The Business Behind Becoming an Online Celebrity

The online user as a micro-celebrity:

  • Terri Senft defines micro-celebrity as “a new style of online performance in which people employ webcams, video, audio, blogs and social networking sites to ‘amp up’ their popularity among readers, viewers, and those to whom they are linked online” (Senft)
  • “Becoming a micro-celebrity requires creating a persona, producing content, and strategically appealing to online fans by being ‘authentic’” (Marwick)
  • “So getting followers, easy, gameable, you can pay for it. But getting people to then click on a link, getting people to buy a product, getting people to support a Kickstarter program, getting people to sign a petition, getting people to show up in person, that engagement is really the holy grail. …That’s what these young people are doing really well. So the YouTube stars that are starting to emerge, whether it’s iJustine or Smosh or Jenna Marbles, not only can they get a lot of followers and subscribers on YouTube and Twitter, but when they say, “Hey, go do something,” or, “Hey, meet me here,” they can get 1,000 people to show up somewhere, or 10,000 people to show up somewhere.” (Calicanis, Frontline: Generation Like)
  •  “Users generating online content are often interested in expanding their own audience and reputation. They may measure their success by how many followers they attract on Twitter, just as television executives value the number of eyeballs their programs attract” (Spreadable Media Page 58)
  •  “Everybody wants to be famous on some level. It used to be, you know, for Gen Xers, my generation, the way you would get famous would be to have a magazine publish you, or starting your own zine, your own renegade magazine that was a photocopy that you could put into Tower Records. …Today, it’s, “Well, I’m going to start a YouTube channel or a blog or a Tumblr, get a lot of followers, and then I’ll be famous. And people will follow me, and I’ll get free stuff in the mail, and I’ll get sent on junkets and trips, and people will recognize me from my YouTube channel.” It’s starting to happen. You have iJustine or Jenna Marbles, two young women who are just getting millions of millions of followers, and they’re going to be the next Ellens and Oprahs in a way, if they can transition from the juvenile culture, this sort of preteen culture, into a more adult product eventually.” (Calicanis, Frontline: Generation Like)

Youth are deliberately creating an online personality and self. Oftentimes, this online personality is purposefully developed around desirable features so that they are more likeable (which increases the chances of more people following them online):

  • “We found that, as suggested by the app icon itself, the identities of young people are increasingly packaged. That is, they are developed and put forth so that they convey a certain desirable –indeed, determinedly upbeat- image of the person in question” (Gardner and Davis Page 61)
  • “Digital media give youth the time and tools to craft an attractive identity, as well as an audience to view and respond to it.” (Gardner and Davis Page 70)
  • “The scope of information being shared by teens is increasing. Ninety-one percent of teens on social media post photos of themselves on the account they use most often…attribute the shift to the growing pervasiveness of smartphones among teens as well as the central role photo sharing plays in both creating and maintaining a presence on a social media site.” (Long Page 397)
  • “Facebook took it to an even more sinister and brilliant level. They said, if you want to be liked, … put this like button there, and we will prove to you that you are like-able” (Calicanis, Frontline: Generation Like)
  • “14% of boys and 12 percent of girls report that they have pretended to be someone else online to flirt” (MediaSmarts)

The convenience of Social Media sets up youth to package themselves for consumption, perpetuating the belief that you must share everything with the online world in order to make your life look good.

  • “’On Facebook, people are more concerned with making it look like they’re living rather than actually living’” (Gardner and Davis Page 63)
  • “Social media services can play a role in teens’ struggles for popularity and status because they enable the easy spread of information and allow teens to keep up with ever-changing school dynamics. These technologies also allow people to maintain social ties more easily, providing infrastructure for the dissemination of social information. Tools like Facebook make it easier for teens to keep up with their bullying classmates’ birthdays, breakups and makeups, and adventures to follow social protocols, engage one another in conversation, and provide support.” (Boyd Page 143)
  • “’You have a sense of power when you’re updating 1900 people’…  This can lead to a sense of life as an ongoing performance…People who attract attention without any sense of accomplishment or skill, however, are derided as “famewhores,” which suggests that visibility itself is not enough” (Marwick page 106-107)
  • “They’re putting themselves online for anyone to see. They tell the world what they think is cool—starting with their own online profiles. Likes, follows, retweets, and favorites are the social currency of this generation.” (Frontline: Generation Like) 

Youth are aware of the limitations and positives of each social media site. Thus, they often build their brand (profiles) across carefully selected social media sites/apps in order to reach a larger audience

  • “with the qualitative findings from the focus groups, suggests that teens are starting to pay closer attention to the social media platforms used, and recognize the distinct characteristics and limitations of each.” (Long Page 398)

Youth have quickly figured out how to monetize social media by amassing hundreds of thousands of likes, views, followers and shares.

