Burgess and Green argue that: ordinary people who become celebrities through their own creative efforts “remain within the system of celebrity native to, and controlled by, the mass media” (Reader, page 269).
I contend that despite the spread of the internet medium and the availability of recording and computing technologies, individuals who rise to fame on the online medium rely on traditional or ‘old’ media outlets to sustain their fame. To demonstrate this, I will first introduce the article by Burgess and Green, and second, consider two contrasting examples of ‘famous’ individuals whose origins lie in the digital landscape of YouTube.
Burgess and Green (2009) explore the truth behind amateur video. They attempt to dispel the “myth” that the wide availability of recording equipment and editing software has meant that amateurs with “raw talent” will be able to rise to “legitimate success and media fame”, supported by the distributive capacity of the internet medium. Although the article considers a number of examples of amateur video makers have “made it” from YouTube to the Small Screen or even the Big Screen, Burgess and Green suggest that for the few success stories, their are countless stories of failure (or stories that didn’t end in mainstream “media fame”); indeed, “YouTube has been mythologised as literally a way to ‘broadcast yourself’ into fame and fortune” (Burgess & Green 2009).
The Burgess and Green article considers that for people to ‘broadcast’ themselves to media fame, “the distance between ‘ordinary’ citizen and celebrity can only be bridged when the ordinary person gains access [to the mass (or traditional) media]” (Burgess & Green 2009).
Let’s consider two examples. One of ‘ordinary citizen becomes celebrity’, and one of ‘ordinary citizen remains ordinary’.
Justin Bieber is probably the most widely cited example of YouTube ‘fame’ and success. At thirteen, a video that Bieber had made and published on YouTube was inadvertently clicked on by a record producer looking for another artist. After being impressed by Bieber’s cover performance, he was flown to meet Usher and sign with a record label.
Bieber’s story is one of internet fame (‘Baby‘ is currently the most watched video on YouTube). But his fame has been sustained by the the traditional outlets of the media:
- Record deals
- TV appearances
- Album sales
- Feature-length films
Justin Bieber’s truly incredible fame finds it roots in the heart of internet culture. But it is his sustained fame, and “pass[ing] through the gate-keeping mechanisms of old media” to traditional forms of media that has cemented his place in the world of celebrities (Burgess & Green 2009).
Let’s consider another story of internet ‘fame’. In 2010 at Blizzard Entertainment’s annual gaming conference (BlizzCon), a game developer (and Blizzard employee) was asked a question in a panel discussion forum (Know Your Meme 2011).
Soon after this was filmed at BlizzCon and posted on YouTube, the man asking the question (that revealed a hole in the storyline of Blizzard Entertainment’s most successful franchise, World of Warcraft) became known as ‘The Red Shirt Guy’. Within minutes of the video upload, Warcraft fan sites exploded with discussion of the Red Shirt Guy – not so much his probing question, but his shaky oral delivery captured on camera and uploaded to YouTube. Comments on the YouTube video criticised his weight, his voice and his face (Know Your Meme 2011).
But unlike Justin Bieber (and perhaps unsurprisingly), the Red Shirt Guy’s foray into the world of internet celebrity failed to “pass through the gate-keeping mechanisms” into the traditional and mainstream media. Admittedly, the Red Shirt Guy’s internet fame was insular to begin with: his fame was isolated to Warcraft fans and other gamers, but without going beyond the internet medium, an individual’s ‘fame’ cannot be sustained.
The Red Shirt Guy also represents the short half-life of internet fame, and the even shorter attention span of the internet’s users. World of Warcraft is a popular computer game with over 12 million players, but the nature of internet fame, the way individuals can rise out of nowhere (see Rebecca Black), facilitates a short lifespan. One week it’ll be the Red Shirt Guy, and the next week, it’ll be someone or something else that’s captivated the attention of internet culture.
If ‘famous’ individuals of the internet cannot extend their fame into the realm of traditional media, their days as a celebrity will be numbered. They best enjoy (or endure) it while it lasts!
PS. This video from Hungry Beast is also worth a look. It takes a brief look behind the computer screen at what really happened to the internet celebrities we loved and forgot.
PPS. Revisit Antoine Dodson. You know you want to!
- Burgess, J. & Green, J., ‘YouTube and The Mainstream Media’, in YouTube: Online and Participatory Culture, Polity Press, Cambridge, pp. 15-37, 2009.
- News Week, ‘The Flip Side of Internet Fame’, 2008.
- Feuer, A. & George, J., ‘Internet Fame Is Cruel Mistress for a Dancer of the Numa Numa’, New York Times, 2005.
- Know Your Meme, ‘Red Shirt Guy’, 2011.