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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

When News of the World ceased operation this year after reports of widespread voicemail hacking, it became clear that some organizations would stop at nothing to obtain intimate details about people’s private lives.

Information about the famous, infamous, or even people involved in well-publicized crime stories has long held value in the marketplace. This dates back to the nineteenth century, when scandals and true crime stories were regular fare in that era’s penny presses. If editors back then had the opportunity to illicitly hear voice mails or read emails, I have no doubt they would have hacked into them when the battles between the Hearst and Pulitzer papers were waged.

But celebrity hacking is not always motivated by money.

A Florida man was recently tracked down by the FBI for breaking into the email accounts of several celebrities. He would comb the internet for information about these individuals, using published personal profiles from publications and their own postings to guess their passwords, gleaning information on their pets, siblings, and other information that celebrities sometimes share about themselves.

He then spied on all of their emails, even intercepting a nude photo one celebrity sent via email, which was posted online. Reports suggest that the man did not attempt to sell the information or blackmail the celebrities.

If money was not his main motivator, what was?

Perhaps it was the illusion of intimacy, of being close or on the inside of the celebrity world. While thanks to the internet and social networking we have likely never had so much access to information about so many people than ever before, it is never enough.

Sociologist Erving Goffman described public life as existing “front stage” and private life as “back stage.” As celebrities increasingly offer access to their lives off-stage, it essentially becomes part of their public life, thus increasing interest further in what they had hoped to keep private.

As I write about in the final chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, even if an individual celebrity has not participated in a reality show or provided many details about their personal lives, thanks to those who have opened up their lives to the public demand for personal stories is high.

The value placed on privacy means that information about those in the public eye can be sold at a premium, especially if it contradicts a person’s public image….As traditional-style soap operas go off the air, real-life celebrity soap operas have taken their place. (p. 228)

Stories like this also serve as a reminder to the rest of us, that even though strangers might not be interested in our emails or voice mails, in the information age privacy and electronic communication often don’t mix.

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