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How social media has changed what it means to be a celebrity

smartphone paparazziEven in the 1990s, the line between fame and obscurity was easy to find – this was before the advent of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, when you were generally famous for being an actor or a sports star, a politician or a pundit. There were many paths to renown, but they all involved networking, going through agents, and “getting a big break.” You got your break, you became a public figure, then you gained fame.

But the rules have been changing, and social media and the rise of smartphone culture have substantially altered how celebrities are treated and how people gain the vast platform of fame. The old rules don’t work. Starlets’ breakdowns aren’t concealed by publicists; they’re obsessively documented by gawkers and the stars themselves on the Internet. In the 90s, President Clinton got caught in a sex scandal due to audiotapes and DNA evidence. In 2011, Congressman Anthony Weiner’s  ignominious “Weinergate” embarrassment  unfolded on Twitter.

A chaotic new mode of celebrity

 But the lives of celebrities don’t just fall apart on the Internet – sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can also catapult people to levels of fame they’d otherwise never reach.

For instance, Justin Bieber is often called the first YouTube superstar, and accurately so: The teen dream got his start by posting videos, not by going through the teen idol machine (although he did that later, with Usher’s help). And Bieber’s devoted Beliebers are all the more ardent about their coiffed, swagged out pint-size R&B star because he’s such an active Twitter user. They have a direct entrance to his attention, even if he likely misses the vast majority of the tweets he receives just due to the sheer volume.

Bieber jumped to the highest level of fame imaginable, and he’s not alone. Plenty of people have used social media to carve out niches for themselves just on the strength of their tweets or photos; for instance, Megan Amram is now a well-known television writer for Parks and Recreation, but she broke into screenwriting by way of Twitter. After graduating from Harvard in 2010, she started a Twitter account that was funny enough to get over 90,000 followers, which led to paid writing jobs. She now has almost 350,000 followers.

Amram isn’t the only person to launch themselves into the entertainment industry through Twitter. Kelly Oxford was a housewife in Calgary, Alberta, who started a Twitter account in 2009. Her pithy account gained attention from people like Roger Ebert and Jimmy Fallon, and now she’s sold several pilots and recently authored a book (and made the move to L.A.). Without the Internet – and specifically, Twitter – she’d probably still be in Canada.

 Bieber – and to a lesser extent, Amram and Oxford – leapt from the Internet to the big leagues thanks to sites like Twitter. Not everyone who gets “Twitter famous” makes that transition, but they still enjoy a much larger platform than they would otherwise have within their corner of the Internet.

Even people who enjoy a larger-than-average social media following in their niches enjoy a heightened level of local celebrity. For example, Buzzom profiled a man in Bangladore called V Shakthi who isn’t a performer, writer, or expert – he just really likes business and technology, and he’s gained over 60,000 Twitter followers simply thanks to his smart re-tweets. Shakthi’s popularity exemplifies how people can amass a following just by posting interesting things – and it means that he now has a much wider potential audience to reach if he wants to say something.


And average people who don’t get social media famous are still leaving their mark on celebrity culture by using the Internet to spread stories and photos about famous people. Amateur photographers and gossip buffs with smartphones are impinging on the traditional paparazzo market by selling their iPhone-snapped pictures, and devaluing the cost of images by sharing them freely on the Internet. And while celebrities are more invaded than ever, they also have Twitter and other forums to express their anger publicly and directly.

Paparazzi upped their stalking game considerably in the past decade, going from Pink Panther to SWAT team status – Digital Trends recently interviewed a paparazzo who dangled out of a helicopter to capture Brooke Shield’s wedding, and things have only gotten worse, with one photographer dying in pursuit of Justin Bieber.

In addition to becoming more aggressive and tenacious, paparazzi both professional and amateur benefit immensely from social media and the ascent of the smartphone. You used to have to buy an expensive camera to get the shots, but now you just need an iPhone and a knack for spotting celebrities.

Sites like Twitter and Instagram serve as self-publishing tools, and almost everyone in North America has phone cameras with strong zooms and impressive pixel resolutions, capable of taking pictures good enough to appear on magazine covers (or at least the Internet). 

