Whether you are an ardent or casual user of social media, chances are that every other day you’ll find your feeds flooded with articles and commentary around some aspect of internet celebrity culture. Whether it is another influencer who has raked in top earnings, another microcelebrity who has committed a public faux pas, another meme and its obscure backstory, or another viral hashtag spurring a mass manhunt for an ordinary citizen, the face of internet celebrity is rapidly changing and diversifying.
In my new book, Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online, I draw on a decade of experience from researching internet cultures to uncover the brief history of internet celebrity, its primary qualities and why we are so attracted to them, the role of traditional media in this phenomenon, and the formalisation of the influencer industry as the epitome of internet celebrity. For the curious and the studious, the end matter also includes detailed reading recommendations on some aspects of digital media that have groomed internet celebrity, such as platforms, tools, and practices.
Internet celebrities do not always have to be people; Grumpy Cat certainly isn’t one! Aside from persons and creatures, internet celebrities can also be figures, products, or any media format that can be made into an icon and shared online, as long as its fame is native to and derived on the internet. Despite originating on social media platforms, forums, websites, and the like, the spillover effects and afterlives of internet celebrities often expand and can appear ‘IRL’ in print media or on merchandise.
Crucially, despite its widespread stereotypes, internet celebrities are not always positively tied to glamour, prestige, or money. The crux of an internet celebrity is high visibility, whether this be arising from fame or infamy, positive or negative attention, talent and skill or otherwise. One of the breakout internet celebrities of 2017 was then 13-year-old Danielle Bregoli, who went viral for a catchphrase and was shamed on social media after her bad behaviour was broadcast on the Dr. Phil Show, but later parlayed this short burst of fame into a career in the influencer industry with more longevity.
The condition and extent of internet celebrity is also situational. Some types of internet celebrity are very short-lived, such as trendy memes which fall out of currency quickly, while others hold longevity and can be sustained as a career, such as income-earning YouTubers who make a living from producing advertorials. Although not all internet celebrities are able to derive income from their fame, even those who experience a burst of publicity can monetise their image through brief licensing deals and appearance fees.
For most of us reading this piece – most likely those who fall under the demographic of English-speaking, middle-class users of social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat – it is also important to remember that the landscape of internet celebrity varies across structural and cultural ecologies. A personality that appeals to a middle-aged, Anglo-centric audience on Facebook might not take off among minority raced youth on Tumblr, and a Chinese-language meme native to Weibo with complex political underpinnings may appear illegible to even the most savvy Twitter users. The reach and impact of an internet celebrity thus depends on their intended audience’s media habits, and cultural knowledge and taste.
There is no strict or secret formula per se for becoming an internet celebrity, since they can occur by happenstance (the public likes what the public likes!) or via careful planning and curation. Since the late 2000s, digital media agencies have been set up specifically to groom potential internet celebrities from scratch, or take in ones who have recently experienced an explosion in publicity and who may require managerial and PR expertise to sustain their fame. Advertising firms are also known for orchestrating acts of virality or brandjacking viral internet phenomena for clients’ campaigns.
But in the current climate of misinformation and ‘fake news’, media groups are also learning to weaponise internet celebrity to seed specific messages to the general public – whether one is trying to sell organic shampoo or a political ideology. As highly accessible, relatable, and shareable units of media that easily capture a public’s attention, the potential for internet celebrities to expose the masses to an idea makes them attractive vehicles of messaging and persuasion.
Dr Crystal Abidin is a digital anthropologist and ethnographer of vernacular internet cultures. Her books include Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online, and Microcelebrity Around the Globe: Approaches to Cultures to Cultures of Internet Fame