The Brainstorm Long Read: where fame tends to emphasise exceptionalism, celebrity today celebrates ordinariness.

Back in 1968, legend has it that pop art pioneer Andy Warhol popularised the 15 minutes of fame concept. Warhol’s full quip, which apparently appeared in an exhibition program, was "in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes".

Smartphones and wifi might not have been what Warhol envisaged but they certainly speak to the democratisation of fame he predicted. Thanks to social media, we could say we're all celebrities now - but what does this mean in practice? And what happens when a concept like celebrity, once reserved for a very select and cosseted few, starts to play an increasingly prominent role in everyday life?

"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes"

To begin, it is important to distinguish between fame and celebrity. Being famous and the famous themselves have fascinated humankind for centuries. In this traditional sense, fame is not restricted to individuals in the entertainment industries, but extends to achievement in all kinds of fields from science to philosophy to sports to commerce to war.

By contrast, contemporary celebrity is primarily a media phenomenon, created, circulated and sustained by the media itself. It is also worth noting that when we talk about ‘celebrity’ and ‘fame’ we are not only referring to individuals but also culture and representation. As Stars, Richard Dyer’s analysis of Hollywood’s star system shows, celebrity is political, reflecting the values and preoccupations of the era and industry which produces it.

Contemporary celebrity culture’s close links to the media is not the only thing that makes it distinctive. Where fame tends to emphasise exceptionalism, celebrity today emphasises something very different, something which seems to run counter to the whole notion of celebrity - ordinariness. To understand why this is the case, we need to briefly rewind to the 1990s and a genre that many regard as a key precursor to social media: reality television.

From RTÉ Radio One's Ray D'Arcy Show, Deirdre O'Kane and Rory Cowen talk about the Irish version of Gogglebox

In his analysis of modern celebrity, Understanding Celebrity, Graeme Turner defines the demotic turn in late 20th century popular culture as a point when "ordinary people" began playing increasingly prominent roles in the media. From the Real World (1992) to Big Brother (1999), from Gogglebox (2013) to The Circle (2018), reality television perfectly encapsulates the dynamic Turner describes.

Think, for example, of Big Brother UK contestants since the early Noughties who have managed to parlay their appearance on the show into a media career. Rather than a stand-out talent or a remarkable experience, it is their perceived ordinariness that provides their point of entry into the media and the foundation for their public image.

This new mode of celebrity has proven so effective and lucrative that the reality television format is now increasingly intertwined with other formats, such as the talent show. We see it in The X Factor’s infamous "journey" narratives, in which contestants’ backstories feature in tandem with their talent. In this context and many others, performing ordinariness becomes integral to the development of the celebrity even as their ascent to stardom calls into question their ordinariness.

From RTÉ 2fm's Chris and Ciara show Blindboy Boatclub on why reality TV is still popular

The appeal of ordinariness can also be associated with something else today’s celebrity culture holds in high regard: being seen as "real". For celebrities of all stripes, there is a heavy premium placed on presenting oneself as authentic and accessible, as a person rather than simply a product. However, this is a very tricky line to navigate because, as Alison Harvey puts it in The Fame Game: Working Your Way Up the Celebrity Ladder in Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, celebrity "is the ultimate expression of the self as branded good." By its nature, celebrity is packaged, commodified and carefully managed. This makes any claim to authenticity difficult, not least because it requires a performance which must look natural rather than strategic.

One of the primary sites where ideas about ordinariness, authenticity and modern celebrity collide is on social media. This is no accident. By its very design, social media places a massive emphasis on status, the pursuit of which leads people to mimic behaviours which were once the preserve of celebrities alone. While social media is positioned as democratic compared than other forms, as Alice Marwick points out in Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age, the reality is more complex. Reflecting the preoccupations of Silicon Valley where it emerged, Marwick argues social media follows a logic that celebrates and enshrines competitive individuality, intensive self-management and entrepreneurial common sense.

