Twitter is Ruining Celebrity! (And Other Anxieties)

For whatever reason, last week seemed to be a tipping point for celebrities on Twitter.  When Jim Carrey tweeted “Tiger Woods owes nothing 2 anyone but himself,” then criticized Woods’ wife, Elin, posting “No wife is blind enough to miss that much infidelity…Elin had 2 b a willing participant on the ride 4 whatever reason,” it was enough to prompt two separate articles, one from EW, the other on Jezebel, with the shared thesis that ‘Twitter is Ruining Celebrity.’

Here’s Jezebel’s explanation:

I’m just suggesting that certain people reconsider how goddamn annoying they can be. Because it turns out that plenty of high-profile people are not that smart, at least not all the time. Or at least not without the intervention of lots of people whose job it is to make them look good. And sometimes I would just rather not know how far short they fall.

If you’ve ever met a public figure you previously admired, you know it can seriously undermine whatever drew you to them in the first place. When I was pounding the pavement as a media reporter, there were plenty of writers and editors I met who more than lived up to fangirl expectations with their sparkling in-person insights. Then there were the ones that sloppily regurgitated conventional wisdom, or were giant social climbers or total leches. Still sorta ruins it every time I encounter their byline!

Twitter is like that, all the time.

The article then (rather hilariously) details how annoying/banal/mildly offensive some of these celebrities can be: Susan Orlean, who writes good pieces for The New Yorker, is a piss-poor and annoying Tweet author; Margaret Atwood is way too verbose; Kirsty Alley defends mild racism.

And, of course, there’s the whole John Mayer saga, exacerbated by his Twitter presence.  Conclusion: when it comes to the Internet, some people should consider shutting up. Or, more specifically, some celebrities should consider shutting up — lest they shatter our illusions of celebrity and its function altogether.

So let’s be clear: these authors aren’t worried about overexposure.  God knows the vast majority of celebrities who have taken to Twitter are already throughly, and arguable over, exposed.  What seems to be at the crux of this anxiety — and what I find quite interesting — is this anxiety that the ‘authentic,’ unmediated sharing of Twitter will make the celebrity TOO real, TOO authentic…..too much like a real person.  (You can see this anxiety invoked in the quote pulled from the Jezebel article in which the author compares Twittering to meeting someone you admire in the hallway — when you meet him/her in the flesh, she becomes an *actual person,* with blemishes, bad breath, bad jokes, whatever).

Undulating beneath both articles is an unstated assumption about celebrities: namely, that they are IMAGES, not people.  We are attracted to the ideas — of race, of gender, of relationships, of Capitalism, of America — that they represent, not who they actually are.  As I tell my students over and over again, it doesn’t matter who a celebrity is in the flesh, or what he/she ‘truly’ believes, or whether he/she is ‘actually’ a nice person.  All that matters is how he/she is mediated — sometimes more successfully than others — and whether the public finds that image salient.

Some Twitter celebrities do a fantastic job of further extending their well-pruned image through Twitter use.  Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Conan O’Brien all come to mind.  (Importantly, all three use Twitter somewhat sparingly: their Tweets become fetishized, heavily retweeted, and are rarely all that banal.  Each one seems to perfectly fit with the stars established image, as when Bieber tweets “a cool thing about 2day is that North Tonawanda, NY has 32k people in it…just like my town. Maybe the next kid with a dream is there.”  It’s cheesy and sincere, but so is Justin Bieber….or, more accurately, so is Justin Bieber’s image.

Celebrities are ‘ruined,’ then, when they become too much like people — and disclose so much, and in such an uncontrolled fashion, that their images are impugned.  We want the celebrity image to cultivate the crucial tension between the extraordinary and ordinary — between the knowledge that the celebrity eats food and the also goes to premieres and buys expensive clothes.  But when the ordinary overwhelms the extraordinary, it creates an imbalance in the celebrity image.  The celebrity image becomes imbalanced via his own disclosures, whether linked to bathroom habits or preference for ‘chocolate’ men.  To stick with the metaphor, such imbalance causes the image to fall, causing a rupture….and the unseemly ‘real’ person behind the finely wrought celebrity image seeps through, causing disgust.

When you get down to it, celebrity twitter exposes are desire for celebrities to be ‘just like us’ as a fallacy.  We don’t want them to be just like us.  We don’t want them to Tweet just like us.  We want them to be a simulacrum of ‘just like us.’  Put differently, celebrities should represent our ideal what a ‘real’ person is like, but we can’t look at that representation too closely, or ask it to Tweet….lest it reveal the hollowness beneath.

I’m not suggesting that celebrity culture — or our fascination with it — is hollow, or worthless.  Rather, that the anxiety over Twitter (and other new media means of over-disclosure) are highlighting the disparity between what we think we want from celebrities….and what we actually want.

2 Responses to “Twitter is Ruining Celebrity! (And Other Anxieties)”

  1. greeney28 says:

    Makes me think about how Tom Cruise blew his image when he blew off a professional PR person–he became too real, in a terrifically insistent manner. Tom Cruise has no idea he’s a loon–I think he buys into his image, too.

    But here’s a question–how often do stars respond to their posters? Is that an element of the Twitter allure–that you can feel connected to the image? I’m not one to espouse the democracy of the web, but is part of what drives celebrity Tweeting the potential that a fan can interact with a star–even a star exposed as too real?

  2. Peter Peter says:

    Yeah, spot on assessment. It’s also kind of like gossip bloggers like Lainey who are nothing like the bitch personas they portray. It’s all a money game. Create an image and milk it for the short shelf life of flavor-of-the-day. The great thing about Twitter and insiders like Lainey and academics that attempt to seriously analyze this crap is that is serves to educate the public about the big lie that celebrity culture is. And yeah, you SHOULD say celebrity culture is “hollow and worthless,” because at it’s core, at it’s soul, it is. It only serves to line the pockets of Hollywood. American celebrity worship is some of the worst excuse for culture I have ever witnessed. Witness the trajectory it is now following with so-called “reality” television (there’s a kick-ass oxymoron if ever there was one!)and the Montag fembots. It’s like Rome on a slow burn.