Of Celebrities and Train-Wrecks

One of the interesting and frequently entertaining aspects of the Internet has been the rise of the e-celebrity. Or in other words, an otherwise “normal” person who becomes a minor or major public figure. Until very recently, the celebrity was confined to sports and entertainment which is tightly controlled by major corporations and government organisations. Someone had to have some degree of talent to be a celebrity but they more than anything needed the backing of powerful groups to make this happen. There are plenty of good looking people who can smile and act and very few of them ultimately become celebrities. The only exception to this was the “15 minutes of fame” when an otherwise normal person briefly rose to prominence for something personally heroic, amusing or just a novelty of some sort. Even this was tightly controlled by the mainstream media who would move on as soon as the public began to lose interest.

The earliest example of “normal” people becoming celebrities was with the beginnings of what is erroneously called “reality television”. This had earlier less successful attempts but the two that really caught on that I remember were Popstars and Big Brother in Australia. The reason why I would choose these two is because I heard about them despite not being the slightest bit interested and that alone tells me they were very popular. The former involved people competing to become part of a pop group and the latter was just “normal” people living in a house for the voyeuristic pleasure of television audiences. That these were all edited and scripted and the people who actually appeared on these shows carefully curated is beside the point: it was still different from what had previously prevailed. I have not kept up with these sort of shows since though I am aware they still exist and are even worse than the ones of my fading memories from over twenty years ago.

The rise of the Internet as a new medium was genuinely different in that it did provide an avenue for someone to get noticed outside of the control of film, television and print media. Early on, when the userbase was much lower, there were some websites that came to prominence and the people behind them gained either fame, notoriety or a bit of both. Examples are sites like Something Awful, Maddox’s The Best Page in the Universe and other sites like Newgrounds — at least for my demographic. These sites weren’t as popular as equivalent sites would be today but a lot of what is now part of “Internet culture” can be traced back to websites like these. The people behind these sites got about as much publicity as they wanted as the content was what brought people and not so much the personalities behind them.

Once broadband connections become more common and the various video codecs got more consistent, there was next a big rise in video content. This did not originate entirely with YouTube. There were a number of web series hosted on independent sites. One in particular I remember well was ScrewAttack founded by Craig Skistimas and Tom Hanley which was an early pioneer in video content focused on video games. YouTube already existed at this time but it was yet to grow to dominate online video content as it now has.

The early years of YouTube is where I am really getting to but it is important to jump ahead a bit first. There has been a big amalgamation in the last ten years around sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and people simply don’t surf around to different sites as they used to. I’m not sure anyone even calls it “surfing” anymore. The days of people going from obscure or “normal” as I reluctantly describe the average person to e-celebrity are now also mostly over. Almost all the most prominent and successful channels on YouTube now have media organisations backing them. It should be obvious that most of these people are not sitting in their room with a webcam. They sit in a studio (that often looks like a bedroom) and have people working behind the scene. This would be true of almost every YouTuber or streamer that regularly gets views in the millions. Even less prominent YouTubers now have to have mini-studios set up due to the expectations for production quality that now exist. Early on, YouTube really was full of people sitting in front of a webcam in their bedroom and talking to an audience though and many did become minor celebrities. Some faded away but many are still going. This has been a long way getting to the main point of this post but I felt the background was necessary before proceeding.

I am going to assume that as long as their has been celebrities, there has been some form of parallel media feeding off celebrity culture and gossip. I am speaking in particular of various magazines that have largely moved online who incessantly follow celebrities and give special attention to celebrity scandals such as drug addiction, public outbursts and other falls from the empty grace of Mammon. It is not surprising that celebrities have these falls as not only the pressure and attention but also the clear evils going on “behind the scenes” should effect anyone with a modicum of moral sanity. 

