Professor James Fleming
Much to my parents’ dismay, I spend a lot of my time on the internet. Recently, perusing the internet has become a chore. I often stray from my favorite content and find new personalities that I must follow. Though some may find this laborious, I find it entertaining and refreshing. Meeting new internet personalities is like broadening my real social network. Whenever I watch a video on YouTube, I feel as though that person is having a conversation with me. For example, I frequently watch Casey Neistat’s video blogs on YouTube. I adore Casey Neistat for his positive, motivational vibes. When I hear Casey Neistat tell me, “Success is where opportunity meets preparation,” I feel encouraged enough to surmount my obstacles. If he can do it, then I can too. In short, I relate myself to Casey Neistat; we both want to seize the moment. However, just like with friends in real life, I could not tolerate listening to just Casey Neistat all day. That is when I click over to jacksfilms who is another internet personality who utilizes the YouTube platform. Jack Douglass is my most comedic online “friend.” I could spend hours listening to his hilarious, cynical humor. Quite honestly, I am cynical myself. Douglass is an outlet for me to express my cynicism in the comment section of Douglass’ videos which will reach the millions of other cynics who follow Douglass. Though a meme could make me chuckle, I do not connect with content as much as I do with the personality. I crave the sense of belonging when watching Jack Douglass or Casey Neistat, I crave the eye contact between these internet personalities (I stare at my computer screen way too close), and I crave the authenticity of the personality. Most of all, however, I crave the community built around the internet personality.
Casey Neistat and Jack Douglass collected two billion and one billion views, respectively. Similar to me, these billions of viewers crave authenticity and a sense of belonging. The internet personality is the epicenter of a community of like-minded individuals. No matter the platform, there is always a community interaction based of the internet personality. Therefore, the internet personality satiates our desire to broaden our social network. Furthermore, internet personalities capitalize on our sense of belonging by endorsing products and selling merchandise to their huge audience. Therefore, similar to the traditional Hollywood celebrity, an internet personality’s greatest asset is their social capital. Social capital is the influence and internet personality has on his or her audience. However, How do these internet celebrities compare to other celebrities such as Tom Hanks or even Benjamin Franklin? Throughout history, the media platform determines the celebrity; moreover, the value of celebrity has demeaned, which questions the viability of the current normative theory, or how the media ought to be regulated, in the United States.
Celebrities have been an important aspect of United States culture since its founding. However, with advancements in communications technology, new media platforms redefined the role of celebrities in the United States. In the words of Marshall McLuhan in his book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”, the medium is the message. The medium influences how the message is perceived. McLuhan argues that with each new advancement in communication technology, there has been a personal or social consequence.1In the case of celebrity, new advancements in technology have demeaned the term celebrity.
The common ancestor to all types celebrities today in United States pop culture is the hero. In his book “Celebrity Culture in the United States”, author Terence J. Fitzgerald argued that the revolutionary era celebrity was a hero who embodied the ideals of virtue, self-reliance, and achievement.2The popular medium during George Washington’s time was the mechanical printing press and oral storytelling. The message to the audience was often a mental model, or an internal picture in one’s head. The mental model theory depicts the celebrification, or the individual changes that transform ordinary people into celebrities, of revolutionary era celebrities, as defined by celebrity culture scholar Olivier Driessens in the journal “The Celebritization of Society and Culture: Understanding the Structural Dynamics of Celebrity Culture.”3Oral storytelling, printed documents, and limited advancements in imagery created a reliance on human reasoning to create mental models from “…perception, imagination, or the comprehension of discourse.”4Rhetoric was used to persuade audiences and to create a vivid internal image. George Washington, through rhetoric, was imprinted in an audience’s mind as a honorable, achieving human being. George Washington, as well as every other celebrity of that time period, was someone to idolize.
The mental model theory continued to represent the celebrity until the Gilded Age, from the 1870s to the 1900s. The look of celebrity itself changed with the advent of mechanical means of image reproduction and of the facility for mass diffusion of information.2 The Gilded Age, coined by the satirist Mark Twain, symbolized a time of grave social problems covered by a thin layer of gold. The celebrity represented the thin layer of gold, since “…America’s most-admired figures were hero-inventors like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Italian emigre Guglialmo Marconi. Financial wizards such as J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller (either “captains of industry” or “robber barons,” depending on your perspective) were idolized for fighting their way to Darwinian peaks of capitalist success/excess.”2These celebrities shortly dominated new, advanced media through the mental model theory; however, these advancements in communications technology exposed the gatekeeping that plagued the Gilded Age. Kurt Lewin, known as the pioneer of social, organizational, and applied psychology in the United States, described the concept of gatekeeping as “a wife or mother as the person who decides which foods end up on the family’s dinner table.”5The Gilded Age, though renowned as a laissez-faire time period, witnessed massive regulation of information, particularly in the severe social issues caused by industrialization. It was the muckrakers, the ones who inquired into and published scandals and allegations of political or business leaders, that redefined the media’s message. Progressivists such as Upton Sinclair with The Jungle created a broader narrative for the audience. Celebrities were exposed during the Gilded Age; they were no longer the embodiment of honor, virtue, and achievement; rather, they could be greedy robbers, cronies, and liars. This revelation began the downward trend of celebrity status. The subsequent century would witness further decline in the status of stardom.
