Twitter and Celebrity Culture

I teach an undergraduate Social Media class. As a sociology class, the class explores issues of privacy, the public and private (jokingly referred to as the ‘theme of the semester’ by my students), technological determinism, and power/influence. In today’s class, we discussed celebrity culture on Twitter. In my forthcoming book about Twitter, I argue that Twitter’s ease of use to connect to people is one reason for its popularity. My class has been interested in how much this applies to ‘connecting with’ celebrities. To explore this question ’empirically’, my class sent a total of 57 tweets to ‘celebrities’ (defined very broadly as ‘famous people’). Some examples of tweets they sent were:

  •  @ellenDegeneres_ So proud to share my name with such an amazing person. #ellenssticktogether #yougogirl
  • @ryanlochte I’ve heard rumors you’re doing a workout video for swimmers…is that true?
  • Gonna wear my @jermaineoneal Eau Claire jersey tomorrow. Let’s Get It SUNS!
  • @JLo where did you get your sideway cross necklace?

Within five minutes, one student received a retweet and, within an hour, one received an @ mention

The retweet:

  • @RosaAcosta love your youtube workouts.. they are so effective and great to follow

The @ mention:

  1. STUDENT: @OliverPhelps We’re looking at whether or not Twitter connects us with celebs. Help me out? 😉
  2. @OliverPhelps@STUDENT yes it does
  3. STUDENT: […] verdict by @OliverPhelps: Twitter can indeed connect you with celebs. Thanks a bunch, Oliver. 🙂
[NB Oliver Phelps = George Weasley in the Harry Potter films] 

Their conclusion was that having a 2 in 57 chance of being ‘noticed’/’interacting’ with a celebrity was not only noteworthy, but provided a leg to stand on in terms of Twitter’s ability to connect ‘normal’ people with influential people on Twitter.

One interesting discussion which emerged from this exercise was whether the tone/content of these tweets was an independent variable which we should be considering in our analysis. My students then posted more ‘cerebral’ tweets to the same genre of celebrity they had initially tweeted to (e.g. now a tweet to Kanye when previously one was sent to 50 Cent). Some examples of tweets they sent were:

  • For what do fictional worlds serve? @jk_rowling
  • @ladygaga what are your views on gay marriage?
  • @MicheleBachmann what will you be doing to encourage people to get out and vote this Tuesday? #election #MN
  • @Eminem Have you been watching the debates? Any thoughts on the two candidate’s views on economy?

Within a minute of the student who had tweeted Lady Gaga about gay marriage, Lady Gaga tweeted a link to a blog post titled ‘#VOTE2013 #OBAMA Romney’s on drugs.

My students found it interesting, but completely unsurprising, that their initial tweets tended to be more ‘banal’ and that they actually had to be ‘forced’ to tweet more ‘intellectual’ ones. Of course, I was not passing a normative value on either genre of tweets. Rather, part of the exercise was for my students to reflect on forms of talk in Twitter (they have read a lot of Goffman!). My students seemed surprised by the fact they received some responses. If others out there have done similar exercises with their classes, please post a comment!

 

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