June 27, 2009

Celebrity Worship in the Post-Modern Internet

Doc Searls in a post on celebrity, black holes and productivity comments on celebrity as a form of coasting. Below is my reaction. I think there is more to it. Let me know what you think.

I've been talking about celebrity a lot since Thurs afternoon re: MJ, FF, EM, etc. Doc and I discussed this a month ago in depth too. I've been trying to figured out for the past year what the hyperdrive of microcelebrity is on Twitter that so many run after. And then the real celebrities hit twitter en masse and the hyperdrive of real celebrity is there as well. That drive diminishes at times one's ability to have a real conversation because some of those diving into conversations have agendas like trying to get the attention of the perceived AList (whatever that is.. oh yes.. the high follower counts, goosed by the twitter suggested follower list, provide us with a definitive answer... thank the gods).

But the triple-hit celebrity death match on Thursday drove me to my thought which is that most people need to follow, most people need something to worship, and most people have given up serious religion (of the type where you spend like 20 hours a week in church and the pope or the ayatollah or the supreme leader or whoever is your celebrity representative communicates with god for you and leads you and makes the decisions and you worship him to get to god because you can't talk to him yourself).

Michael Jackson and other celebs are the replacement for that sort of seriously time consuming difficult religion, because media and post-modernism make it easy (where premodern means god is above man, modern has everything equal: god, man, nature, and post-modern means nothing is more important than you). If nothing is more important than the individual, but he/she needs to follow something bigger than the self out of insecurity or whatever and there is very little ritual left post-old-style-religion to set people on their own course of confidence, productivity and humility in the world, and you have the media machine the past 100 years that now includes internet and self-publicity on things like twitter, well.. you have the perfect primordial soup to grow the MJ, etc worship replacing organized religion we see now. And of course, the celebrity version is so much easier and more fun, kind of like fast food.

Doc is right, celebrity worship is a tremendous form of distraction, but I would argue most don't have the confidence, discipline, or for that matter the interest in spending their time on more constructive things. While most are capable of much more, there is safety in worship. That's why the church/temple/mosque of old was so effective. It filled the rest of your time after work and set the order that god was first, then the supreme leader as the physical manifestation, then puny you, so you would worship up the hierarchy. Oh, and you were given a structure to think about life and death. Which is frightening to many. And there was a structure for work and discipline, however messed up these organized religions have been over the centuries.

In Post-Modernity, celebs fill the worship channel, effortlessly, where the celeb hierarchy is the order and the media connects you. Microcelebs are the long tail of this channel. Nothing going on with the top? Well.. there is always Guy Kawasaki or iJustine. And if you as the worshiper can get nearer to the celeb so much the better. People used to say: god is my savior. Now they say, "I remember exactly where I was when I heard MJ died." It's a way of placing yourself close to the worshiped thing.

Not to mention that you don't have to think about death if you go with the celebrity distraction mechanism, except when Farrah and Michael and Ed McMahon leave us, at which point people seem to just increase the worship but don't really have to face facts about their own lives.

It's utterly silly, and of course the internet and socialmedia send this tendency and need an order of magnitude higher than before. But I think it's a rat-brain need for the masses to worship something, and celebrity is the post-modern fast-food solution.

Opiates anyone?

Posted by Mary Hodder at June 27, 2009 08:00 AM | TrackBack

Great post, Mary! and something I've noticed in my experiences in a number of subcultures over the years...

It seems that a variety of subcultures--from music subcultures like rock, to body-modifiers, etc.--always need to take principles of time-tested religions and re-work them to fit the subculture.

On a mass culture level, this is what we have done, from the late 20th c. to now, with celebrities. IMO, it's rather scary, and speaks to not just a deep human psychological need, but to the relative emptiness of modern consumer culture (in that we need to make gods of mortal beings.)

Yet we also delight in a certain celebrity schadenfreude. Think of the latest mess with Jon & Kate plus 8 and that the highest ratings for the show have been from what could be called the divorce episodes.

So, of course many people in social media will chase celebrity, they want to be gods or demi-gods of some kind, I'm sure. But certainly don't take into account the personal toll--and certainly don't like the schadenfreude aspect when it comes down on their heads.

Posted by: Tish Grier at June 27, 2009 08:49 AM

nope ... it is fear ... quite the opposite of worship ..

it is projecting one's own divinity outwards onto symbols, simply fearful about embracing it within oneself ...

it is institutionalized separation from personal reality ...

it is a mental disease, in short ...

Posted by: gregorylent at June 27, 2009 10:42 AM

Did you just play the Narcotic card?

Posted by: ZuDfunck at June 27, 2009 10:42 AM

Hi ZuDfunck,

I don't know that it's playing the narcotic card to say at the end, "opiates anyone?" I was simply making a joke on the "religion is the opiate of the masses" quote. My main point all the way through is that people who are not confident (as in, they fear life, death, the basic aspects of our lives, facing themselves, whatever) are prone to follow, worship etc, and that they need something outside themselves.


My point in lacking confidence is that people are fearful.. and they worship something in order to not have to deal with their fears.

So.. i agree with you. Though I have to think about the mental disease idea.. I don't know that I would put it that way.

Thanks for commenting though!


Posted by: Mary Hodder at June 27, 2009 12:27 PM

Regarding "what the hyperdrive of microcelebrity is on Twitter that so many run after"

Did you see my recent Twitter column?

I call Twitter "low-level celebrity for the chattering class".

But what's so hard about the concept? Look at all the A-listers who talk about the "attention economy".

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at June 28, 2009 12:23 AM

Hi Mary

I have sent an email regarding a project that I thought you might be interested in (@ napster and mary both)

Please have a look if possible.


Posted by: Prasen at June 30, 2009 08:22 PM