  • “Selling out is not selling out anymore; it’s sort of getting the brass ring. It’s like if you get Taco Bell to sponsor your stuff, it’s like, “Hey, look, I’m important enough that Taco Bell realizes you’re an important audience to reach, so let’s all geek out about Taco Bell for a video. I don’t care. I’m getting paid, right?” … These YouTube stars will regularly get cars, computers, vacations, whatever it is, because they’re influencers. And their influence is very deep, like any other young musical star in the ’80s or ’90s. This is a way to get to those young people.” (Calicanis, Frontline: Generation Like)

 The Internet as a Safe Space

The Internet allows youth the freedom to explore their identities and oftentimes, provide a safe space to find others who also identify the same way. Ultimately, the Internet can be a positive in the lives of youth.  

  • “On the more positive side, there is also a broadening of acceptable identities (it’s OK to be a geek; it’s OK to be gay).” (Gardner and Davis  Page 61)
  • “Teens want access to publics to see and be seen, to socialize, and to feel as if they have the freedoms to explore a world beyond the heavily constrained one shaped by parents and school” (Boyd page 201-202)
  • “Yet, even if we agree that some degree of self-promotion plays a role in all communication, we must likewise recognize a desire for dialogue and discourse, for solidifying social connections, and for building larger communities through the circulation of media messages” (Spreadable Media Page 59)

The Consequences of Youth Seeking Fame Online

  • “In Britain, one of Facebook’s largest international markets, local policy makers have highlighted how social networking sites have been used to target children for either sexual grooming or online bullying.” (Goel)
  • “When teens achieve overwhelming attention and visibility online, positive feedback and negative attacks often go hand in hand.” (Boyd Page 151)
  • “ In conclusion, many legislatures are failing to keep pace with sexting amongst minors. The legal implications are problematic, and are only compounded by applications like Snapchat.” (Poltash Page 24)

The Pervasiveness of Social Media

Social Media is so interwoven into youths’ lives that there is oftentimes no line between what belongs online and what belongs offline (in private)

  • “[P]eople are more identifiable online, their online lives more interwoven with their offline lives. Indeed, today’s young people seldom make a distinction between their online and offline selves.” (Gardner And Davis Page 63)

Youth and Online Privacy Practices

The majority of youth still care about their privacy.

  • “The teens that I met genuinely care about their privacy, but how they understand and enact it may not immediately resonate or appear logical to adults. When teens—and, for that matter, most adults— seek privacy, they do so in relation to those who hold power over them.” (Boyd Page 56)
  • “As teenagers are coming of age, they want to feel as though they matter. Privacy is especially important for those who are marginalized or lack privilege within society. Teenagers have not given up on privacy, even if their attempts to achieve it are often undermined by people who hold power over them. On the contrary, teens are consistently trying out new ways of achieving privacy by drawing on and modernizing strategies that disempowered people have long used.” ( Boyd Page 76)

Youth are less concerned with the strangers that follow them on social media and more concerned with family members following them

  • “Though several youth identified strangers as the people from whom they most wanted privacy, more youth actually identified known others, such as their friends and family” (Gardner and Davis Page 64)
  • “Teens have become acutely aware that anything they post online might be analyzed by parents, friends or colleges; 57% of them have chosen not to post something because they thought it might reflect badly on them in the future, the study found” (Luckerson)
  • “Only 9% of teens are very concerned that advertisers might access the information they share through social media without their knowledge, while 22% aren’t concerned at all. “ (Luckerson)

Social Media developers have ensured that privacy settings are complicated to understand and open/public settings are the automatic default. Therefore, youth have grown-up with this ‘public settings’ mentality:

  • “In a mediated world, assumptions and norms about the visibility and spread of expressions must be questioned. Many of the most popular genres of social media are designed to encourage participants to spread information. On a site like Facebook, it is far easier to share with all friends than to manipulate the privacy settings to limit the visibility of a particular piece of content to a narrower audience. As a result, many participants make a different calculation than the one they would make in an unmediated situation. Rather than asking themselves if the information to be shared is significant enough to be broadly publicized, they question whether it is intimate enough to require special protection. In other words, when participating in networked publics, many participants embrace a widespread public-by default, private-through-effort mentality.” (Boyd Page 62)

What is the impact of our celebrity obsessed culture?

