Social media and our obsession with celebrity

Social media and our obsession with celebrity

“400 million Snapchat stories are now created every day.” How has our relationship with fame developed in the age of social media?

19 October 2017  // 

How has the age of social media affected our relationship with fame?

Former-President Obama in a group selfie with the United States Women’s National Soccer Team. Photo credit: Lawrence Jackson
Kim Kardashian has got 104 million followers on Instagram. Attribution: © Glenn Francis,

In the early 2000’s Paris Hilton trailblazed the celebrity-through-scandal lifestyle and Big Brother had an average audience of 4 million people. By the time we reached 2010 numerous surveys painted depressing pictures of the state of youth aspirations in the UK (‘more than a fifth plan to reach their goal by appearing on a reality TV show’).

In the Oxford Dictionary, fame is defined as “the state of being known or talked about by many people, especially on account of notable achievements.” The latter part of the definition seemed to lose all relevance entirely around the time that Brian Belo (a man who believed that ‘the moon is bigger than the universe’), won Big Brother. But where ‘notable achievements’ lack, sheer numbers now compensate, Kim Kardashian’s 104 million Instagram followers (at time of writing) being a case and point.

Humans have always been attracted to the idea of fame; as the poet and author Lord Byron put it: ‘fame is the thirst of youth’. The surveys on youth aspirations done in the 2000s, which illustrated how our lust for fame had developed into something shallow, remain true today. A recent survey conducted by Clapit in the USA, for example, found that one in four millennials would give up their job to be famous, while one in twelve millennials would go as far as to disown their family if that increased their chances of getting famous. A quick search in Google trends shows that in general the interest in achieving ‘fame’ has increased noticeably since 2004, but interest in methods to attain this fame, such as becoming an artist, has remained constant. Reality TV and scandalous behaviour used to be the most effective get-famous-quick recipe. And then social media entered the fame game.

Social media has been designed to prey on our need for external validation. Moving away from the now seemingly quaint notion of ‘friends’ on Facebook (now the uncool older sibling in the social media family), Snapchat and Instagram chose to use the term ‘followers’, creating an illusion of celebrity within their very language. The most notable example of this can be found in Snapchat, the preferred platform for under 30s, who developed this concept further by introducing the ‘Story’ functionality. Stories allow users to give their ‘followers’ (a.k.a their mates) ‘a brief look at what interesting things a friend has done in the past 24 hours’, as Lifewire puts it. The ‘Story’ function has been taken up with gusto: 400 million Snapchat stories are now created every day. Instagram use has also increased massively over the past two years, with another 400 million daily users. In light of the young demographic that use both platforms, it’s clear that the younger generations are attracted to the idea of broadcasting their lives. This desire to broadcast could be explained by the sense of faux-fame that these channels foster. There is a fine line between documenting our special moments (for example meeting the President) and showing off about them.

Would you look at all those phones…

Alongside the negative effects such developments have created (seas of luminous phone screens at concerts spring to mind), this ability to reach wide audiences instantly is not all bad. Take the Harries twins, Jack and Finn, who built from their Youtube channel, JacksGap, an online following of 4 million subscribers. They’ve used their platform to address climate change and mental health amongst other important issues, exemplifying the power of such tools to facilitate real change by amplifying previously underrepresented voices.

Social media thrives on our desire to be recognised: every like, notification and follower releases a tiny dose of dopamine, a neurochemical known as the “reward molecule”, which gives you a sense of happiness. Dopamine is addictive, which explains why social media is also addictive.  Next time you decide to Insta your ham sandwich, or live stream the entirety of a concert to that Uncle that comments on everything you post on Facebook, take a moment to stop and think, am I doing this because I believe people will value seeing it? Or am I doing this because I want everyone to know that I am doing it? Am I passionate about what I’m sharing? Or am I passionate about feeling pseudo-famous?