This means celebrities can get photographed anywhere, anytime. Shying away from the startling light from a tripod camera’s massive flash is a lot different than avoiding someone surreptitiously snapping a photo of you in on a treadmill at the gym. 

On Instagram alone, there are 1,159 photos tagged with #celebsighting, and most of them capture unsuspecting celebrities doing normal stuff – Diane Kruger awkwardly walking in a parking lot, Michelle Pfeiffer with her son at the MoMa, Tom Hanks strolling down the street, Katie Holmes trying to quietly bring Suri to a cafe.Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 4.12.43 PM Most of the photos are mundane, but still the type of thing you used to pay to see in US Weekly and other celebrity lifestyle magazines. Those magazines still exist, but the Internet allows anyone and everyone to publish gossip news, so instead of having a handful of places to see photos like this, we have hundreds. And anyone with a Twitter account can add to the mix of photos.

A recent rare snapshot of Beyonce with her daughter Blue Ivy appeared in tabloids last month, but it originated on Instagram and Twitter, shot by a passerby who happened to be at the right place at the right time.

The New York Times took a look at how the proliferation of amateur social media shots is devaluing the market – since people usually see these rare photos on Facebook, Instagram, and other sites, they command less impressive price tags.

Celebrities fight back

In cases like Evan Rachel Wood’s latest entanglement with paparazzi, the line of what’s too personal for social media is being crossed: Tabloid Daily Mail got a hold of her ultrasound while she was in the hospital. They didn’t use Instagram – someone just flat-out took a photo of the ultrasound (though it was probably on a phone, since they’re much less conspicuous than a camera).

Of course, social media isn’t a one way street. Nor is it a two-way street. It’s a very chaotic jumble of a billion different streets that intersect at weird places.

So Evan Rachel Wood took to Twitter to call out the backhanded photo thieves:

But taking paparazzi to task isn’t the only function of social media for celebrities. Sites like Twitter and Instagram allow celebrities a direct line to their fans, so they can circumvent the paparazzi by getting ahead of the gossip. It seems even the notoriously paparazzi-averse Alec Baldwin doesn’t mind having intimate photos available for public consumption, as long as his wife Hilaria is the one distributing them. Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 6.18.08 PM

And even celebrities who appear more or less totally blase about paparazzi, like Rihanna, use Instagram as a self-promotional tool and a way to save face.

Rihanna’s handling of the press is a good thing to look at if you want to understand how social media is changing paparazzi culture. She invited music journalists to come along aboard the plane for her 777 Tour in 2012. And while these journalists had plenty of the same tools as both the professional and amateur paparazzo at their disposal (phones, camera equipment, close proximity to a superstar) the most captivating photos to emerge from the tour were taken by Rihanna herself and posted to Instagram. 

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 6.36.29 PMBut Rihanna doesn’t just take pictures that are titillatingly intimate better than the paparazzi – she also basically scoops them. When she was late for a charity concert in a suburb of Chicago, she precluded anyone tracking down her car and taking her picture by posting a photo herself. More than that, she showed the car stuck in traffic as a way to apologize for being late.

Social media is hurting the traditional paparazzi, but it’s helping more amateurs get their secret celebrity shots publicized – which means celebrities have to be especially careful when they leave the house, since almost anyone can photograph them at any moment. On the flip side, now they have a way to release the kind of information that they want to be made public directly to fans.

The new culture of fame

So social media and a constantly connected culture have prompted three substantial changes to celebrity: Platforms like Twitter give normal people an opportunity to gain fame, and they also give closely monitored celebrities an opportunity to connect with fans and air their grievances. And our share-everything culture means that average citizens will likely continue to supplant traditional paparazzi. This means it’s easier than ever to become famous, but more of a hassle to retain your privacy once you become the subject of scrutiny. 

But the idea that tweets and selfies can make you famous just reinforces the narcissistic element of social media. People are living their lives as though they’re already famous, since it’s easier to indulge in digital navel-gazing if you tell yourself everyone wants to know about the minutiae of your life.

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Kate Knibbs
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kate Knibbs is a writer from Chicago. She is very happy that her borderline-unhealthy Internet habits are rewarded with a…
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