Celebritization and Resistance

by Rob Horning

26 May 2011

It's one thing to have, say, your blog post on Spinoza tweeted; quite another to have your picture reblogged on Fuck Yeah Self-Shooters. And it is not as though the sort of attention we can seek is some entirely autonomous choice.

As I inevitably tend to view social media through the lens of my personal experience, I tend to degender it and talk about it in the asexual terms of corporate branding, with adults pursuing their attentional accumulation and personal affirmations like canny entrepreneurs, deploying a kind of abstracted informational commodity in tweets and updates and links and so on. But clearly the imperative of self-exploitation strikes us all unevenly, and it’s conditioned by gender and race and class and social capital and innumerable other things that would be impossible to totalize. Because they quantify attention, social media can make it seem as though it is an abstract commodity, like money, uniform and commensurate, but that masks the the fact the different forms of attention available have different consequences for subjectivity. It’s one thing to have, say, your blog post on Spinoza tweeted; quite another to have your picture reblogged on Fuck Yeah Self-Shooters. And it is not as though the sort of attention we can seek is some entirely autonomous choice. What is available, or what we know is possible or attainable, is highly conditioned by where we are already situated.
If there is any commonality among the various snares of the attention economy, it may be in an underlying reflexivity, an awareness of identity as an alienated thing rather than a lived-in spontaneity. Reflexivity introduces absence into any sense of presence, an awareness of audiences not directly accounted for which nonetheless must be played to. Still, the different ways in which we are enticed to seek attention, the different audiences we are brought to suspect are in our reach, require different forms of resistance, different precommitments perhaps. So while I feel myself being sucked into a personal-branding spiral; women face a temptation to sexualized modes of attention-seeking that I don’t experience.

So the online objectification and fetishization of young women, the generalized idea of their availability, drives a disproportionate slice of the online attention economy, authenticating a certain kind of attention’s value and rooting vicariousness in a subject position that’s simultaneously powerful and vulnerable. I imagine it as an alluring opportunity to become money, as fungible and fecund and purposeful as money can be, though it is hard to anticipate what it must be like to be spent. Here’s how danah boyd put it in an essay that looks at the attention economy, “celebritization” and its consequences mainly for teenage girls.

Celebrity becomes a correlate to a perfect life—money, designer clothes, and adulthood. What being a ‘celebrity’ means is discarded; fame is an end to itself with the assumption that fame equals all things awesome despite all the copious examples to the contrary. So teens only hold on to the positive aspects, hoping for the benefits of becoming famous and ignoring the consequences.

boyd is writing in response to this Rolling Stone profile by Sabrina Rubin Erdely of a teenager, Kiki Kannibal, who used MySpace to achieve notoriety but as boyd puts it, “lacked the resources to handle the onslaught and never made it big enough to recoup the ground she lost to weather the fame.” Because Kiki uses her sexuality for attention but is not sanctioned through a big-media-supported alibi, she is “under attack.”

Rubin Erdley explains why Kiki Kannibal doesn’t simply go offline:

She can’t go offline. One reason is practical: Kiki has a business to run. But the other reason is more existential: If she were to go offline, her link to the world would disappear. This is a girl with 12,000 Twitter followers whose actual life is empty of real relationships. She’s trapped in suburban isolation; outside the bubble of her family, her most meaningful interactions are electronic. In real life, she’s lost.

The implication seems to be that her pursuit of celebrity has precluded her ability to generate local ties of affection. Learning how to market oneself online is a different skill from learning how to maintain friendships. boyd suggests that girls get trapped in such dynamics because “fame is a toxic substance,” noting that “when the attention is good, it’s really good and it feels really good. And when the attention fades, people can feel lonely and anxious, desperate for more, even if it’s negative attention.” I wonder if that isn’t pathologizing the desire for celebrity too much, pinning it on personal psychology rather than the structure of the new media form that amplifies these tendencies into potentially destructive compulsions. Social media seem to systematically efface the possibility that the desire for fame might not be universal; they do a poor job of allowing people to calibrate their exposure, which is always theoretically infinite despite whatever temporary barrier privacy settings erect. (Anyone within the network can liberate the private information, which in any event belongs to the social media company, not the user.) In other words, I agree with boyd when she writes, “it’s high time that we start reflecting on the societal values that are getting magnified by them.”

Maybe this is a bit hyperbolic, but this Vanity Fair story by Amy Fine Collins about prostitution and human trafficking seems the grim logical extension of what the Rolling Stone story describes. The self-coercion boyd mentions with regard to celebritization is arguably on a continuum (albeit a very, very long one) with the horrors described in the Vanity Fair piece, which would make certain Internet users into the equivalent of johns. A lawyer Fine Collins interviewed for the VF story says, “Johns don’t understand what they’re contributing to. It never occurs to them that the woman who is smiling is being abused. They really don’t know what’s going on—and they don’t care.” Internet use sometimes seems to invite that kind of indifference, if the manifold examples of trolling, bullying, voyerurism and generalized deinhibition are any testimony. (The Rolling Stone article is about these tendencies as much as it is about the drive for microcelebrity.) The governing ideology seems to be that all the information online has been voluntarily provided and is thus ultimately fair game, as if there are no gray areas or no shifts in context or no possible regrets on the part of the volunteer that should check a consumer’s impulse to enjoy it on whatever level one chooses. Social media’s immediacy can make it seem as though this sort of heedless entertainment is an entitlement; the underlying implication is that women are naive if they think otherwise. The consumption of microcelebrity is not governed by the norms of friendship, despite social media’s liberal usage of its terminology.

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