When “Celebrities” Find Twitter

I’m presenting at a media studies conference next month in the University of Texas Radio-Television-Film department. Since I try to put digested versions of academic things I write here I thought I’d post some of what I’ll offer at the conference:

With the recent addition of Kanye West to its ranks, the social media site Twitter seems to have found its poster child. Garnering more than 400,000 followers in his first week, West’s incessant posts about every absurdly mundane aspect of his rather extravagant public lifestyle seems indicative of the narcissistic potential of social networking. West’s Twitter followers, of which I am admittedly among, are privy to an excess of celebrity on a scale previously unimagined.

Neal Gabler reminds us that “celebrity” in the United States developed as technological innovations in media created an insatiable cultural desire for public recognition. Which means that like it or not, we all aspire to be Kanye West. Predicated on the idea of instant publicity, Twitter enables a constant search for recognition by one’s “followers,” likening them to the fanbase enjoyed by traditional celebrities. Much like with Reality television and YouTube, Twitter may be fundamentally changing the ways in which we configure celebrity status. In other words “celebrity” is the guiding ideology of Twitter, with the desire to address and be addressed by one’s “followers” serving to create a hyper-public media environment that blurs the public and private lives of celebrities as well as the distinction between celebrity and non-celebrity. With Twitter everyone strives for recognition.

My position is anchored in what communication scholar Jodi Dean, in her book Publicity’s Secret terms “technoculture.” Essentially publicity and technoculture go together like liberalism and capitalism. This is significant because it implies that our actions not only confine publicity to the online world, but that the online world is synonymous with all others. Just like our systems of currency increasingly organize our economic systems around elements whose intrinsic worth is self-perpetuating so our notion of publicity similarly functions in contemporary technoculture.

With Twitter celebrity and publicity go hand in hand. The primary path to participation in the technocultural sphere is through recognition. Tweeting in the hopes of gaining a cult of “followers” we align ourselves with publicity as the underlying ideological construct of the Internet. The desire to be known is more than one of vanity however. It has also become a simulacrum of political participation. Dean explains, “for the victim to matter politically, it has to become public, to be made visible, accessible. It has to be known. Those who aren’t known are not victims.” So while Wyclef Jean’s campaign for President of Haiti may be nothing more than a publicity stunt, in late capitalist society this visibility is key and nowhere is this more tantamount that online. As the Internet potentially permeates more and more of our lives, as globalization of capital is sure to continue, this will serve to become the reality in every sense of the word. In this regard Jean’s political stunt may also indicate legitimate political action.

If visibility through achievement of celebrity is what counts as political participation then those who are unable to achieve such visibility will be literally unknown. In a mediated world failure to achieve publicity and recognition is a failure to participate politically. As Twitter continues the complication of online and offline, the drive for recognition in one becomes a necessity for relevance in another. In other words Twitter indicates that being a celebrity really is most important.

A recent New York Times piece I Tweet Therefore I Am provides a nice hashtags for what I’m going for here. Now more than ever it has become the presentation of self. Instead of self reflection and internal development of identity, we are increasingly more aware of our public perception. We now spend more of our time on outward appearance, not that we didn’t before. In other words, everyone is marketing themselves. On Twitter, everyone is a celebrity.


About Joe Faina

Rhetoric & Media Professor, Writer, Humorist

Posted on 08/26/2010, in Academia, Political Pop-Culture, social media. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I like that you use simulacrum….what does that mean again?

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