then transform that narrative generically for a class presentation.

Initially, they view material culture as just a bunch of “stuff,” not as a series of “texts” that can offer valuable insight into their personal histories.  Sort of like this guy:

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Because I like to make their lives “miserable,” obvi.

But their final projects almost always rise to the challenge:

ImageAnd what I’ve received are narratives centered around extremely evocative objects: a childhood home, a bracelet commemorating a loved one, a tchotchke from their birth country, or even a video game that has helped them through major life transitions like divorce or changing school systems.

So, why material culture then? Well, for Banks, part of what is at stake in using African American rhetoric in composition is to show black students how to interact with their backgrounds/origins, and their capabilities in a multimodal world. Material culture, as I’ve shown in the project I have my students complete, achieves a similar end. Likewise, Banks wants us to educate our students on how “to critically examine the technologies they often use without careful consideration” (88). To that end, it would behoove us to conceptualize material culture not just as “stuff” but as an archollection (archive & collection) of critical life technologies, ones that we may take for granted through everyday use but nonetheless tell us a great deal about who we are, where we came from, and what we can do both inside and outside of the composition classroom.

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):

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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:

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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?

Tales from the Textual Zombie Apocalypse

In the introduction to her text Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, Kathleen Fitzpatrick develops a striking metaphor for how academic publishing currently operates and the stagnant form of its major product, namely the monograph: “The scholarly press book is, however, in a curious state, one that might usefully trouble our associations of obsolescence with the ‘death’ of this or that cultural form, for while it is no longer a viable mode of communication, it is, in many fields, still required in order to get tenure. If anything, the scholarly monograph isn’t dead; it is undead” (4).

As Fitzpatrick points out, and as I’m sure many of us are aware, zombie culture is huge these days. Just look at the popularity of zombie-centric texts like World War Z by Max Brooks and its subsequent film adaptation directed by Marc Forster, or the AMC series The Walking Dead, based on the comic-book series of the same name. And of course there’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because who doesn’t want a little brains with their Jane Austen?

But I digress. Fitzpatrick expresses some concern for “how far we want to,” and I’d add can, “carry this metaphor,” yet she nonetheless carries it further, stating that “contemporary academic publishing is governed by a kind of zombie logic” that “might be read as indicating that these old forms refuse to stay put in their graves, but instead walk the earth, rotting and putrescent…” and she goes on, consciously carrying the metaphor to its absurd limit (4).

But however hyperbolic Fitzpatrick’s metaphor may be, I find it to be extremely apropos, given her interest in working toward “a good replacement for the scholarly monograph,” which she asserts does not yet exist because we don’t “seem particularly inclined to allow the book to become a ‘niche’ technology” (5). Her point is well-taken: we cannot expect to survive a textual zombie apocalypse if we don’t create and arm ourselves with the appropriate accoutrements that would open up a can of academic whoop-ass.

One of the key facets of her argument is that perhaps we need to revise our notions of the kind of scholarly work that is sufficient for receiving tenure because scholars are no longer creating monographs as we once knew them; quite the contrary, their projects are increasingly multimodal and “creative” in ways that dramatically challenge universities’ motto of “‘We Have Never Done It That Way Before,’” which Fitzpatrick reiterates countless times throughout her text.

Aside from how scholars are more frequently muddying the “genre” of the “scholarly monograph,” I’d argue that there is another lingering ideology that is essentially the brains-ripe-for-chomping that perpetuate zombie texts: our assumption that texts, either in print or in digital forms, are almost always read not just from cover-to-cover but also in chronological/sequential order. Discussing her findings from her experiment where she posted a manuscript version (sorrynotsorry for the reliance on a print-specific term) of Planned Obsolescence on MediaCommons, Fitzpatrick glosses this assumption when she attempts to make sense of the breakdown of page visits. She admits that “reading online is perhaps a bit more partial and broken-up than we might prefer…but we also know at least anecdotally that most readers of scholarly texts do not in any literal sense actually sit down and read them start to finish” (192-3). Rather, we read them almost as if they were a buffet, scanning the table of contents and indices for what looks appetizing—essentially which portions of that author’s/those authors’ brains we’d like to pick at.

