Celebrity, Performativity, and the Age of the Selfie: Young People and Virtual Selfhood

Ever since a student declared via Twitter a few years ago that she wanted to make my canine companion Tiffany go viral on the internet, I knew there was something very interesting, very important, and very special happening in my use of social media when it came to Tiff. Well, to be honest, I’d known that from the moment I first started including pictures of her in old lecture slideshows that there was a certain dynamic created by having a cute maltese-shitzu dog ‘teach’ part of your units. We have the pervasiveness of lolcats and funny dog videos on YouTube to thank for that – at least in part – but more importantly, the persona of Tiff reveals just how complex the intersection(s) of celebrity culture, performativity, and online identity can be.

While I didn’t actively encourage this year’s students to follow Tiff’s own Twitter account @virtualtiff, which I initially created for teaching in 2014 but now dedicate to my passion for nonhuman animal welfare, it was interesting – though perhaps unsurprising – that Tiff began to accrue an increased following (in both senses) of her own. As a result, I almost unconsciously began to ‘relegate’ more of my teaching activity to her account than I had initially planned to, with the organic nature of social media-based curriculum expansion spawning #TiffsTwitterTips on Vine and a series of Twitter polls I hashtagged #TiffsPolls, among other content. The fact that I’ve had multiple requests (and even the above Twitter poll) requesting the presence of Tiffany at a seminar I’m facilitating in Geelong tomorrow says enough in itself. And I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told Tiff’s the best part of my videos – I’m certainly not offended by this (and I agree!), but I’m starting to feel sorry for any students enrolled who aren’t fans of dogs… No, not really.

My most vigorously communited lesson in my teaching that we learn by doing and experiencing is once again reinforced by the numerous instances of mini ‘celebritified’ moments occuring each and every day the unit runs. Even the cool-headed PhD researcher of social media and identity Emily van der Nagel got some kind of buzz out of being featured on a small-time YouTube channel, which drew attention to her work, ideas, and persona from outside the unit as much as from within. This was testified to by the Twitter conversations that ensued from the below tweet and Emily’s own noticing of the YouTube comments posted by students.

Every like, every retweet, every follow, and every reply reinforces the close connection of the ways in which celebrity culture has worked for over century and the behaviours of social media users in a considerably shorter timeframe. Even when they aren’t carefully planned, the performances we use to negotiate this multilayered online world are often strategic and sometimes less so – but they are always meaningful. Sure, there are both positive and negative implications of this phenomenon, but it’s been a long time since I’ve found the commonly used term ‘narcissism’ very useful for anything.

Images in particular are powerful – the stats revealing how much they enhance engagement with tweets is revealing in itself. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the ‘fake’ selfies I take and upload to convey some form of message or ask some kind of question always garner more likes than any any other tweet I post with the unit hashtag. Tiff’s presence no doubt helps, but there’s a great deal of irony to this for me in that I’ve always been the kind of person to stay outside the frame of a photograph being taken if at all possible and have seldom taken ‘real’ selfies – although that might make my exaggerated, stage-managed, intentionally unappealing selfies all the more authentic? Maybe that makes them even more ‘narcissistic’? See what I mean about that word?! Either way, I recently felt the need to contradict my seemingly highly revealing and personal performance(s) with the following tweet:

I genuinely mean what I wrote there, but you may well respond ‘Hang on, that can be seen as just as much of an artificial performance too!’ – and you’d be exactly right.

Good luck finding the ‘real’ me!

As strategic as we might be, the performances we play out in our everyday lives are not always under our complete control. Every time I edit someone else’s appearances in my videos (such as those of Emma Whatman and David Marshall below), I’m ‘changing’ them just as much as they might change themselves every time they take, re-take, crop, filter, and upload a selfie. And when Dylan Hornsby cleverly appropriated my recent video footage to answer a question I ‘refused’ to answer myself, he not only fixed me at the centre of another fleeting ‘celebrity’ moment, but experienced a burst of reputational status through the engagement with his tweet.

Of course, all of these moments are transitory – the YouTube comments will peter out; the Vine loops will slow to a crawl; the Twitter likes will fade into the distance – but that isn’t really any different from the experiences of the ‘real’ celebrities either. The affect that everyone to some extent feels is as real as it is fleeting, and it’s not an inherently bad thing. The only one who doesn’t care about any of this is Tiff, and she’s probably the biggest celebrity of us all…

That’s enough ramblings from me, anyway – there are others who have far more interesting things to say about online identity. And I’m actually starting to wonder whether or not writing analytically about Tiffany/Tiff/the pixels on the screen that make up her projected image is starting to rub away some of the celebrity sheen she has had built up around her. Yes, it’s far too early in the unit for that kind of disillusionment – forget I said anything, and enjoy watching ‘Tiff the Celebrity’ grace your screens once more!

The above video is also available in podcast form via SoundCloud.

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