Stars–They Tweet Like Us!: Some Thoughts on Celebrity and Twitter

23 10 2010

This post is really overdue, as I’ve actually had it written for some time. I attended the *amazing* Flow 2010 Conference at UT-Austin just over three weeks ago, and this post is taken from the position paper I submitted and presented at that conference. I really cannot say enough positive things about this conference. It’s non-traditional set-up consists of panels where presenters have 5 minutes (no, really!) to discuss their position papers around a common topic and the rest of the time is used for discussion between panelists and audience. This allows for a really productive dialogue to emerge and everyone (from grad student to senior scholar) has the opportunity to participate. It meets every other year, and you can bet I will be submitting for 2012. I highly encourage any media scholars to check it out. Plus, Austin = awesome.

Since completing my dissertation on gossip blogs, I’ve been widening my view to think about intersections of celebrity culture with other forms of new media. Twitter and celebrity is basically a match made in heaven. I know Twitter can serve lots of different functions (and I highly recommend checking out the other position papers from the Flow Twittertube panel) , but its use by and for celebrities is really fascinating to me because it so perfectly encapsulates the private/public blurring that is inherent to the celebrity image. It’s also very distracting, as I can’t seem to go through a day without checking for Kanye’s latest tweets. Where is his antique fish tank anyway?

So here is my position paper, which explores how celebrities use Twitter to manage the private self and manage scandal. I will also mention that I have a post on celebrities using Twitter for more straightforward self-promotion that will appear on next week’s In Media Res. I’ll post the full link when it is published on Thursday, October 28.

Celebrity Twitter Feeds and the Illusion of Intimacy
The media product known as the celebrity emerges from a “circuit of celebrity production” in which various cultural intermediaries—the celebrity, her industry producers, the “legitimate” and the gossip-oriented celebrity media—feed off of each other in a constant struggle to control how that individual is represented to audiences.

In modern celebrity culture, the extratextual media coverage of stars has played an increasingly important role in promoting the “illusion of intimacy” between a star and her fans/audiences by elevating the private side of the image as the privileged site of meaning. Tabloids and other entertainment-oriented media forms encourage the audience to pursue the “real” person behind the star persona with the hope that, beneath the controlled surface, the star “really” is who she seems to be.

Tabloids, in particular, seek to disrupt the carefully constructed public image forwarded by the celebrity-industry producers (studios, publicists, managers, etc) through the revelation of the “unguarded” private self as the “real” or “authentic” star, often challenging the dominant meaning of the celebrity’s image. But the contradictory and ambivalent nature of celebrity means the circuit of production is a highly unstable process and no one player ever fully controls the meaning of the celebrity image for audiences. In other words, the meaning of the celebrity is constantly contested terrain.

Tabloids attempt to define the meaning of Angelina's image. This certainly is not sanctioned by her or her management. But nevertheless becomes an important part of how we read her image.

Social networking platforms, particularly Twitter, offer new insight into this fraught process of production by highlighting the ways in which the illusion of intimacy can be manipulated by various players in the circuit. On Twitter, unlike traditional celebrity media outlets, audiences are offered immediate and interactive engagements with the celebrity that (purportedly) originate outside of industry control and even specifically challenge other representations of the “real” celebrity. Though celebrity media outlets have also taken to Twitter, I suggest that Twitter offers the celebrity-industry intermediaries a way to recuperate control over the image using the same appeals to the unguarded and private self central to gossip media constructions of celebrity. That is, celebrity Twitter feeds recuperate celebrity-industry control over the image by explicitly engaging the same media discourses and platforms that typically disrupt that control.

The most successful celebrity Twitter users offer a glimpse of the everyday and even mundane details of their private lives, thus stressing the ordinary self behind the extraordinary public image.

Twitter’s appeal is based in its interactive nature, offering audiences a more direct sense of engagement with the celebrity than, say, reading a publicist-sanctioned interview in Vanity Fair. Though there is typically no way for a fan to know whether a Twitter feed is actually written by the celebrity (or to what degree other intermediaries influence the tweets), the very nature of Twitter as a social network gives at least the illusion of the celebrity herself as the sole author of her tweets. [NB: Annie Petersen has an excellent blog post about the believability of celebrity tweets]

This is not to suggest that celebrity tweets are not “real,” and indeed many are genuinely authored by the celebrity. Yet as a site of image production, celebrity Twitter feeds offer glimpses of the star’s private life that appear uncontrolled and authentic, even as these glimpses are limited and, often, deliberately staged. In this way, Twitter provides the celebrity and her intermediaries greater control over her image by engaging the same appeal to the unmediated and authentic self more typical of the tabloids.