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Is academic publishing in a perpetual state of “dead week”?

Thus, we can’t assume that “a ‘pure’ reading process” actually exists, especially in light of how our “web-browsing techniques” are often “fragmented and adulterated” (193), yet it definitely seems like we still do on some level.

Hence our reliance on the printed scholarly monograph.

In a digital environment where we can easily get link-happy and click around haphazardly until our hearts’ content or, as Kylie mentioned in her x1 post, we get through all the tabs we currently have open in our browsers, how can we use this fragmented process of reading to our advantage in reconceptualizing the kinds of long-playing texts, to borrow a music term, we value in the academy? Is there a way that we can use the “persistent ephemerality” of the blog form in creating texts that withstand “planned obsolescence” with a bit more panache?

Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: That’s What Lessig’s Perfect Remix Is Made of

Back in high school before I came into my musical own, I didn’t understand the appeal of remixes.  My thought was, “Why tamper with a song that’s already great on its own?”  I especially couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of remixing a dance song because doing so seemed redundant: how could a dance song possibly get any dancier or a pop song sound any poppier?  My younger self was clearly a subconscious yet nonetheless firm believer in the “Read/Only” (RO) culture that Lessig attempts to extend in Remix.

As an avid connoisseur of remixes nowadays, I can say with conviction that not all remixes are created equal, that chances are a “majority of remix, like the vast majority of home movies, or consumer photographs, or singing in the shower, or blogs, is just crap” (Lessig 92).  Lessig is right in his assertion that very little follows from this criticism, but I would also stress how crucial it is for us to be aware of how much such a criticism sounds like and essentially is a value judgment, one that is undeniably subject to our individual, capricious tastes.

What I’m unsure of, though, is how self-aware Lessig is of how his own value judgments cloud his argument as he tries to parse out the “differences in value” among remixes, value he qualifies with the rhetorical question, “Is it any good?” (90) His bias is especially apparent, not to mention problematic, when he argues in favor of remix: “I want my kids to listen to SilviaO’s remix of fourstones’ latest work—a thousand times I want them to listen. Because that listening is active, and engaged, far more than the brain-dead melodies or lyrics of a Britney Spears. Her work draws on nothing, save the forbidden and erotic” (95).

Yes, not all remixes are created equal—that fact seems self-evident.  But what makes SilviaO so special, and what is it about her remixes that warrant “active and engaged” listening?  And more to the point: what should a remix have to do, say, be, or sound like in order to foster the kind of listening that Lessig advocates?

And besides, what’s so bad about Britney??

Although Chris Crocker’s impassioned outcry for greater respect for Britney dates back to her Blackout era drama, his sentiments nonetheless apply here as well (especially since Remix was published within a year of the album’s original release).

I’d argue that Lessig’s praise for SilviaO stems from his implicit (explicit?) approval of her involvement with Creative Commons because it shows that she takes an active role in generating creative communities.  But I’d strongly disagree with his implication that “popular” music, with all of the ideological and linguistic issues that Stuart Hall once critiqued intact, like Britney Spears can never be generative, that we should therefore automatically relegate it to a passive, RO listening experience.  Not to mention how Britney Spears is an entirely different kind of artist/chanteuse than is SilviaO.

Such an implication on Lessig’s part ignores a crucial trend in remix culture, one that can be gleaned from even a cursory glance at iTunes: pop music is one of the most heavily remixed genres.  And just like every remix is not created equal, neither does every remix set out to achieve the exact same project.

Because every artist cannot or does not want to be SilviaO or Girl Talk, then, Lessig’s argument begs the question of what needs to be at stake in a particular remix for it to demand our critical attention and thus enable it to transcend the realm of RO culture and enter that of RW.