Celebrity in the age of new media

Opinion by Caitie Karasik
May 6, 2015, 9:02 p.m.

Hank Green and other YouTube stars were selected to interview the President after the State of the Union. Responding to the critical reaction to these interviews, Green writes, “The shift in media consumption from television and newspaper to Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter has left a generation without a source of information that they can trust.” Green largely addresses what he calls “legacy media,” or major news outlets that expressed dismay at the President’s sitting down with new media, not more “qualified” interviewers. He brings up a salient point about the relevance of the press and the generational gap in access to information.

Members of the press are not just criticizing Green and his fellow YouTubers for not deserving the opportunity, Green argues, but they are also demonstrating just how threatened the press is by new media and the sources of information that reach a younger audience. This younger audience takes less stock in more traditional forms of media. “Legacy media” rejects those who do not arrive at legitimacy through the same channels they did. And in some ways, Green’s point about young people sensing legitimacy from new forms is well taken: there is no longer one way of establishing trustworthiness when reliable information can now be portrayed in more interesting ways and without the use of recycled political agendas. But not all sources of new media are trustworthy. There is a difference between earned trust and mere popularity.

YouTube, for instance, is an excellent vehicle for storytelling as well as education. It advances the idea among our generation that lives should be represented online and shared, and that we should break down barriers to news and people. Much of what gets trafficked on YouTube, though, deserves more criticism. Vlogging, or video blogging, shows paid YouTube content providers through the lens of their daily lives. These daily lives are often no more than shopping or filler time in between filming a video. And these videos are often no more than viral challenges or makeup tutorials that rack up millions of views based on the creators’ popularity. This isn’t news. It is celebrity worship.

This isn’t to say that these videos aren’t meaningful. Bethany Mota, one of the most popular YouTubers and one of the President’s chosen interviewers, films “What’s In My Bag?” videos in which she reveals the kinds of things she keeps in her purse, “hauls” videos in which she shows her viewers items she recently bought and “favorites” videos in which she reviews her favorite products. The seemingly trivial result is a never-ending spiral of feminized, conspicuous consumption geared mostly to young girls. Green points out that Mota also touches on important topics like youth bullying and self-acceptance. The reality, though, is that though this content might be meaningful and worthy of the popularity of its platform, Mota’s motivations are not to inform, or show her artistry, or perform. Just because her new media content is meaningful and therefore popular does not make it as legitimate as the press.

The attempt here is not to deride creators like Mota or another immensely popular British creator, Zoella, for their popularity. That would be another instance of blaming the player (women) not the game (an atmosphere that encourages women significantly more than men to care about appearance and products). In fact, I watch Zoella’s videos — I enjoy them. They deal with anxiety, pressure and other topics teen girls need to normalize and talk about. The attempt instead is to recognize the difference between popularity and substance.

Zoella is so popular that one journalist’s critique of her ability to be a role model for young girls was met with soaring and intense online backlash. But just because Bethany Mota or Zoella or the rest of “Team Internet” are hugely popular, does not mean that everything they do should be considered expertise. Jaclyn Hill, for instance, is an incredibly talented and trained makeup artist who teaches her viewers how to use makeup as a tool for self-expression and confidence. Her celebrity is undergirded by her expertise.

New media celebrities like Mota and Zoella lack this kind of legitimacy earned through expertise. Similarly, without claiming that the Kardashians are stupid or meaningless, and without deriding the way in which they reached their fame, the Kardashians are not public figures because they purposefully put forth art or ideas. It wouldn’t make sense to have Kim Kardashian interview the President because while she may be capable of substantive discussions on motherhood and feminism, she’s recognizable more from her influence as a fashion and makeup icon. She’s famous for being who she is, not talent, as she says in her interview with Barbara Walters as one of Walters’ 10 most fascinating people of 2011.

Bethany Mota isn’t necessarily frivolous, but she certainly isn’t famous for her ideas like Hank Green, or her comedy, however silly, like GloZell. She’s famous for her non-expert advice about cosmetics and style. If this difference doesn’t mean anything, then celebrity may be just a currency that can be bought with a webcam. The public’s subscription to new media and the creators’ growing fan bases that trust them does not automatically promise that these new media outlets are legitimate.

Perhaps this is why so many were disappointed when Zoella admitted that her first novel was produced with the help of a “ghost writer”: the danger of new media is that it invites unquestioned popularity. Hank Green is right to insist that young people should look past so-called “legacy media” toward innovative and fresh media agents, but this attention should always be proportional and earned before sources of content are judged only by popularity. And the rapid production of such popularity in new media should be placed in the context of a public that does not always differentiate between shallow and more justified celebrity.

Contact Caitie Karasik at ckarasik ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Caitie is a senior majoring in Sociology with a minor in Political Science. She studies generational differences in gender norms, and is particularly interested in the attitudes and behaviors that characterize Millennials ("Generation Y"). Contact her at [email protected] with comments or questions.

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