Online, it is not just celebrities who are expected to behave like celebrities. Anyone with a social media account will be familiar with the self-management that goes into everyday practices like taking and posting a selfie or a status update. Depending on the context - and the audience - these pursuits can take up a lot of our psychological and emotional energy, as can monitoring the response our posts get or don’t get.

From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, an interview with Jeetendr Sehdev about his book The Kim Kardashian Principle on celebrity branding

Self-branding through image management is something we all do now to varying degrees whenever we cross the social media threshold. This is a phenomenon known as "microcelebrity" and it reflects the rise of celebrity culture as a dominant force in everyday life. What is distinctive about microcelebrity, Marwick argues, is that individuals are known to specific rather than broad audiences and that they present themselves as celebrities "regardless of who is paying attention."

If this strikes you as a little dystopian, you are not alone. The kinds of ranking and scoring that social media places such importance on can be interpreted, as Marwick explains, as a form of discipline in which we endlessly monitor our own behaviour and others, subjecting ourselves and those around us to judgement. In an episode of Black Mirror, for example, a young woman becomes so obsessed with her social ranking that she undergoes a cringe-inducing public meltdown after a period of increasingly bonkers behaviour. But these fears go beyond fiction. One only has to consider how social media may be used in China’s burgeoning social ranking system to understand that the kinds of judgement digital technologies enable is not to be taken lightly.

A form of microcelebrity which has become a major talking point online and offline is the social influencer. Crystal Abidin’s helpful definition of the term cuts through the caricatures as she describes them as "everyday, ordinary Internet users" who manage to build large online profiles for themselves. Critical to their appeal is their direct engagement with their followers. This kind of engagement is notable for how it performs relatability and closeness and the influencer’s willingness to narrativise their life.

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, Maggie Doyle speaks to Eimear McManus from marketing agency Digital Works and blogger Rosemary MacCabe about the growing power of social media influencers

Although much-maligned in some quarters, successful social influencers provide insightful case studies as to how new forms of everyday celebrity work and the basis for their appeal. Like celebrity more broadly, influencer culture invests heavily in the idea of authenticity. To achieve this, social influencers often share in strategic ways intimate aspects of their interior and exterior lives in the process of creating carefully curated content to sustain and increase their follower base. Those who get the mix right hope to draw the attention both of their peers and advertisers and brands.

While Instagram may be plastered with images of influencers living it up, it is important to stress that making a living online is not an easy business for most people. Social influencers, especially those starting out, often work without the support system of traditional celebrities who have, at the very least, an agent if not a management team to call on.

Becoming a successful influencer is no easy task, requiring the ability, resources and contacts to marketise your life in an increasingly crowded online environment. Although presented as a more accessible route to celebrity than other forms of media, the reality is that those who gain visibility through social media usually have already acquired cultural capital of some kind. For the lucky few social influencers who manage to monetise the attention they receive sufficiently to live off it, this achievement also ties them to sustaining the image their followers subscribe to. 

From RTÉ Radio One's Ryan Tubridy Show, Bella Younger on the rise and fall of her social media alias Deliciously Stella

 When your life becomes your livelihood, any changes that may happen, particularly those beyond your control, can be very difficult to integrate into an online persona. This becomes further complicated when this persona is expected to be "authentic". When your ability to pay the bills relies on maintaining an image which an influencer moves beyond or no longer wants to embody, this can create issues both psychologically and financially. At a time when more and more content creators are reporting exhaustion and even logging out of the platforms which made them famous, the intense labour - both creative and emotional - involved in this kind of work and its downsides are aspects of modern celebrity which require more attention.

Thanks in so small part to the Internet, Andy Warhol’s prophetic take on fame continues to resonate. While few people ever become world-famous, more and more people are a little bit famous - at least to their followers on social media. The effect of this low-level fame is shaping how we relate to ourselves and each other in ways that we have yet to fully appreciate. Although often derided, contemporary celebrity culture has much to teach us about our world and how rapidly it is changing.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