Four Ways Social Media is Changing Our Relationships with Celebrities

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Today on Twitter:

  • Alyson celebrated her eighth wedding anniversary.
  • Charisma was in a car accident (she’s okay).
  • David sent kind thoughts to a friend who had lost his mother.

If you’re on Twitter, you probably see messages like that in your tweet stream all the time.

These miscellanea from other people’s lives don’t mean much on the surface.

But taken together, these particular little factoids — and the millions more like them — represent a seismic shift in our relationship to celebrity.

Buffy the Vampire SlayerAs the geeks among you have already surmised, Alyson, Charisma and David are Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter and David Boreanaz — acting alumni from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its sister show, Angel.

During my halcyon university years, both were appointment television.

At that time, the Internet was just starting to play a crucial role in my relationship to popular culture. I used it to read recaps at Television Without Pity, talk to other fans and troll for spoilers.

For me, fandom ended there.

I will admit to owning one Buffy action figure and several collections of essays, but drew the line at collecting additional merchandise, subscribing to magazines, reading companion books or attending conventions.

Others took, and continue to take, their interest much further.

But when I read tweets like those above, I’m amazed by the strange intimacy social media has created between celebrities and the people who admire them.

At the height of my Buffy fandom, access to an actor’s day-to-day routine, however superficial, would have been intensely scrutinized.

In the horrifying voids produced by mid-season breaks, I can imagine a scenario in which I might have tried to assess whether the show was going in a positive direction based on tweets from Buffy’s cast and crew.

Considering that Buffy was only one of many cultural obsessions I harboured during my late teens and early 20s — including Peter Jackson‘s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Battlestar Galactica remake — I’m grateful social media didn’t exist in the same capacity it does now to offer further distractions.

It probably saved me the equivalent of several months of free time.

Here are four ways that social media has changed the frontier for celebrity access.

1. Platform streams provide the illusion of personal access

Charisma and I are besties now, according to Twitter.
Charisma and I are besties now, according to Twitter.

If I use Twitter via Tweekdeck to follow a celebrity, the system identifies that person to me as a friend regardless of the extremely long odds that he or she will follow me back.

In any world that counts, friendships have to be mutual to count as friendships.

Facebook knows that. Early on, it developed the Fan Page system to separate celebrities from the rest of us.

Charisma Carpenter on Facebook
Charisma Carpenter’s Fan Page on Facebook makes boundaries between the actor and the fan much clearer.

Whichever platform you use to get your data stream, does knowing that Justin Bieber had a great time in Argentina tell me or you anything about his interior life?

To be fair, there are celebrities who use Twitter and Facebook and Myspace to do more than drop advertisements and retweet messages from their fans that reinforce the supremacy of their cultural grip.

Some are genuinely interested in connecting with their fan base and in using their social power to support notable causes. Neil Gaiman (@NeilHimself) and Nathan Fillion (@NathanFillion) come to mind in that camp.

I haven’t followed Hannigan, Carpenter or Boreanaz long enough to get a feel for how they use Twitter. (Feel free to suggest others in the comments.)

Justin Bieber had a great time in Argentina
Justin Bieber had a great time in Argentina, according to his Twitter stream.

But it’s not that hard to think myself into the supercharged shoes of the fan legions who use Twitter to follow Bieber and his popular peers.

In that world, a single 140-character message probably generates dizzying heights and terrifying lows the likes of which only a true fan can experience, reinforcing the commitment to the celebrity brand while costing very little in hard data.

If you are a publicist, social media is a godsend.

2. But social media does provide a kind of access

If you have a Twitter account, you can send a tweet to anyone — Barack Obama, Oprah, Steve Nash, David Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, or the Queen of England.


While there are verified celebrity accounts, there is no red velvet cord stopping the average person from sending messages to them [edit: this is not quite true anymore with platforms like Twitter prioritizing notifications for high-profile accounts so it’s easy to sort pings from mutual friends from those of the masses].

There are no letters to be written or typed and mailed via agents or handlers. Looking up an address is as simple as a Google search for a Twitter handle.