Hollywood and our culture’s obsession with celebrities is the driving force behind youths’ use of social media. We have placed Hollywood on a pedestal; blatantly declaring that becoming a rich celebrity is the ultimate American dream. Celebrities share their lives with the world, and in turn, youth also share their lives with the world in hopes of one day actually attaining the glamor of celebrity status:

  • “…a variety of media platforms, encouraging their participation by holding out the promise that they, too, can become stars like their favourite TV personalities… One educator observed that young people increasingly find their role models on MTV rather than in their family or neighbourhood.” (Gardner and Davis Page 71)
  • “As a currency, attention has tremendous social and cultural value. Teens learn the value of attention, the cost of gossip, and the power of drama by observing what takes place around them. Reality TV, tabloid magazines, and celebrity news all provide a media-driven template for understanding how attention operates and helps fuel bullying drama for entertainment. The advertising culture that teens witness reveals a market-driven valuation of attention…Social media also allows people to enact celebrity practices. Teens can and do use social media to drum up attention for themselves and shower attention on others. Attention through social media can be both delightful and devastating. Sometimes, it’s used to celebrate people’s accomplishments. Other times, it’s used to challenge people’s stature. More than anything, how other teens and celebrities use technologies to negotiate attention sets the stage for what teens understand as normal” (Boyd Page 147-8)
  • “Twitter was the one that enabled everyone to have their say, and of course, all the celebrities came onboard, and that was a real seminal moment as well. … Once those people started getting on, and you realize, “Wow, I’m just one step away, zero hops from a celebrity, and I can reply to them,” that’s when it exploded.” (Calicanis, Frontline: Generation Like)
  • “I think kids are pretty aware of the fact that this media is being used to make money, but they’re opting into it because they want the fame. … These are very, very savvy young people.” (Calicanis, Frontline: Generation Like)

The Current Landscape of Social Media

Teens are moving away from Facebook and instead, moving on to Instagram, Snapchat and other social media sites that adults have yet to employ

  • “Has Facebook lost its cool? That’s a question TIME posed earlier this year to dozens of teenagers, who mostly insisted that newer social networks like Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter were more engaging, even if (and partially because) everyone they knew in real life wasn’t on them. Now, a new study by the Pew Research Center has confirmed that teens are growing a bit weary of the world’s largest social network.”(Luckerson)
  • “Parents, now omnipresent on Facebook, are also a buzzkill. About 70% of teens are Facebook friends with their parents” (Luckerson)
  • “In 2012 alone, more than five billion messages were sent through Snapchat. In February 2013, the application “was the second-most popular free photo and video app for the iPhone . . . just behind YouTube and ahead of Instagram.” Snapchat is especially popular among individuals under twenty-five” (Page 9-10)

The Epidemiology of Online Culture

Youth are continually measuring their social acceptance through social media (likes, followers, and friends). Loneliness and feelings of not being accepted, both online and offline, can be devastating to youth. The pervasiveness of the Internet is shaping how youth are receiving peer approval, making decisions, being bullied and making friends.

  • “One source of not just comfort but basic survival is to identify with your peers than with your parents, to connect with other adolescents and push away from adults. By being a part of an adolescent group, you get companionship on this transition trek, as well as safety in numbers: Predators will be intimidated by a large group, and you can lose yourself in the group mass. That is one reason why for many but not all teens, fitting in can feel so important” (Siegel Page 28)
  • “While group collaboration can certainly be a source of collective intelligence, it can also get you to jump off a cliff or drive too fast.” (Siegel Page 29)


Reference List

(2014, January 20). Press Release | Friends, Follows, and Fame: FRONTLINE Presents ‘Generation Like’. Retrieved from PBS Frontline, Generation Like Website:

Boyd, D. (2014). It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Calincanis, J. (Interviewee). (2014). Jason Calicanis: You Are Your Own Media Company [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from PBS Frontline, Generation Like Website:

Gardner, H., & Davis, K. (2013). The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Jenkins, H., Ford, S., Green, J.  (2013). Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture. New York, NY: NYU Press.  

Long, E. M. (2013). Teens, Social Media and Privacy. The National Association for Media Literacy Education’s Journal of Media Literacy Education, 5 (2), 397-399.

Luckerson, V. (2013, May 25). Teens Tire of Facebook — but Not Enough to Log Off. Time. Retrieved from

Marwick, A. (2013). Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

MediaSmarts. (2014). Young Canadians in a Wired World – Phase III:  Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age. Ottawa, Ontario: Valerie Steeves, Ph.D 

Poltash, N. A. (2013) Snapchat And Sexting: A Snapshot Of Baring Your Bare Essentials. Richmond Journal of Law & Technology, 19 (4). Retrieved from

Senft, T. (2008). Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in Age of Social Networks. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Siegel, D.  (2013). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. New York, New York: Penguin Group.