An illustration of a tabloid magazine featuring Lord Byron

On Facebook and elsewhere, we design self-flattering profiles, post status updates, upload photos of ourselves and get tagged in others’ uploads, labor to choose the right “25 random things about me,” which are, of course, not random at all. Video cameras are marketed with a one-touch-upload-to-YouTube function. It is not so much that everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame or that anyone can be a star but that everyone already is a star: we ordinary people are growing accustomed to not just watching but also being constantly watched.

In this conclusion to “The Unwatched Life Is Not Worth Living: The Elevation of the Ordinary in Celebrity Culture,” Joshua Gamson neatly sums up an oft-stated reservation about our social media era: Now that the public broadcasting of daily life has become a routine and broadly accessible activity, rather than the preserve of a notable elite, will we all become corrupted by the scrutiny and exposure that go along with celebrity?

Playing to the Crowd

Social media has undoubtedly made the phenomenon of constant exposure a far more widespread experience. As Elaine Replogle observes in her analysis of criticism of a cancer blogger, “Fame, Social Media Use, and Ethics,” “[s]ocial media allow anyone to disclose life trivia for all to see, making it possible for people to be perceived as begging for attention, of transgressing traditional boundaries of public and private, of acting somehow ‘inappropriately.’” Citing Jodi Dean in “Twitter and the New Publicity,” Joseph Faina writes that “publicity has become the defining ideology for Internet users, leading to a constant preoccupation with visibility.” This preoccupation in turn creates new kinds of psychological issues, as Melissa Gronlund describes in “From Narcissism to the Dialogic: Identity in Art after the Internet“:

One puts things online so that other people can see them, and comment on if they wish—but one has no idea, of course, who will.…In most physical conversations, social convention or basic human empathy guarantee a response to most comments, regardless of their quality. On the internet, it’s just shots in the dark—a big, blind pantomime, where success is measured by a time-lag applause-o-meter. It is no surprise that anxiety has emerged as a leitmotif in writings on the internet.

It’s only in the past decade or so that this problem of playing to the crowd has become widespread: Before the advent of YouTube, reality television stars were the only “ordinary” people to appear on screen with any regularity, and before blogs and social networks, we only paid attention to the eating or beauty routines of movie stars or rock stars. While we can therefore blame social media for making the problem of celebrity into a mass phenomenon, anxieties about the hazards of public exposure long predate the internet. Look back at the history of celebrity, and all the hand-wringing over social media scrutiny sounds like an all-too-familiar tune.

The History of the Celebrity

It’s not a long history. As Charles Kurzman et al. note in their article “Celebrity Status,” “celebrity is a recent phenomenon.” While the idea of fame has a long tradition, “celebrity acquired new significance in the era of mass media. Abraham Lincoln became the most widely recognized U.S. president because his photograph was so widely disseminated.” The nineteenth century also saw the emergence of the first literary celebrities, like Charles Dickens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

As in our current social media era, the emergence of celebrity culture was inseparable from the technological developments that made it possible. Queen Victoria became the first celebrity monarch, thanks to what John Plunkett describes as “the burgeoning print and graphic culture of the 1830s and 1840s.” In “Of Hype and Type,” Plunkett notes that “[t]he Queen’s role was not just to submit to her appropriation by newspapers, periodicals and artists: royalty now had to actively encourage the creation of themselves as media beings.”

The same dynamics turned writers and actors into public figures. In “Longfellow, Tennyson, and Transatlantic Celebrity,” John Morton writes that “Longfellow’s celebrity as a ‘pop poet’ was a reality in Britain and yet was also generated by the press, which simultaneously catered to the desire of its readers to get ever closer to him while also generating this desire through its coverage.”  In “Modern Celebrity and Early Dickens,” Timothy Spurgin cites Julia John’s description of Dickens as the first self-made global media star of the age of mass culture. And as Sharon Marcus writes in “Salomé!! Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and the Drama of Celebrity,” mass media was crucial in transforming theatrical performers into celebrities:

For most of the nineteenth century, celebrity representations existed primarily to induce people to see stars perform live. Sound and film recordings of stage actors were rare for most of the nineteenth century, and commercial photographs, though compelling, did not substitute for hearing and seeing stars in person. Indeed, the images of stage actors that circulated throughout the nineteenth century did not efface theatrical aura but supplemented it; the haunting absent presence that defines photography and the exaggerated use of color, line, and scale in posters only intensified aura of singular reality around performers appearing in person.

Well into the twentieth century, observers (including journalists themselves) were deeply suspicious of the role of mass media in elevating or celebrating society’s notables. A 1921 article in Scientific American, “The Price of Fame,” bemoaned the cruelty of the public eye: “A case in point is that of Mme. Curie. Her visit to America to receive her gift of radium might have been an unalloyed pleasure and a much-needed holiday. Instead of this it has been made, largely through the efforts of the American press, a continuous nightmare.” (Never mind the tiny detail of that gift of radium being poisonous.)

