Gayle S. Stever, PhD
Empire State College/SUNY, Rochester, NY
In most writings about celebrity, the word is used as a noun. A person is a celebrity. But what if we thought of celebrity, not as a noun, but rather as a characteristic of an individual? We could then talk about celebrity in the same way as an individual’s other characteristics. There is a common thread in personality research that tries to differentiate states vs. traits. For example, is extroversion a trait of an individual as in “Joe is an extrovert,” or is it a state as in “I am feeling particularly extroverted today?”
Using the word celebrity in this way, we could talk about a person’s celebrity as being a state that is potentially transient. Rather than being a celebrity, a person can be in a state of celebrity or could potentially possess the trait of celebrity. Brad Pitt is a celebrity, and that is liable to be a constant trait for him as he has been famous for a very long time. However, some individuals are in a state of celebrity that may be here today and gone tomorrow.
This is particularly relevant when talking about a recent phenomenon in social media called “micro-celebrity,” a term coined by Senft (2008) in her book about Cam-girls. These young women broadcast their personal lives to audience subscribers on the world wide web. A micro-celebrity is someone who has an audience and a fan base created by digital media technologies in a single medium such as a YouTube channel, blog, web site, or social media page. The first “camgirl,” “Jennicam” began broadcasting in 1996 and ended in 2004. Senft’s book gives a detailed history of Camgirls including her own venture into being a Camgirl, although her broadcast was part of her research into the phenomenon. From her work comes an understanding of the dynamic between these Camgirls and their fan bases or audiences.
This is an early example of a phenomenon that has become more prominent as social media becomes a more influential form of media. Because some YouTube personalities have millions of followers, advertisers are engaging more with micro-celebrities in order to seek endorsements for their product; as a result many micro-celebrities make a good deal of money. A micro-celebrity is an individual who is in a state of celebrity, but with a very limited audience.
In the 20th century, Alvin Toffler described the shift from mass media to de-massified media as, beginning in the 1980s, his “third wave of change.” Media platforms have shifted from few providers who were read or watched by large numbers to numerous platforms with fewer numbers. Celebrity took a corresponding shift. It is easy to identify the mega-stars of the 20th century, people like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and The Beatles. Large numbers of people viewed their performances because there were few choices. When the Beatles were featured on the Ed Sullivan show on a Sunday night in 1964, most people saw that program because there were few competing sources of entertainment.
By way of contrast, there are so many choices for entertainment today, that the chances that you and your coworkers watched the same thing on television last night are small. Even very high-profile popular programs might not be watched at the same time as people often use devices like DVRs and watch those programs well after they have aired.
The effect of a world with more media sources is that we now have a far larger number of celebrities. There are levels of celebrity, from the international superstars all the way down to the local celebrities who are known only in their geographic areas (Giles, 2000). There are also celebrities within domains, for example most psychologists have heard of and would recognize Philip Zimbardo from his popular series of Discovering Psychology programs, but people outside the discipline would be far less likely to recognize him. With the world of celebrity containing many more individuals and the influence of those individuals encompassing a much smaller group of people, it becomes easier for their fans to have a close or intimate relationship with a celebrity (Stever, 2016).
In the past, those who write about fan/celebrity relationships have assumed that the fan would never meet the celebrity, indeed never could meet the celebrity. However various things have served to make a celebrity far more accessible to fans, and the smaller audience makes it far more likely that an individual fan will be recognized and become known to the favorite celebrity. These more intimate relationships are not limited just to micro-celebrities on social media. For example, William Shatner, arguably one of the better-known celebrities of our time, has a long-term fan base whose members know him quite well because of the Star Trek convention circuit where Shatner has made hundreds of appearances. It is also due to his activity in his Hollywood Charity Horse Show and, more recently, his presence on Twitter. Other examples of bigger stars who are known by their fans in these ways are Josh Groban and Lady Gaga.
Van Krieken (2012) has suggested that in our complex society, attention is a scarce resource. There are so many things to draw our attention that where we invest it has to be selective. Celebrities are those who, through unique characteristics or accomplishments or behaviors, draw our attention. When the individual has succeeded in drawing our attention, that person is in a state of celebrity, or is being celebrated, either for accomplishments or for other unique attention-drawing characteristics, for example, Lady Gaga who originally set out to be famous by being as outrageous as possible. However, although as time progressed, it became apparent that she has a great deal of musical talent as well.
Outrageous behavior is not unique to the 21st century; for example, Oscar Wilde achieved a state of celebrity long before he had accomplished anything that was worthy of being celebrated. Most of the works for which he is known came after he had already toured America and achieved a modicum of notoriety because of unusual dress and behavior. His works, such as The Importance of Being Earnest, were more noticed because he had already achieved celebrity. In any individual’s life, it is possible to talk about the person before and after fame is achieved. For a famous person, the attention comes after something has been accomplished, but for individuals for whom attention is the goal, sometimes nothing whatsoever has been accomplished; it is simply that the person has drawn attention. This is a celebrity without fame, fame distinguished as being known for a noteworthy accomplishment. Would Wilde’s plays have been noticed had he not already been well known? This is a question that is not easy to answer.
Is it possible that as media becomes more and more de-massified, the state of celebrity will eclipse the trait of celebrity? Celebrity is a concept that is changing, with the micro-celebrities of social media being the most recent manifestation of being well known to an audience of substantial size. It is difficult to imagine what the next decade will bring for the world of celebrity, but it is likely to continue to evolve and change as media evolves and changes.
Friedman, D. M. (2014). Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the invention of modern celebrity. WW Norton & Company.
Giles, D. (2000). Illusions of immortality: A psychology of fame and celebrity. London, UK: Macmillan Press Ltd.
Senft, T. M. (2008). Camgirls: Celebrity and community in the age of social networks. New York, NY. Peter Lang.
Stever, G. (2016). Meeting Josh Groban (again): Fan/Celebrity contact as ordinary behavior. International Association for the Study of Popular Music Journal, 6(1), 104-120.
Stever, G. (2019). The psychology of everything: The psychology of celebrity. London, UK: Routledge.
Toffler, A. (1980). The third wave (Vol. 484). New York: Bantam books.
Van Krieken, R. (2012). Celebrity society. London, UK: Routledge.