Internet Killed the Video Star

“A star is not born. A star’s image is meticulously made and remade…” (Cheney-Lippold, xi)

In We Are Data, John Cheney-Lippold’s book on the algorithms of digital agency, he discusses the online personas we as Internet-users cultivate, and those personas that are cultivated for us. He describes the phenomenon of the Internet celebrity—someone whose online presence has led to fame. But as Cheney-Lippold argues, this so-called ‘online fame’ doesn’t necessarily translate into real-life celebrity, off the screens we inhabit: “Google isn’t really assessing ‘fame.’ Google is creating its own, proprietary version of it” (Cheney-Lippold, xi). So, are Internet celebrities in fact real celebrities? Or do they exist only in a virtual world?

My first thought is, yes—they can most certainly become real-world, three-dimensional celebrities. WikiLeaks has coined the Internet “the global mass surveillance industry,” and because of this surveillance, real people with a strong online presence are able to turn their digital work (or personality) into celebrity.

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‘The Fat Jewish,’ courtesy of Guerin Blask

A huge pop culture icon, and meme connoisseur, The Fat Jewish (aka Josh Ostrovsky), has made his fame primarily from an Instagram account. He has over 10 million followers now, and his career has spanned far beyond this one media outlet. He’s made cameos in music videos such as “Boys” by Charlie XCX, and “Cake by the Ocean” by DNCE. He acted in Zoolander 2, Nerve, and other blockbusters. In 2015, he came out with a book, Money Pizza Respect, and he’s even modeled for big fashion brands. His success has come so far from just having a comedy Instagram account—he has become a recognizable celebrity icon.

 

 

 

Leandra Medine, the founder of the website Man Repeller is another (yet wildly different) example of an Internet star who became a real celebrity. Her website, founded in 2010, was catered to fashionable, creative women who wanted to dress for themselves instead of men. It took off and now spans all social media outlets. Medine has written for big magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, and even collaborated with designers Michael Kors, Stuart Weitzman, and Saks Fifth Avenue. In an interview with Refinery29, Medine addresses her Internet-success, and how it has positively impacted not only her career but her personal expression:

“I feel like becoming recognized and ‘internet famous,’ makes me feel much more comfortable with my place in the world. I used to act out in ridiculous ways because I wanted to be heard, but nobody would listen,” she says. “[Now,] I feel really, really at ease and comfortable with my voice” (Leandra Medine, Refinery29).

Obviously, we as Internet consumers are programmed to feed into these celebrities’ work and advertising: “Blindly following trends is not just for fashionistas and Brooklyn-based music snobs. It is a part of how the measurable types that we inhabit dynamically respond to new inputs drawn from our datafied lives” (Cheney-Lippold, 91).

 But there is most certainly another type of Internet celebrity—a completely virtual kind—what Cheney-Lippold would call the “algorithmic celebrity” (Cheney-Lippold, 5). Academic Sheila Jasanoff describes this algorithmic process as “simplifying…the messy realities of people’s personal attributes and [behaviors] into the objective, tractable language of numbers” (Cheney-Lippold, 53). This quanitification or statistical language is what defines a celebrity according to Google, and a lot of the time, it is not accurate in a real-life scenario.

A few years ago, my friend noticed that her Instagram followers had skyrocketed by hundreds. She was at first ecstatic, and as we scrolled through the followers we noticed that most of them seemed to be Brazilian or Portuguese names. (This friend has often been mistaken for being of Brazilian heritage, and so she assumed she had tapped into a South American fan-based because of this.) A day later, she found out that her two friends had played a prank on her: they had bought the mother load of fake followers. She felt quite silly after, and when we went back through to look at these “accounts,” we realized they were shady and phony looking—the accounts were private and we were unable to follow any of them back. The foreign names seemed to be attributed to them to appear more legitimate. According to the Internet algorithms, my friend is a celebrity, but of course, this just isn’t the case (yet).

The lines between celebrity and virtual star are becoming more and more blurred everyday. We clock in so many hours daily on our screens, it’s hard to remember what is “real” and what is intangible. Many Instagram “celebrities” have become famous from these fake followers, but their careers don’t go beyond the bounds of ones and zeros. Others, like Josh Ostrovsky and Leandra Medine have turned their online presence into well-rounded, lasting careers outside of the world wide web. But who’s to say that that’s any more real? Can we really make a distinction? “Who we are in the face of algorithmic interpretation is who we are computationally calculated to be,” Cheney-Lippold argues, “…we increasingly lose control not just over life but over how life itself is defined” (Cheney-Lippold, 5).


Works Cited

Cheney-Lippold, John. We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves. New York University Press, 2017.


 

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