The twentieth century witnessed the electromagnetic evolution of communication. Technologies such as the radio, television, and the internet are today’s new media. However, electromagnetic communication, particularly the internet, was not the advent of instant communication. The internet connects our thoughts, whether it be for good or bad. The connection of information belongs to the internet’s predecessor: telegraphy. Marshall McLuhan’s medium theory highlights the concept of new media, the intersecting and convergence of old and new technologies. For example, Harry Potter movies (new media) are based off the contents of Harry Potter books (old media).
The internet was not the first instant communication platform, it is similar to the telegraphy networks that thrived during the Victorian era. “The Victorian Internet” by Tom Standage describes the history of the world’s first internet. Standage boldly begins his work saying, “In the nineteenth century there was no televisions, airplanes, computers, or spacecraft… there was, however, and Internet.”6The Victorian Internet was a worldwide communications network that shrunk the world through instant communication. Instant communication is often accredited to the modern internet, but this attribute is precedent. The concept of media richness began with the Victorian Internet in that it was the first communication technology to provide instant feedback. The media richness theory is based on two assumptions: people want to overcome equivocality and uncertainty in organizations and a variety of media commonly used in organizations work better for certain tasks than others.7 The capacity for a medium to provide instant feedback, transmit cues such as body language, to utilize natural language, and to create a personal focus determines the richness of the media.7 Beyond instant feedback and perhaps natural language (the creation of secret codes)6, the Victorian Internet lacks any further media richness. The modern internet sets the precedent as the richest media because it provides essentially face-to-face interaction on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, FaceTime or any other social media platform.
The internet allows users to find our niche. On the internet, I belong to a community of cynical humorists when I interact with fans of Jack Douglass, or a community of hardworking, do-it-yourself individuals who listen to Casey Neistat’s insights. The social presence theory exemplifies how the richness of the internet has created a community around internet personalities. The idea is that a medium’s social effects are principally caused by the degree of social presence which it affords to its users. The greater the presence afforded, the better a person perceives that individual.8When I am watching a video by Jack Douglass, I can see his blue eyes, the spit flying from his mouth when he shouts, or the traces of a unibrow growing. I know him so well because of the richness of the internet. Furthermore, the internet allows users to find social support in an individual’s social network.
The internet medium demands an internet celebrity who is not heroic or extraordinarily talented, the internet, in the case of internet personalities, requires content about authentic experiences that relates to other users. In accordance with McLuhan’s “the media is the message”, the modern internet, unlike any other communication technology, allows users to be themselves because it is the most rich mass media so far in human history.
The richness of the internet medium is a double-edged sword. Is it always good to allow users to be themselves? Should the content that users post and view be uncensored in the name of media richness? Is rich media a good thing? In terms of celebrity, scholars have argued that the face-to-face interactions on the internet has demeaned the value of being a celebrity. Fitzgerald states that the role of celebrity now exists “…squarely at eye level, lacking any pretense of pedestal altogether: postmodern pseudo- celebrity blips flooded the airwaves…”2Through changes in media, celebrities morphed from heroic to blips who flood the airwaves. Now, if one wishes to be a celebrity, one must gain serious publicity to distinguish himself or herself from the billions of other internet users. It is well known that publicity can be good or bad; either way, publicity is still publicity. One internet content creator, Logan Paul, exemplifies the dangers of creating publicity in the world’s richest media platform.
Logan Paul is known as an American internet personality with around 3.5 billion views across his media platforms. His YouTube channel, “Logan Paul Vlogs,” entertains some 17 million subscribers with everyday lifestyle content. Logan Paul received public outcry when he posted a vlog exploring an infamous Japanese forest, a location known as a popular suicide destination. In his vlog, Logan Paul finds a hanging man, and he even poses with the corpse. Not only is this content taboo and inappropriate, but also this video was uploaded to a channel that is followed by mostly younger viewers. Whether it be ignorance to his age demographic or just plain stupidity, Logan Paul failed to understand where to draw the line. Instances such as Logan Paul’s raises an essential question in today’s society: is it our responsibility to regulate the access the internet grants its users?