If the celebrity you admire tweets for him or herself, you can ask them whatever you damn well please.

Of course, whether your celebrity will actually answer is a whole different ball game.

Since writing this post, I wrote another about higher education and getting research findings to mass audiences that got a personal reply from John Tesh.

140 characters isn’t a lot of room in which to be noticeable.

And when someone’s followers number in the millions, you can be sure there are plenty of people competing with you for their attention.

3. Access is a double-edged sword

So looking at Twitter and social media from the eyes of a celebrity makes it a clear win-win in terms of career prospects, industry news, connecting with fans and giving back to the people who keep your stock trending in awesome.

Except when it isn’t.

Which is exactly what happens when the people who follow you feel entitled to something you can’t give them. Or to showering you in abuse.

George R R Martin
George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire.

George R. R. Martin has been experiencing the dark end of the celebrity social media stick for some time, if not exclusively via social media.

Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, the first volume of which was published when I was still in high school, is enjoying a huge renaissance thanks to the popular HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones.

When the show premiered in April 2011, all four existing volumes vaulted onto the New York Times Bestseller List.

The fifth book, published in July, followed suit.

The only problem is the fifth book is really the second half of the fourth book, and appeared six years too late.

Martin’s fans expected a product — there was a note in the back of the fourth book promising more and shortly.

They got pissed off when the promised product did not present itself and Martin appeared to be investing more time in blogging. Or watching football. Or doing anything that wasn’t directly putting words on page.

Other writers tried to help manage fan expectations. Martin is now more guarded about what he says online and expects a certain amount of fan-driven anger no matter what he does.

God help him if he ever decides to tweet.

The whole debacle gets rehashed anytime Game of Thrones makes headlines. Which, considering Game of Thrones won a few Emmys, some Golden Globes, and was renewed for a second season, happens often.

Upshot: There are rules for celebrities and the people who represent them online. Social media creates social expectations. And if you don’t follow the rules — real or perceived — your fans will give you grief.

4. Access is a double-edged sword: Part II

The Fionavar Tapestry omnibus cover
The Fionavar Tapestry (omnibus cover).

During my first year of university, I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry.

I loved it.

I have read all three volumes many times. He remains the only author whose books I always purchase in hardcover, no questions asked.

In 2006, I was working in media relations at the University of Toronto when Convocation Hall celebrated its 100th anniversary.

For those of you unfamiliar with the campus or with Kay, it is the building in which all U of T graduates convocate. It is also a frequent site for guest lectures.

As it happens, The Fionavar Tapestry opens with a scene in which the main characters attend a guest lecture at Convocation Hall. So I pitched my boss on doing an interview with Kay about the role Con Hall played in the trilogy that launched his fantasy writing career for a special issue we were doing on the building. She agreed (thanks, Elaine).

I didn’t know it at the time, but Kay’s next book was called Ysabel; it is a sequel of sorts to The Fionavar Tapestry. Perhaps for that reason, Kay said the interview idea appealed to him and he agreed to do it.

The publication in which the interview appeared is no longer available online, so I can’t share the article with you. I can say it was serviceable. And that I sweated over every word.

I can also tell you that Kay was extremely generous with his time. We spoke for 90 minutes in the library at Hart House (another building with great history on that campus).

I can’t describe what that experience meant to me.

If I could time travel and tell my 19-year-old self that I would one day interview our favourite author (and get paid for it), she would probably lose her mind.

Kay has a website called Bright Weavings on which he posts travel diaries and essays, and interacts with fans in the forums. Other people handle the site’s day-to-day work.

He has Twitter and Facebook accounts; it is unclear to me how much of this social media presence he personally maintains.

Update: I have since had Twitter exchanges with the Kay account that indicate he doesn’t do all the tweeting himself.

If I had discovered Kay’s novels in a social media world where authors and celebrities are only a tweet away and surface interactions are a dime a dozen, would I have pursued that opportunity as fiercely?

Would it have meant as much to me?

I wonder.