I heard a bit on the radio about the internet and microcelebrity, but I only caught the tail end of it. I found an article about the idea here, written by Clive Thompson of Wired, and found that it really resonated with me as a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of idea. I wish this concept were more widespread in online discussion, and it’s implications more carefully considered. Even for those who know about it, few really take it seriously. I mean, Tay Zonday doesn’t really need serious deconstruction, does he? We watch him, we talk about him. So what?
I’m disturbed by our tendency to create and worship at the altar of alternative authority figures in online communities, and then to scoff about the whole thing because it doesn’t matter.
This is primarily why I hestitate over studies like Walt’s which seek to quantify popularity in the world of librarian blogs; I fear the creation of a hierarchy within this online community. Creating a list of popular bloggers creates more visible, more defined, and authoritative list of our community’s microcelebrities, encouraging others to vie for the top spot and pay closer attention to these community leaders. In reality this happens anyway, regardless of whether you quantify it, so I suppose I shouldn’t be so skittish about lists. But I feel like we don’t consider the implications of this microcelebrity enough, that we don’t stop to deconstruct the process enough and see what kinds of behaviours we unthinkingly adopt in its presence.
I’m interested in what it means to be a microcelebrity in any community, because I’ve seen in turn destructive and counterproductive so many times online. Why does this happen? Most people start doing what they do, putting themselves online, for a set of self-defined and often unique purposes: they enjoy writing out loud, they enjoy participating in a community of like-minded people with similar interests, they enjoy the challenge of alternative perspectives, they want a place to react and respond to the things that go on in their daily lives. They like to record their own growth and be urged on in that growth by people they do and don’t know. They want to get some feedback on something they’re doing, get some reaction and attention, perhaps. They want to create an online presence. Most people (I imagine) don’t enter into an online community with the goal of becoming one of that community’s celebrities; most people don’t realize that all online communities have their own homegrown celebrities. We don’t conceive of celebrity that way, and we don’t, as a rule, know the internet and it communities well enough to know that this is what happens. But I have never seen an online community that didn’t have them. It’s rarely a positive experience for anyone, even though “it’s not real” and “it doesn’t matter” and “who is it really hurting”. It hurts us. It reflects the way we build our communities, and being conscious of it will hopefully create a richer, more diverse environment.
What does it mean to be a microcelebrity, known in other circles as a BNF? It means that everything the microcelebrity writes about or focuses on gains more attention than it would otherwise; microcelebrities set the topics for discussion within the community, because everyone is reading what they say and wants in on the conversation. If the microcelebrity develops an interest in something relatively ignored to that point, that interest becomes a new fad. The microcelebrity coins terms that have currency in the community. The ideas, rough drafts, or work of the microcelebrity gets lots of feedback and response in the form of comments, forum posts, tweets, or blog posts; the work of the microcelebrity is more often cited and built upon than that of others. The ideas or work of microcelebrities become goalposts of the community, and everyone else is often compared against them. It’s a powerful position, but that power is often invisible to the microcelebrity, who is often just trying to do what everyone else is doing without recognizing the influence they’re having on the community at large. This definition of celebrity is so absurd to people that the power that comes with it is difficult for them to comprehend. It often feels like microcelebrities “run” the community, when in reality they do not and cannot. Their interests and activities just consistently receive more attention than that of others in the community.
It all sounds pretty positive, but there are downsides, and I think those downsides are dangerous for a healthy online community. Being under a microscope constantly by one’s own community of peers means that the microcelebrity is required to be increasingly careful about what kinds of ideas they espouse lest they inadvertently quash someone else’s project or cause drama. Clive Thompson writes: “Some pundits fret that microcelebrity will soon force everyone to write blog posts and even talk in the bland, focus-grouped cadences of Hillary Clinton (minus the cackle).” He doesn’t believe this is likely, but I’ve never been involved in a community where I haven’t seen it happen. As soon as everyone is staring at you all the time, and the slightest negative opinion sends some part of your community into a tailspin and your inbox to fill up with hate mail, things do get pretty bland. We talk about celebrities (micro or otherwise) as if they are not flesh and blood people; we can talk about them negatively without imagining that they would ever find and read our words about them. We curtail the people we read the most, in the end. The microcelebrity’s views and interests become more mainstream because mainstream is what we want from them; we want them to pet our egos, support our projects, and not stomp on any emerging subcultures or fledgling ideas, and we want to be able to eviscerate them for everything they say and do, as well. Why do we do this to each other? Why is this necessary? (Ask Jessamyn if she gets any hatemail. I bet she does. Do you?)
People approach microcelebrities to pimp their project or their posts, because the approval of a microcelebrity has such great weight; people post comments on these people’s posts just to get their names out there and visible within the community. People put microcelebrities in their feedreaders just to keep track of what they’re paying attention to, either to repost and respond to it, or possibly just to mock it. People get scornful of microcelebrities and everything they say and do, just because there is always a group of people who want to define themselves against what’s popular and shaping public discussion. Microcelebrities will always be judged as not as smart, interesting, or up-to-date as whoever is trying to build themselves up in their shadows. (“Why does she get all that attention? She doesn’t deserve it.“) They become heroes and an anti-heroes at the same time. It’s junior high all over again, and what disturbs me the most is that we don’t ruminate often on the nature of our interaction with microcelebrity at all. We don’t get metacritical about the way we build people up and use them as community signposts. We don’t question the way we adopt authority even when such authority is entirely fictional. We naturally shape our online communities that way and then chafe under them without investigating what underpins the construction of a community.
Being careful about what you post online is no great tragedy, but deliberately creating a hierarchy as a collective where a small subset of a community are expected to control topics and opinions, set trends, and give blessing to emerging subcultures, is self-limiting on all sides.
And this is why I object to creating “top 10 lists” of librarian bloggers; I know what ends up happening. People troll these lists for the ones to watch rather than exclusively following the people they would naturally gravitate toward or find interesting. We create a canon. Without the top 10 list, at least the people getting attention at any one time would shift and change a bit more; as soon as we publicly acknowledge those who get most of our attention, we’re starting to build up those hierarchies and cement them.
Microcelebrity is a real thing, and it can have a negative impact on an online community. I’d love to see a community structured to allow everyone to get the feedback and attention they want without any small subset becoming the de facto class presidents. Maybe we’re just not wired that way.