Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How new media is changing celebrity: Comparing @CharlieSheen with @its_k_isabellas

This post appears on my company's blog.

The western world has a love affair with the notion of celebrity. A fabricated culture which skyrocketed when business realised they could make money off mostly beautiful people with fictional lives. The introduction of publications like People Magazine, shows like Entertainment Tonight, distributors such as TMZ, entire channels devoted to the topic, paparazzi madness and blogs like Perez Hilton have further cemented the hold that these overpaid beacons of society have on our world.

The gossip industry used to be a tightly controlled machine. Celebrity news was presented to the public as a service and it was the only access point to their private lives– how they lived, what they did, what they thought about certain issues, what they’re next line of work entailed. All cleverly administered by their publicists and an entangled web of movie studios and segment producers. The inclusion of a more creative paparazzi, accompanied with the desire of a society to know more, expanded the industry causing the access points to celebrity to muddy.

It all allowed us to see into a world that was a fantasy. Essentially a real world soap opera with dramas and exes being in the same room. Any issue of scandal became a topic of discussion that you could share with anyone. It’s gossip plain and simple, the more dramatic the better and who doesn’t love a good scandal?

Then new media changes the dynamic of a multibillion dollar industry
Blogs, Twitter, YouTube and even Chatroulette (for a very brief period) have shifted the accessibility we have to celebrity. The untouchable celebrity has become someone you could talk to like a buddy- and they are your buddy when you know so many intimate details about their personal lives. And the most important part? The gossip industry no longer needs to be controlled and delivered to the public by the power players. Each individual now has the keys to administer their own news.

The other side of the coin is the growth of reality TV and the seamless ability for anyone to become a celebrity, even rich and famous, if only for a minute. Numerous shows have manufactured instant celebrity – examples like Jersey Shore, the Real Housewives franchise and Next Top Model. The most bizarre thing I notice from these shows is how the characters, yes characters, view themselves. They live the life of episodes and finales, where everyone knows your name and anything is accessible. Increasingly self centred as their star progresses, obsessed with their image and making sure they attend the next media party. It’s not real, it’s short-lived and this idea of instant celebrity is now desirable. The terrible effect of this is incidents like that of Balloon Boy which gives the media a bad name as much as the boy’s parents.

Enter new media – the only way to stay up to date up to the minute, with either type of celebrity. Traditional media outlets can simply not keep up with the volume and content that the long tail can. Nor can they keep up with the speed of the new media cycle and the way society moves on to the next meme almost instantly. The broken barriers of entry also allow us a front seat ticket to unfolding dramas like that of Charlie Sheen – a bonafide celebrity with direct access to his fans; and that of an Australian phenomena - @its_k_isabellas – a self made media star surrounding the #dickileaks incidents.

Traditional v New media, who pulls who?
The differences between the examples of Charlie Sheen and its_k_isabellas is interesting, one at the top of the celebrity stratosphere and the other trying to carve a name for herself. However their common ability to take hold of social media, drive traditional outlets and use it to their advantage is astounding and a clear shift in what we once knew.

Its_k_isabellas is a fascinating story about a girl attempting to generate scandal to create attention surrounding herself (previous post here). She most definitely needed the traditional mainstream channels to give her a media profile thereby allowing her to quickly gather followers and buzz in the social channels. She took that initial push from mainstream media and ran with it. That push was almost like an instant trending topic- moving quickly by latching on to a combination of passion point (here sport) and scandal. The latest example of the viral Facebook Party further illustrates the push that social media needs in order to break inner social circles and travel beyond. Essentially mainstream media gives the repetitive spread across varying groups, giving faster reach.

Once the conversation surrounding the scandal shifted to social media, the girl’s participation within social media propelled the issue. The community’s quest for more information allowed her to be in the driver’s seat. She would be the one to release more photos, more content, more scandal. Media Watch commented on this recently noting that she became as much of a media player as the traditional outlets did. The first to break news and the driver of a story.

In some ways, Charlie Sheen has taken a leaf out of its_k_isabella’s book. He is no longer at the mercy of the mainstream media channels. He doesn’t need them to spread his message. Over 2 million Twitter followers and fast approaching 3 at the time of publishing this post. His first forays into Twitter with the hashtags #winning, #tigerblood, the sponsored intern ad and Sheen’s Korner have all left us bamboozled, leaving the feeling that we’re witnessing a train wreck. His aim seems to be endorsements and he isn’t shy about it. He knows he is pulling an audience and bypassing the media is no problem, even though Sheen’s Korner is very raw and could definitely do with a bit of work. The clips are a bit painful in the same way as if you were watching your neighbour on YouTube doing some dumb home video, except this is Charlie Sheen doing a dumb home video.

This kind of activity has a short lifespan- unscripted, loose and random ramblings. But there has been a positive shift as those with a sense of humour realise Sheen’s potential and perpetuate the wave. Stepping into the Funny or Die gag was genius, announcing a now sold out live tour is interesting and inviting Scott Dooley into his home for an informal interview was refreshing when compared to the previous hard ball American interviews. His latest content venture, Operation Greyhound, is amusing and again shows the big guys what power Charlie Sheen has.

It looks like Charlie Sheen is in control, always was and has an enraptured audience at his disposal. He is now driving the media on an ongoing basis and the traditional outlets will continue to be a step behind just like they were with its_k_isabellas. Charlie will have no problem playing in the new media space for a while, he’ll earn good money but I doubt it will ever be as big as what he earned from TV. That pulling power may draw him back to the studios but the damaged egos may prevent him re-entry. I think Charlie should continue to persevere in new media. He has already shifted to become more polished in the space and he can continue to push the envelope as he wants. It’s a new era of celebrity and with the right media mix you can be a permanent trending topic. God Speed Charlie Sheen, I wish you well.


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