by Crystal Abidin
Crystal Abidin is a digital anthropologist who has studied internet celebrity cultures since 2008. Here are 5 common misconceptions about internet celebrities that you can learn about from her newest book, Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online.
Internet celebrities are different from traditional celebrities on social media
As traditional celebrities from the mainstream entertainment industries are increasingly employing social media to engage with audiences, we may conflate them with ordinary social media users who have cultivated internet-native celebrity with followers online. But while the former dabbles in social media as a peripheral channel to reach out to audiences and have an army of PR personnel and privacy protection mechanisms at their disposal, the latter rely almost completely on generating social media content to grow their followers and are expected to divulge increasingly private personal details to sustain their audience’s interest.
There are more varieties of internet celebrities than just influencers
Influencers are perhaps the epitome of internet celebrities, given that their celebrity is usually sustained, carefully branded, and highly lucrative. But there are many other types of internet celebrities in the spectrum, such as people or animals who become the face of memes but may never be acknowledged beyond their visual stereotype, eyewitness viral stars who are manufactured into overnight but transient sensations by news networks based on a catchy catchphrase from their interview, or one-post wonders where persons are only ever known for one piece of social media content and are never able to replicate their popularity despite their best efforts.
Many internet celebrities are unwilling parties whose privacies are sacrificed
Accidental internet celebrities who are thrust into the limelight without explicit permission and trended against their will often find themselves unable to tap out of the cycle of publicity. There has been a rise of social media users who are live-tweeting about and even secretly photographing fellow commuters or strangers in public, such as Euan Holden of the ‘plane bae romance’ (2018). Other people experience their photographs being unwittingly made into memes for public humour and mockery, such as Heidi Yeh of the ‘plastic surgery hoax’ (2012). As there are few safeguards around being unwillingly celebritized, social media users should discourage sharing content that invades someone else’s privacy.
Not all internet celebrities can parlay their fame into financial profit
The social capital of fame on the internet does not naturally convert into economic capital or other tangible returns. Monetising internet celebrity is a calibrated and sometimes arduous process. Many willing internet celebrities have attempted to parlay their one-off transient fame into a career with longevity, but those such as Kyle Craven of the ‘Bad Luck Brian’ meme fame (2012) struggle to coherently brand themselves across their digital estates, aggressively market their singular brand image, and sustain audience interest. After all, the attention economy on the internet circulates so quickly and is ever so saturated that viewer interest tends to be volatile.
Traditional entertainment industries are relying on internet celebrities more than ever
Audiences often assume that people desire to become internet celebrities as a stepping stone into careers in modeling, singing, acting, and the like. While this is the case for some internet celebrities, as a whole the group has a lot more persuasive power over audiences because the rhythms and aesthetics of frequent social media updates foster deep feelings of relatability and intimacy. As such, entertainment industries such as television, cinema, and radio are increasingly relying on cameos, appearances, endorsements, and advertising by internet celebrities to bring social media-native audiences back to the ailing traditional media platforms.