In the book “Four Theories of The Press”, authors Fred Siebert, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm proposed four normative theories of media: authoritarian theory, libertarian theory, social responsibility theory, and soviet media theory. A normative theory in media descries an ideal method for the regulation of a media system. Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm define the press as all the media of mass communication.9Currently, the United States practices a social responsibility approach to the internet, as well as most other forms of media. In a socially responsible mass media system, anyone has the right to use the media, and the media is controlled by community opinion, consumer action, and professional ethics.9Most importantly, what is forbidden in a socially responsible media is serious invasion of private rights and vital social interests. Is a socially responsible internet enough, however? Would it be better to regulate internet content to protect irresponsible content creation, as seen in Logan Paul’s vlog? Perhaps the internet in the United States could adopt a libertarian approach (popular in the United Kingdom and several other European countries), where anyone with the economic means can use the media, and where the media is controlled by a “self-righting process in a free market place of ideas” and by courts.9Under a libertarian practice, defamation, obscenity, and indecency is forbidden. A libertarian approach could revive the heroism of a celebrity and remove the urge to receive publicity through malevolent means. However, a libertarian approach would inherently limits one “message” of the internet medium. No longer would the internet allow users to be themselves; rather, the users must conform to what the collective deems acceptable.
In conclusion, advancements in communication technology have always created richer and richer media. As media becomes more interactive between users, more personal, more face-to-face, the users can become more themselves. The modern internet, successor to the telegraphy networks of the Victorian era, is history’s most recent and richest media platform. The modern internet sets the precedent of a media system’s capability to foster human interaction between users. The modern internet redefined media as a connection of thought and emotions rather than a connection of information. Internet celebrities thrive through this connection of thought and emotions because users crave a social network for support. Internet celebrities efficiently grow audiences through their personality and creating a community of like-minded individuals. However, to reach a sizeable audience on the internet in the United States, one requires publicity, either through benevolent or malevolent means. So, in a world with a massive volume of content, how can we as a society manage irresponsible content from internet celebrities? Perhaps a change in normative theory, from a socially responsible practice to a libertarian practice, where anyone with the economic means can use the media and is controlled by a “self-righting process in a free market place of ideas” and by courts,9could eliminate irresponsible content creation as well as revive the value of a celebrity. However, there is always an opportunity cost, and so what consequences would a change in normative theory entail? The modern internet wouldn’t be as rich, it would lack a community of users who are in the outgroup. Furthermore, obscenity, defamation, and indecency are arguably subjective topics. Can we trust the users of the internet to self-correct the media? Understanding these critical questions is vital for today’s society. Media and celebrity culture permeates our daily lives. Celebrity culture is more than keeping up with the Kardashians; celebrity culture is how we communicate our thoughts and emotions through media. Relating to a celebrity, whether it be an internet personality or a Hollywood actor, creates a sense of social belonging that creates a community of link-minded individuals who interact. As a result, users broaden their social network. The medium has always been the message; the media always influences how the message is perceived. Whether you like it or not, the influences of the internet affect our society greatly. It is important to accept, listen understand, and recognize these influences.
1McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. MIT Press, 1994.
2Fitzgerald, Terence J. Celebrity Culture in the United States. H.W. Wilson Co, 2008.
3Driessens , Olivier. “The Celebritization of Society and Culture: Understanding the Structural Dynamics of Celebrity Culture.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, 2012, journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1367877912459140.
4Johnson-Laird, P. N. Mental Models: towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and Consciousness. Harvard University Press, 1995.
5“Media, Culture and Society | Gatekeeping.” Universiteit Twente, University of Twente, www.utwente.nl/en/bms/communication-theories/sorted-by-cluster/Media%2C%20Culture%20and%20Society/gatekeeping/.
6Standage, Tom. The Victorian Internet: the Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s on-Line Pioneers. Walker and Company, 2007.
7“Mass Media | Media Richness Theory.” Universiteit Twente, University of Twente, www.utwente.nl/en/bms/communication-theories/sorted-by-cluster/Mass%20Media/Media_Richness_Theory/.
8“Communication and Information Technology | Social Presence Theory.” Universiteit Twente, University of Twente, www.utwente.nl/en/bms/communication-theories/sorted-by-cluster/Communi
9Siebert, Fred S. Four Theories of the Press: the Authoritarian, Libertarian, Social Responsibility, and Soviet Communist Concepts of What the Press Should Be and Do. University of Illinois Press, 1956.