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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Category Archives: Internet

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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In his now prescient book, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity, Richard Schickel first wrote in 1985 that celebrities feel like people we know, even members of our extended family (p. 265).

With the advent of Facebook and Twitter, those in the public eye can communicate directly with the public, furthering the sense of intimacy. We can learn of a celebrity’s major announcement as it image happens if it starts as an online post, and hear about the most mundane aspects of their daily lives if they choose to share them with us.

Thanks to social networking, if we sign up for celebrities’ feeds we no longer require fan magazines or other celebrity news source to get information; we are in many ways closer to celebrities than ever.

There’s something about that sense of intimacy that is rather compelling—we can feel connected to people who have attained high status, or at least the status of being known by strangers. It may even help us feel like insiders in the world of celebrity. This sense of intimacy likely bolsters a celebrity’s career and financial prospects (especially if they use their posts to pitch products).

Of course there’s a downside to this constant access. Schickel writes in the beginning of his book that a false sense of intimacy had motivated a few imbalanced individuals to stalk—and in some cases kill—famous people in the pre-internet era. Today stalkers can use tweets to find out a victim’s whereabouts in real time.

The danger goes both ways, as Rep. Anthony Weiner learned recently after his online dalliances became public. Taking the idea of “intimate strangers” to a new level, social networking allows those in the public eye to get themselves into much more trouble while leaving an electronic record. Yes, there have always been politicians who had affairs, but today’s electronic environment allows for a wider variety of instantaneous interactions.

Without the mediation of publicists and other advisers, celebrities might find that an offensive off-handed tweet can create major image problems. It may be harder to maintain as well-crafted an image as celebrities might have had during the days of the Hollywood studio system.

As I write in chapter 9 of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, the internet age has created more opportunities to become famous. It has also made it easier than ever to become infamous.

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Want to be famous? The weathered cliché “be careful what you wish for” is particularly salient in the era of YouTube, where uploading a video can lead to international recognition. Instant stardom is possible, but so is instant  infamy.

You have probably heard about two recent examples, one where a student posted a rant about Asian students at her university, and another by thirteen-year-old Rebecca Black, whose music video went viral after many called it the worst song ever.

We probably know people who share angry thoughts about various ethnic groups and went to middle school with kids who thought they were talented singers (or actors, athletes, poets, or artists….). But fortunately for those of us who came of age before YouTube, any fallout from our peers was limited in scale. People might have made fun of others behind their backs (remember a few years ago when concerns about gossiping cliques reigned in the headlines?), but now the internet means that anyone with a computer can contribute their insults.

And yet Rebecca Black has been able to get media coverage any newcomer would kill for. She has been on The Tonight Show and apparently has a record deal. But one would image all of the hateful comments she has received online—which I choose not to repeat here—would be hard for anyone to handle, especially a thirteen-year-old who had not been in the public eye before.

Before the internet, the doors to fame were guarded by gatekeepers: agents, managers, casting directors, A&R reps, and editors to name a few. Talented people who failed to get the approval of these gatekeepers would find themselves on the outside, with few options other than to keep trying to impress the gatekeepers. And hateful comments would likely be limited to letters, handled by editors, a studio or agent, and maybe the occasional obscene phone call, resolved by changing one’s number.

The gatekeepers aren’t gone, but the entrances to fame (and infamy) are more porous today. We can go around them—sometimes at our peril, and sometimes without even meaning to. And the critics no longer need a byline to express their disapproval.

In Celebrity Culture and the American Dream I write about how the internet age offers more “jobs” in the fame industry, but not all of these jobs pay well, if anything. Stories about those who found fame via the internet, like Justin Bieber, help promote the idea of limitless upward mobility at a time when the economy stagnates, and the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us widens.

In fact, one wonders if the infamous—like the student who posted her rant about Asians—will face serious economic setbacks in the future due to the notoriety a single video created. Whether we like it or not, in the internet age we are all public figures.

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