Media Scrutiny and the New Fame

The form of notoriety that emerged from this kind of media scrutiny was qualitatively different from the kinds of fame that were previously sought after. As Judith Roof writes in “Fame’s Ambivalents,” “[c]ontemporary fame has nothing to do with older notions of fame where fame represented some distinct and unusual accomplishment of the subject in whose name fame was produced.”

As writers, artists, political leaders, and other notables became well-known for their personalities as well as their accomplishments, this new and more intimate form of notoriety became the occasion for anxieties that are very similar to our current worries about the corrupting effects of social media exposure.

Precisely because celebrity was still a novel experience in the nineteenth century, the writers who were its first beneficiaries (or perhaps, its first victims) explicitly wrestled with these anxieties. Spurgin notes that by the time he wrote Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens had “begun to suspect that celebrity will rob him of his dignity,” which is why his books often included characters who exemplified what Spurgin terms “the humiliations of fandom and celebrity.” What Dickens hoped for, instead, was lasting fame based on actual accomplishment. (#AchievementUnlocked, we might fairly say now.)

The severing of notoriety from accomplishment is what made this kind of fame suspicious in the eyes of other nineteenth century artists, too. “Once one becomes a celebrity, from whatever field, then one’s membership in that field is less relevant than one’s status as celebrity,” Nicholas Dames writes in “Brushes with Fame: Thackeray and the Work of Celebrity.” Dames argues that the emergent “dynamics of celebrity” form a central preoccupation of Thackeray’s work, “whereby the celebrity is at once exalted and punctured, and whereby the machinery of publicity that creates celebrities is at once targeted as an ill and exploited as a tool.”

Even as the “distinction between celebrity and fame became less important,” Sharon Marcus argues, a new concern emerged around the the “interplay between two kinds of celebrity: a celebrity of exemplarity and a celebrity of impudence, sometimes combined in the same figure.” Queen Victoria served as exemplar when she modelled her maternal domesticity, Marcus writes; in contrast, artists like Byron, Liszt, George Sand, and Oscar Wilde “shamelessly chose their differences and elected to exhibit that choice.”

Dividing the universe of notables into “good” and “bad” celebrities thus gave both the public and elites of the nineteenth century a way to quarantine their anxieties about celebrity itself. Today, a similar dynamic is at work in the way we perceive newly minted online celebrities and influencers.

The Good, the Bad, and the Meme

Joshua Gamson differentiates between using the internet as “a launching pad for performers who manage to build an audience online that they then use to break into the off-line entertainment world” and internet-specific forms of celebrity like “the anti-celebrity, a collective in-joke, in which the most unlikely candidate becomes the most celebrated,” or “the self-made, do-it-yourself celebrity, who has pursued fame outside, despite and sometimes in opposition to the established celebrity system.” And Elaine Reprogle speculates that criticism of cancer bloggers stems from squeamishness about how much non-famous people should share online, and wonders whether “the expectations for maintaining ‘privacy’ [are] actually stricter for people who are not famous.”

What makes us uncomfortable, it seems, is not the fact that people attract attention online, but rather, that they actively pursue that attention. As philosopher Joshua Halberstam wrote in his 1984 essay “Fame” (before social media was even invented!):

It is…the active pursuit of fame (or wealth) that gives rise to our reservations. For in pursuing fame one indicates not only his valuation of fame but its valuation over other competing values. The active pursuit of fame requires real expenditures of time, effort and determination—all resources we have in limited supply. In choosing to channel one’s energies toward the attainment of fame, other, more important values must be abandoned.

It’s easy to apply that kind of analysis to YouTube stars, Instagram influencers, or lifestyle bloggers — to pillory their determined pursuit of followers, subscribers, likes, and mentions as a shallow pursuit of the very kind of celebrity that nineteenth-century artists actually feared. But there’s little difference between determinedly self-promoting online celebrities, and those of us who simply glow when our Facebook posts or Insta posts get a few more likes than usual: The scale of our ambitions might be different, but the craving for attention is the same.

Rather than indulging in the now-familiar pastime of criticizing one another for the attention and exposure we pursue online, let’s try to learn from the experiences of our nineteenth-century predecessors. For all that Dickens, Thackeray, and their contemporaries worried about the corrupting and evanescent character of celebrity, they’re now thoroughly ensconced in the canon as respected authors. If those authors could survive the debasement of the nineteenth-century media, perhaps we can all survive the unsparing gaze of social media, and even make peace with our all-too-human craving for the spotlight.


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