The illusion of intimacy promoted by Twitter’s interactive access is also a site of struggle in which the star can challenge the tabloids’ construction of her as the “truth.” For example, in the days leading up to Lindsay Lohan’s court appearance and jail time, she used her Twitter account to challenge the negative way she was represented in the gossip media. Such a move uses the illusion of intimacy promoted by Twitter as a means to control the representation of her image to her most important audience, existing fans. In fact, she explicitly encouraged fans to “get the news straight from me” via her Twitter feed rather than turn to other media outlets, thus rejecting their representations of her as false and untrustworthy.

Of course, using Twitter cannot guarantee her version of her image will be the dominant one, and many of Lohan’s tweets have been used by the gossip media as further evidence of her instability. Nevertheless the ability to speak directly to her fans about the “truth” of her situation exploits the illusion of intimacy and offers Lohan and her producers a controlled platform from which to “fight back” against tabloid gossip in the midst of scandal. In these tweets, Lindsay attempts to control the scandal after she tested positive for drugs and alcohol just days after being released from jail:

Such image control is crucial if she wants to rebuild her public career post-incarceration. Within the contested terrain of celebrity culture, Twitter enables the celebrity to (at least appear to) bypass other players in the circuit of celebrity production, recuperate (if temporarily) control over her image and, most crucially, increase the illusion of intimacy with her audience/followers.




4 responses

23 10 2010
Anne Helen Petersen

Still so sad that I had to miss this presentation — as you reference above, it’s totally one of my favorite aspects of contemporary celebrity culture (and thinking about it, and what it represents, is, I think, one of the most compelling ‘strands’ of our discipline).

So question. What do we do with Ashton and Demi? What do they mean to Twitter now? Did their attempt to counter the break-up/cheating rumors through TwitPics work? What does it mean that Ashton’s star image is so heavily associated with Twitter use? Is that a negative or a positive?

23 10 2010

Great questions! On one hand, I suppose their attempt to counter cheating rumors via Twitter did work, since it hasn’t been dominating the tabloids/blogs lately (right? I’m under the impression it’s moment as scandal-du-jour has passed).

But as I mentioned, using Twitter to manage scandal can be limited because it mostly reaches only the followers (unless, like with Lohan or Kanye, it gets picked up by press). Though I suppose keeping your core fans on your side is much more important than the general public because they are more apt to buy your image/products/etc anyway. But I think it only adds to the fun of scandal for readers because now they have another outlet to go for information. Just as with reading tabloids, they can pick and choose what to believe and what to consider as staged, and Twitter just offers another venue for this reading pleasure.

As for Twitter being negative or positive for your image, I think it depends on the star. It’s really a perfect vehicle for reality stars whose images are already wrapped up in access to their private selves as their claim to fame (or someone like Lindsay who is all private self and no public performance these days). And, in my experience, the best celeb tweeters are these kinds of stars because they read as more “real” and are not just about work stuff.

On the other hand, Britney Spears is one of the top celebs on Twitter, and her feed is obviously written by someone else at times (explicitly, her manager will sign the tweet with his name when he writes them vs. Britney signs when she does). So fans obviously don’t care about some level of manager intervention and find Twitter a good way to connect with her image. So I guess it’s mostly positive, though certainly some people (Ashton and Kanye come to mind here) who are mocked for their Twitter use in the press. But what has Ashton done lately BESIDES be on Twitter? So it’s keeping his name out there, which is a positive too.

30 10 2010
Jennifer Jones

Erin, I think that Annie’s tweet about your post first led me here, which led me to your In Medias Res presentation. Thanks for both! My dissertation is on media, celebrity, and the obesity crisis, and Twitter is important for several of the celebrities I’ll likely include, so your posts should be useful in helping me to sort out its functions for them. I posted an archival blog entry about both of your pieces. Feel free to check it out and let me know if you have any other insights. Thanks again!

8 05 2012
Are We Building Awareness About Social Good?

[…] However, many celebrities are regaining control of their Twitter accounts. […]

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