Age of Microcelebrity, and Why Everyone's a Little Brad Pitt
By Clive Thompson 11.27.07 | 12:00 AM
Whenever Peter Hirshberg is at a party, someone eventually pulls out a camera and takes a snapshot with him in it. Hirshberg — chair of the executive committee at the blog-search company Technorati — performs a quick mental calculation: Does the photographer look like one of those people who will immediately dash home and post all their candids to Flickr? "If I think it's going to end up on the Web, I straighten up more, try to smile the right way," Hirshberg says. "Because if it goes online, people I know will probably see it."
Hirshberg has a blog, which means a couple hundred people — some strangers, some friends — regularly follow his comings and goings, his Facebook updates, his online photo trail. Any time he does something embarrassing or stupid, those people will know. So in essence, Hirshberg has to behave like a very minor version of Brad Pitt. He's got to watch out for the paparazzi, be careful with his public image.
But he's not a celebrity. He's a microcelebrity.Microcelebrity is the phenomenon of being extremely well known not to millions but to a small group — a thousand people, or maybe only a few dozen. As DIY media reach ever deeper into our lives, it's happening to more and more of us. Got a Facebook account? A whackload of pictures on Flickr? Odds are there are complete strangers who know about you — and maybe even talk about you.
Geoffrey Grosenbach, a programmer in Seattle, wrote a Twitter post about a new office chair he got — then discovered people in Australia chatting about his purchase. Afriend of mine learned that her microfans had formed a Yahoo group (with 125 members!) to discuss her blog. I've been touched by this trend, too: I once stumbled upon a discussion-board thread arguing over whether it's healthy for me to have a nanny look after my son during work hours — a personal detail I had revealed online.Some of the newly microfamous aren't very happy about all the attention. Blog pioneer Dave Winer has found his idle industry-conference chitchat so frequently live-blogged that he now feels "like a presi-dential candidate" and worries about making off-the-cuff remarks. Some pundits fret that microcelebrity will soon force everyone to write blog posts and even talk in the bland, focus-grouped cadences of Hillary Clinton (minus the cackle).
But I think these gloomy predictions are probably wrong. The truth is that people are developing interesting social skills to adapt to microfame. We're learning how to live in front of a crowd.If you really want to see the future, check out teenagers and twentysomethings. When they go to a party, they make sure they're dressed for their close-up — because there will be photos, and those photos will end up online. In managing their Web presence, they understand the impact of logos, images, and fonts. And they're increasingly careful to use pseudonyms or private accounts when they want to wall off the more intimate details of their lives. (Indeed, fully two-thirds of teenagers' MySpace accounts are private and can be viewed by invitation only.)
I now use a few coy tricks to communicate with the small group of people who follow me online. When the backlog of unanswered messages in my inbox grows too huge, I'll post a message to Facebook or Twitter pleading "Snowed under by work!" in the hope that my audience — including, ahem, my Wired editor — will cut me some slack.In essence, I'm sending out press releases. Adapting to microcelebrity means learning to manage our own identity and "message" almost like a self-contained public relations department. "People are using the same techniques employed on Madison Avenue to manage their personal lives," says Theresa Senft, a media studies professor and one of the first to identify the rise of microcelebrity. "Corporations are getting humanized, and humans are getting corporatized."
You could regard this as a sad development — the whole Brand Called You meme brought to its grim apotheosis. But haven't our lives always been a little bit public and stage-managed? Small-town living is a hotbed of bloglike gossip. Every time we get dressed — in power suits, nerdy casual wear, or goth-chick piercings — we're broadcasting a message about ourselves. Microcelebrity simply makes the social engineering we've always done a little more overt — and maybe a little more honest.
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