The history of a society’s celebrities is a history of its values, its sense of self. The coyness of golden age Hollywood starlets and the endearing floppy-haired heartthrobs of the ’90s are reference points for views on success and beauty at the time. Now, in the digital age, the idea of celebrity has grown too complicated to narrow down, with the cultural mainstream being replaced with ever-diverging subcultures with separate media streams.
Our attitudes toward ideas of popularity and fame are seemingly stratified, but across media watersheds, a unifying trend emerges. People want relatability. In its early stages, this manifested in the chill-girl “I’d rather be eating pizza” attitude projected by celebrities popular in the early 2010s (think Jennifer Lawrence). But even in the context of film stars, a mental barrier exists between the viewer and the object of their reverence. At least to some degree, we know that we do not know these people personally.
That boundary is a crucial one. That delineation between those modes of presentation — a public figure speaking in a controlled environment versus a casual comment by someone without a platform — prevents the spread of misinformation and an invasion of the public figure’s privacy. And as celebrity evolves, that boundary is steadily blurring.
To chart the evolution of video-sharing platforms is to chart the erasure of that boundary. With the invention of YouTube, sharing content with a large audience became accessible to anyone that could figure out how to work video equipment semi-competently. People became famous overnight entirely by accident in front of cameras they set up in their own homes. Then came Vine, which streamlined the process even further, bringing people even closer to the content creators they watched.
“People no longer market a product, but themselves.” —Caelan Reeves CM ’24
The shutdown of Vine and its estranged cousin Musical.ly muddled the trajectory a bit, but from that confusion emerged TikTok, by far the most egregious evolution of this phenomenon. We are no longer interacting with content creators with the buffer of a camera crew and a public relations team, but instead see moments from people’s lives from their perspective in real time. The boundary created by the pretense of content creation is obliterated entirely. People no longer market a product, but themselves.
This shift has yielded confusing new types of celebrity that have little precedent: strange combinations of an artist, a moral arbiter and a best friend. Influencer, model, content creator — we have a lot of different words to describe it, but this new manifestation of celebrity is defined by the market value of someone’s personality or brand. Distilled, the career of an influencer is shaping your identity into something worthy of being an advertisement.
Even more worrying is that this model of assigning value is so accessible from such a young age. Within any given high school, there is likely at least a handful of young adults that have managed to gain a decent level of audience online. Content from someone even mildly popular online is easily taken as truth, and the implications of placing that power in the still-forming brains of teenagers are troubling.
The speed at which this evolution occurred has created an environment in which we don’t have much context for how to engage with public figures. We don’t even really know what exactly a public figure is. What follower count must someone accrue before we shift our attitudes in how we interact with them? When should they shift their attitudes toward themselves? Do literal children that get famous by accident have a moral obligation to speak out on complex social issues?
With influencers like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae gaining formal representation, and the presence of names like Emma Chamberlain at the Met Gala, it seems that this newer, unrefined image of celebrity is starting to find its place alongside more traditional forms of fame. Conduct for interacting with influencers and public figures is becoming a prominent talking point. The fact remains, though, that an entirely new model of fame is coming into being right before us, and it seems as though we are all just trying to catch up.
Caelan Reeves CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. They are a literature and history double major from Chicago, Illinois, and love everything to do with music, movies and books.