The cynical lure of online celebrity

I recently co-authored a paper with Mark Johnson and Tom Brock about the moral economy of celebrity streamer on Twitch. We attempt to understand how the aspiration for celebrity, the imperative to be seen, reflects the broader conditions in which the aspirant streamers make their way through the world:

More broadly than the phenomenon of live streaming, the relative deprivation of many young people under contemporary neoliberal labour conditions is compounded by the disjuncture between their education levels and the reality of the work available to them, with many young people reduced to mere ‘click-workers’ in the digital economy. Structural questions about occupational opportunities are increasingly obscured by cultural ones concerning individual morality, specifically with regard to the level of work and effort that individuals are expected to put in in order to climb to the top. Gerrard (2014) has argued that education and training become important moral markers, signaling a willingness to develop the self in order to better fare on the labour market. This desire for self-improvement and in turn the place of self-improvement as a method towards fame and financial success finds a strong outlet in the world of video game live streaming, existing as it does within a domain that requires no formal qualifications, minimal start-up costs, involves the play of leisure activities as the foundation upon which such a career will be built (cf., Sotamaa, 2007; Johnson and Woodcock, 2017), and has the demonstrated capacity to result in six-figure incomes and tremendous levels of digital fame.

These elements combine to offer a (very obvious) appeal, which in turn leads to the particular streaming phenomena outlined in this work, reinforced by the affordances and structures of streaming Web sites. Bauman (2004) has dramatically proclaimed an epochal shift in which ‘unemployed’ as a fleeting condition has given way to ‘redundancy’ as a perpetual possibility; streaming seems to offer not just a way out of such a situation, but a way to actively turn one’s spare (or redundant) time to career benefit without prerequisite training or substantial investment. It has consequently become a distinctive and hotly-contested new source of digital celebrity, and one that brings with it particular dynamics and practices that merit our scholarly attention.

If this is concerned with what inclines people towards celebrity streaming, it still leaves the question of what encourages people into the platforms in question. In their book YouTube Jean Burgess and Joshua Green reflect on the assumptions made about the potential for fame in the celebration of participatory cultural production that marked the era of YouTube’s inception. From pg 31:

A common assumption underlying the most celebratory accounts of the democratisation of cultural production in the mid 2000s (Grossman, 2006a, 2006b) was that raw talent combined with digital distribution could convert directly to legitimate success and media fame–if only the right platform were provided. This assumption was especially noticeable in the early mainstream media discourse around amateur video, usually invoking individual success stories that appear to realise this promise.

This frames meritocracy as contingently constrained by distributional systems. People with talent will be recognised once the mechanism exists for them to get beyond gatekeepers and broadcast themselves to the world. There was a kernel of truth to it as “recording labels and talent scouts increasingly turned their attention to online publishing opportunities” (pg 32). But even if this mythology originated in the irrational exuberance of cultural commentators in the death throes of the roaring 90s, there are vested interests at work in ensuring it persists. From pg 37:

Although YouTube has become a mainstream source of commercial online video content, the mythology of the accidental, ‘viral’ video star still persists; and it is a myth that is carefully cultivated by successful YouTubers and by the platform itself (featuring ‘accidental’ YouTube stars that were the subjects of viral videos heavily in each of its birthday specials).

What percentage of those following an online celebrity hope they too might become one? I’m fascinated by the attentional ponzi scheme I increasingly see cutting through social media in which the accumulation of visibility and the assumed benefits it can bring  draws others into the pursuit of visibility in the hope they too might enjoy the benefits. It’s a structure which must constantly be replenished if it’s to avoid crashing down around those who dream about becoming one of the chosen. The only ones who in this scenario are the architects of what Richard Seymour calls The Twittering Machine.

(For those unfamiliar with it the picture is Paul Klee’s The Twittering Machine

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