That is the rule of the game: when you get interviewed by the media, what you say / write always get reduced to a couple of points and that is very frustrating. Us academics don’t do short soundbites. So, I was interviewed for a piece in major newspaper on the subject of teens asking celebrities to be their prom dates. Here is the longer version of my contribution on the interaction of social networking platforms and celebrity culture.
1. Social networking platforms have a leveling effect and tend to make hierarchies disappear. So, whether on Twitter or Facebook, people talk back to public figures, be they politicians, public officials, journalists or celebrities. And by talk back, I mean challenge their expertise or status. No one can throw their weight around and hide behind a status to be exempt from such challenges. Twitter users enjoy arguing and discussing, so, there is no point in using one’s status as a joker card.
2. Social networking platforms also amplify what sociologist Mark Granovetter (back in the 80s) has called “the strength of weak ties”: the idea that weak ties (loose and intermittent connections) can have stronger benefits for individuals in terms of building social capital (your network of connections which you can activate at any time for a variety of purposes, such as finding a job or finding a prom date) than strong ties (deep, continuous connections, such as those you have with you parents, close relatives, etc.). So, smart users of social networking platforms do not just use them to reinforce already existing strong ties (such as befriending your siblings and already-existing friends on Facebook) but to develop broad and wide weak ties.
3. As such, social networking platforms reduce the “6 degrees of separation” story (I think it is actually between 3 and 4 degrees now); we can get connected to a lot of people, including celebrities in just one click of a “follow” (on Twitter) or “like” (on Facebook) button. So, no more playing the Kevin Bacon game, just tweet the guy or “like” him on Facebook.
4. All this also takes place in the larger context of the celebrity culture. However, the celebrity culture was always shaped by institutions and organizations that regulated relationships between celebrities and their fans. In the older studio era, Hollywood stars’ interactions with their fans were structured by groups and organizations that maintained a certain distance between the two. Before the age of global media, if you wanted to get in touch with a celebrity, you have to write to a studio office or their agent. Your letter would land in a PO Box and an administrative assistant would send you back a signed photo or something like that. Even things like the Hollywood Canteen were carefully crafted and part of the whole “we’re in this together” that marked the WWII era celebrity culture. There was always a buffer between celebrities and fans so that celebrities were portrayed as both unattainable (the glamorous photo shoots) and “just like us” (movie stars cooking at home, just like “normal” Americans). This changed with the end of the studio era and the rise of the paparazzi-fed media.
5. The buffer has now pretty much disappeared. Put all those things together with a preexisting media culture (maintained through ‘traditional’ media such as magazine, TV channels such as TMZ or E!) and it is not surprising to see members of the general public taking the quick step of asking straight out a celebrity for a prom date. It is so quick and easy. Now, once a celebrity has a verified Twitter account, users know it is HIM or HER and they are only one link away from that celebrity. Add to that my #1 above leveling effect and they feel completely entitled to just ask (on Twitter, users are continuously asking celebrities for retweets and #FF for their causes or opinions, etc.)
6. One final thing: just asking a celebrity for a prom date is also part of the idea users share a lot (across social networking platforms), and there is also an expectations that celebrities should share more of themselves as well, on a personal level (not the carefully crafted photo shoots for magazines) but they do retain their status as celebrity. To have a verified account on Twitter is a sure sign that someone is somebody.
Again, the network society (an expression coined by sociologist Manuel Castells back in 1996 when he published a book by the same title) makes social capital and network connections a highly valued currency (something that scifi writer Cory Doctorow captured very well in his novel Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom) and so, even if the celebrity turns down the prom date request, the status of the person who asked is enhanced because the celebrity will have to also connect with the user, if only to say no. To receive retweets or mentions from celebrities on Twitter is a status marker. After all, if it is easier for users to talk back to celebrities and public figures, it is also easier for celebrities and public figures to talk back as well (as some have learned rather unfortunately… see: Anthony Weiner).