Celebrities, Obsession and Social Media (The QH March 2013)

This piece was published in March 2013 in The QH (the student newspaper of The University of Westminster.)

Social Media, Obsession and Celebrities

  Social media; it’s a peculiar animal. A fairly innocuous tool with which a worrying amount of the populous are able to waste vast gaping chasms of time, sharing thoughts and opinions as well as photos of seemingly every single meal that most of us don’t even take a fleeting interest in. Unfortunately, it seems of late that the most popular online stalwarts of Twitter and Facebook are morphing into something far less innocuous.

  Following the news that American pop nuisance Justin Bieber has been witnessed smoking marijuana, online message board community 4Chan began to spread a meme[1] using various disturbing variants on the hashtag[2] #CuttingForBieber, encouraging the young singer’s fans to cut themselves as a form of protest in order to get the singer to stop what he was doing.  Disturbingly, numerous hysterical fans appear to have done just that. 4Chan intended for the meme to be a joke; it’s tricky to know which is more disturbing.

  The phenomenon of celebrity obsession is nothing new; indeed it is now a recognised mental disorder. There have been several studies into the phenomenon conducted on both sides of the pond. In 2002, a group of American scientists introduced the Celebrity Attitude Scale, a 34 item scale used to determine the level of an individual’s level of obsession. Lower scores being synonymous with more individualistic behaviours; listening to music and interviews, reading to learn more about the celebrity and so on, whereas higher scores on the scale are synonymous with over identification, empathy and other more extreme aspects of celebrity obsession.

  So, how does this relate to Bieber’s fanbase? Well, it should be noted that the average Justin Bieber fan is female, aged around fifteen. Obviously this age for both genders is a tumultuous one; with the onset of puberty hormones begin raging and self-esteem fluctuating from one extreme to the other. A study published in September 2008 by Shira Gabriel at the University of Buffalo suggests that celebrity worship could be beneficial to one’s self esteem, and perhaps here we can find our link.

  However, there are other factors we can consider. It is a sad fact that whilst self-harm is beginning to appear on the radar of public awareness it’s also become something of a societal triviality; brought on in part by the rise of so-called ‘emo’ [3]music within recent years as well as increased coverage in the media.

  This sensationalism within the media can turn something small that’s ultimately inconsequential into the catalyst for mass hysteria, particularly to the impressionable. Justin Bieber is, let’s face it, a record label puppet; his music is written to sell records. Given that he’s a fresh faced seventeen year boy who (I’m told) is reasonably inoffensive to look at; his music is of course be marketed at young girls who are just becoming aware of boys and of relationships. It’s undoubtedly grotesque in this context, but the old cliché applies here; sex sells. It’s just thinly veiled with a squeaky clean boy next door image. It’s perhaps the knowledge that his recent experimentations with marijuana would be so jarring to his fans that caused these ‘’jokers’ (or trolls[4], to use trendy internet slang) to plant the hashtag within Twitter in the first place. Happily, there are laws in place to deal with these individuals; however incidents of these ‘pranks’ seem to be growing at an exponential rate.

  Trawling through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, it’s alarming to witness the virtual chaos that celebrities (most commonly musicians) seem cause, often through no fault of their own. Fans of a particular artist or genre often become fiercely loyal; sometimes worryingly so. If an artist comes under criticism whatever the reason happens to be, the devout will wade in with both feet. YouTube is a prime example. Music being a creative medium will inevitably be divisive; yet arguments break out in the comments section of the videos of most artists. Often, they are unrelated to the music. A subject of such controversy was singer Rihanna’s relationship with rapper Chris Brown. When it emerged in the press that it had ended in domestic violence, her videos were understandably peppered with messages of sympathy and support. Chris Brown’s on the other hand were filled with slanderous messages and personal insults, regardless of the fact that it’s unlikely either artist will ever read said comments or care particularly about what is said.

  Arguments break out too between fans of specific genres. Fans of heavy metal can often be found bickering online that a particular band isn’t “metal” enough for their particular taste as they aren’t ‘heavy’ enough or Rhythm and Blues purists can be witnessed berating contemporary R ‘n’ B for it being seemingly a completely different genre. Everyone seems to find something to argue with someone else about, no matter how trivial. Worryingly, venomous insults are also often traded with other fans, creating perceived ‘rivalries’ between artists. Sometimes too these result in incidents of “cyber bullying”, which can have extreme consequences, up to and including suicide of the victim.

  On occasion, these acts of loyalty can boil over into real life. The rock band My Chemical Romance was bottled when performing onstage at a music festival in the UK as a result of the crowd being unhappy at them being placed on the bill; and in December 2004, “Dimebag” Darrel, former guitarist with heavy metal band Pantera was shot dead onstage during a performance with new band Damageplan. The shooter was Nathan Gale, a Pantera fan who blamed Dimebag and his brother (former Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul) for them splitting up. It was also said at the time that Gale had been angry about the public feud between the brothers and Pantera singer Phil Anselmo. It was later proven that Gale suffered from paranoid schizophrenia; and whilst an isolated example it’s still rather terrifying what an individual’s obsession with an artist or celebrity can become and the lengths some will go to in order to display loyalty to their chosen icon.

  Twitter and Facebook are becoming much more deeply ingrained into society; whilst before it was possible to avoid them if you chose to do so, it’s now getting increasingly impossible to escape. Every modern smartphone comes equipped with integration for almost all social media sites, to the point where shutting down your computer no longer means shutting yourself off from the virtual world. With few exceptions, you can’t go anywhere without being urged to “follow us on Twitter” or “find us on Facebook”. Twitter has been the medium of choice for celebrities (and as previously mentioned, the rest of us too) to engage in ridiculous arguments and express opinions we normally would keep to ourselves. Whilst most of these are fairly harmless, a quick search of Facebook will provide you with thousands of hate groups covering all manner of topics; it’s not just specific to music or celebrities either. Two particularly terrifying examples are an anti-Muslim page and an anti-American one. These are groups of people who used to exist in secret, either as genuine organisations or as societal undercurrents; yet here they are free to publicly slander whatever the target for their particular hatred happens to be. Some things really are better left unsaid.

  Social media has been at least in part responsible for some worrying incidents in recent years too. One notable example took place in 2009/2010. Gemma Barker from Surrey used Facebook to create three separate male personas in order to trick two of her female friends into having relationships with her;  eventually attempting to commit sexual assault on one victim. She was imprisoned and was later diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder and ADHD[5]; however Facebook was undoubtedly one of the catalysts. Had it not been for the site she would have been unable to create the alternate identities and groom her victims for the crimes.

  Perhaps it’s merely empathy or even jealousy. Maybe it’s just a way for us to distract ourselves from the aspects of our own lives we are unhappy with. Whatever it happens to be and whether we like it or not; for most of us, celebrities and social media now form an integral part of day to day life. The key to them remaining a healthy part of our lives is to retain a detached sort of relationship with them; and in achieving this there will be no need for us to fear them.  

[1] Meme: An image, video etc that is passed electronically from one internet user to another.

[2] Hashtag: A device used within Twitter to link all posts about a certain topic; used to enable quicker searching.

[3] Emo: A subgenre of rock music and its fans, defined by a melodic musicmanship and lyrics which are confessional in nature. Fans usually adopt a distinctive style.

[4] Troll: An individual who posts a deliberately provocative message online with the intention of causing distress or upset.

[5] ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

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