The fascinating thing about the rise of the Internet is the way the same structure has grown organically with e-celebrities. What partially inspired this post is a video by David V. Stewart discussing online drama on YouTube. Stewart’s video explains that this is cheap and easy content to produce which is certainly true but not the reason for this post. I have also been following online characters such as Chris Chan off and on for years and especially more recently. What has become clear is that many people are not emotionally equipped to handle even minor celebrity and there are a legion of examples of online meltdowns and scandals that feed “online drama”. It is apt to describe these as “train-wrecks” because a train-wreck is something most people would want to stand and gawk at but really shouldn’t. Such is the case with scandal and the scandals of online personalities are no different to that of mainstream celebrities in this regard. If you type phrases or words like “rise and fall” or “exposed” into YouTube’s search bar, you will find no shortage of such content. It doesn’t really matter what area of Internet culture it is either. There is an awful lot of it there and plenty of gossip in the ever toxic comment sections.

If celebrities have the paparazzi and stalkers then Internet celebrities have their trolls. I should be clear here that I strongly disapprove of people who actively attempt to cause people grief. Looking at the long saga of Chris Chan alone is enough and though he is far from an innocent, it is still very clear that he has been frequently provoked which has exacerbated things significantly. Trolls come in a few different types but their behaviour is often the same. They could be people that simply thrive on discord but they are also often former fans that feel slighted by the person they followed and seek to destroy them. The different between them and the paparazzi is that they won’t get any monetary gain from what they do and not infrequently spend money and time on their targets. The actual paparazzi of the Internet are the people and channels that do make money reporting on and discussing online drama which also feeds back into trolling by putting a spotlight on new and existing train-wrecks.

Another similarity with celebrities is the way that everything needs to be public. In observing most of these controversies from a distance, it is obvious that many could go away if they simply got off the Internet but it rarely happens this way. They usually post a public response on social media or with a video which provokes more response and it goes on and on. Once again, Chris Chan is a great example of someone who has repeatedly attempted to put out a fire with jet fuel due to his unintentionally comical overreactions. In reality, he and many others should simply have got off the Internet altogether. If Chris Chan’s parents had been more attentive, they would never have allowed him unrestricted access at all. This doesn’t even mean “stop using the Internet”, it just means stop posting videos and social media. I frequently use the Internet but I have uploaded no videos and have a very small social media presence. Anyone else can do the same but the online celebrity rarely does this despite it being relatively easy to do.

The main reason I think they don’t is simply narcissism. What is consistent with all celebrities whether they had their rise more organically or through media backing, is that they desire and often thrive on public attention. I think this is also true of most people who have found success in uploading videos on the Internet. At some level, they want to be seen and heard or else they would never have started. Although my personal blog is little read, I can’t claim I don’t want people to read it or else I wouldn’t have put it on the Internet either. And I’m not sure how well I would handle attention — particularly the negative kind myself. I hope I never have to find out too. So many of these e-celebrities don’t want the trolling (and I don’t blame them), but they also aren’t willing to do the most simple thing to make it stop. This doesn’t exonerate the trolls but it also doesn’t let e-celebrities off the hook. If they are making a living off online content and can’t simply stop, they could (and many do), just ignore negative comments and refuse to respond to any drama surrounding them. This is a good way to deal with it but again, many thrive on negative attention and a part of them would rather have this than be ignored completely. 

This has been another post where I don’t have any real conclusion to offer but it is a fascinating subject. I will finish by stating that I regret the times when I was younger that I was more involved with e-drama and message boards though I would add that I wasn’t malicious and I wasn’t ever seeking to hurt people. I have been highly critical of public figures on my blog too but I still don’t wish any of them ill. I do think that public figures have to be thicker-skinned and willing to take criticism if they wish to be in the public eye but that isn’t excusing what trolls and stalkers do in any way. I don’t think people should be throwing out insults so liberally as they often do. Why I may express dislike for a politician or public figure on this blog, I wouldn’t abuse one to their face or be intentionally abusive on this blog. If anyone can show an example where I have, I would be happy to remove it too.

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