Examining celebrity Twitter accounts from the perspective of investigating the self-presentational intent behind them, I feel it is important to say firstly that no celebrity appears to be consistently trying to portray one particular persona (with the exception, perhaps, of Lady GaGa, whom I feel is an exception to most rules in today’s world). Although there is a discernible distinction between celebrities who primarily portray themselves in a personal manner and those who do so in a professional manner, each one occasionally strays into the opposite grouping.
Celebrities who portray themselves formerly as people as opposed to being famous appear to be using Twitter as a medium of their own self-disclosure, allowing the public an insight into their day-to-day lives as something of an antithesis to the tabloids’ image of extremes of highs and lows. Celebrities who show themselves professionally seem to use Twitter as another method of marketing, but one which they completely control. In much the same way as propoganda, they can promote themselves in the precise way they desire. Both methods, I believe, have their intended effect for the celebrity using either one.
I felt there were a number of different styles to how celebrity tweeters presented themselves which could be broadly lumped under three particular titles based upon their connecting to followers. Firstly, there was the personal connection, which I judged based on the @ replies sent by them and to whom. Some celebrities – Oprah and Alan Sugar are two prime examples – reply to messages they are sent; Oprah even has the particular occasional ‘live tweeting session’, where she personally reads and replies to certain tweets her 5.5million followers send her. This appears to be the most intimate form of celebrity/fan connection. However, it portrays the celebrity tweeting almost as a gift to the message recipient, which appears honest and forthright, as it seems to demonstrate the personality on Twitter as real, but in reality shows the celebrity tweeting as important; there is no room for a dialogue with a fan, which makes the message seem intimate but in fact distances the two, maintaining the celebrity’s ‘professional’ demeanour.
A second form of connecting with followers is the ‘Lady GaGa approach’, which also exemplifies Justin Bieber’s and Britney Spears’ attitudes – her Twitter account appears as her acting as a kind of orator and whipping up her fans into various states of excitement. This then manifests itself as trending topics created as millions of twitterers tweet as GaGa has instructed them or, more subtly, in many of them adopting the term ‘Little Monster’ to describe themselves. This phrase, coined by Lady GaGa to denote her fans, both has the effect of unifying twitterers as a sort of mock-army, as well as providing a connection with Lady GaGa – ‘Mother Monster’ – which presents her as their leader. This still holds a not inconsiderable impression of honesty to it, but GaGa does use her Twitter as a form of viral marketing; aside from the expansive messages, she mainly posts information about her upcoming events, albums, etc.
A final form of connection to their followers I judged was in what celebrities chose to tweet about. Whilst every celebrity tweeted in some respect or another about their professional life a number of celebrities, such as Stephen Fry, Lily Allen and Rihanna, had a great number of tweets I deemed to be ‘personal’; that is, about their day-to-day lives without an apparent intention to self-present – ‘walking the dog’ tweets. This I felt was closest to Erving’s 1959 work in self-presentation as, unconscious or not, the celebrities who tweet this way are trying to present themselves as normalised and no different to everyone else. By portraying themselves as relatable and seemingly the same as everyone else, these celebrities created an attractive persona for themselves whilst apparently being honest in their self-presentation. It is appealing for the public to feel their idols are human too, and by tweeting as human, the celebrities here garner affection for their down-to-earth attitudes.
Twitter does not lack celebrities, but there is a limit to the number a person can examine in one study, particularly with a restriction on word-count. With that in mind, I feel it is still important to have a large enough group of celebrities that I can form some basic conclusions on how they are presented. I also think it is vital to study a disparate group, both in background and influence, rather than simply the celebrities with the largest number of followers (although I will of course include them), as that will not necessarily present the correct data for the uses celebrities have for Twitter. With this in mind, I chose celebrities based on number of followers, activity levels of tweeting and public presence, as well as who I recognised as an ‘useful’ tweeter i.e. who I felt exemplified a particular style of celebrity tweeting and who would provide what I considered the epitome of personal or professional presentation. To judge how they presented themselves, I looked at how they related to and addressed their followers and what this could be intended to achieve by way of their self-presentation.
Literature on self-presentation online all agrees on one particularly salient point; an online environment offers a level of control over the self that one shows previously unheard of. As far back as 1959, Erving Goffman addressed the presentation of self in everyday life, writing at length about how personal presentation was enacted throughout daily life, whether unconscious or conscious, in order to create a particular portrayal of oneself towards observers. He addressed the fact that this was not a flawless method of attitude management, as there will always be subtle cues that can’t be controlled without great difficulty by the ‘actor’. This is, of course, not the case any more. With the rise of computer-mediated communication, a persona can be micro-managed to the point of complete control. Internet scholar Sherry Turkle wrote in her 1995 study Identity In The Age Of The Internet ‘you can completely redefine yourself if you want. You don’t have to worry about the slots other people put you in as much’, and this exemplifies how personality works online. Much literature on the subject of blogging has addressed the balance between presenting the self as truthfully as possible whilst presenting the self as positively as possible and Twitter, with it’s emphasis on the idea of ‘what are you thinking’ micro-blogging, walks the line between the two like a tightrope. The need to highlight positive attributes of a self online is mitigated versus the desire to present a true, authentic self to others is apparent for any person in an online community, and this extends – perhaps even more meaningfully – to celebrity self-presentation – Nicole Ellison et al. saw the contradiction of honesty/appeal as inherent to computer-mediated communication on dating sites; this can be applied to celebrity self-presentation by seeing this online dating as a form of online marketing.
Celebrities are by their very nature ‘created’ personas in many ways; for whatever reason they are celebrities, this prejudice from the public will colour any view of them. How they then present themselves through Twitter was seen in research by David Marshall to have to address a number of different subjects and facets of their personalities; their presentation of their personality is interspersed with self-promotion, marketing tweets and other information we would not expect to see from ordinary members of the public.
The fact remains that celebrities are not anonymous – anything but, in fact – outside of their self-presentation. Qian & Scott discuss at the beginning of their investigation into anonymity and self-disclosure how ‘self disclosure can be risky because it may invite ridicule or even rejection’ but I must take into account that, whilst this might be true, typically the most embarrassing moments of disclosure for celebrities occur in the media outside of their influence. Might it be the case then that celebrities will use Twitter for (what they might consider) their honest self-presentation, free of media spin, or is it simply another medium for marketing themselves in a completely self-controlled style? Kaye Trammell believes it to be a combination of the two, differing between celebrities. I feel this is probably the most reasonable judgement, and so will be using this as my primary inspiration for judging how celebrity self-presentation on Twitter works and what it hopes to achieve.
One only needs to examine the magazine rack of any corner shop or supermarket to see we, as Western culture, are obsessed with celebrity. It’s been suggested we use public figures in order to fulfil the inherent craving our society has for bonding over shared experience of people, something in bygone years we would have sated with garden-wall gossip with the neighbours. Twitter is no exception; many people’s first ‘followee’ is a celebrity – Stephen Fry, Lady GaGa and Justin Beiber combined have over 20,000,000 followers – and trending topics regularly result from one celebrity’s tweet to their fans or simply a snowballing of affection or hatred from the tweeting masses.
What is it celebrities hope to achieve through Twitter, then? Is it a medium through which they can connect with their fans in a small but meaningful way, another facet of their own self-promotion, a make-shift litmus test of public opinion towards them, or some combination or none of these? I shall be trying to investigate the presentation of celebrity selves through Twitter and what seems to want to be achieved through them, as well as whether I believe it to be effective.