Monday, December 12, 2016

“Facebook Celebrities” from An Anthropologist Point of View

An anthropologist goes into Facebook and uncovers the rules for becoming a “Facebook celebrity.” 
by Hilda Lloréns

I am the kind of person who likes to be behind the camera rather than in front of it. In this era of on-line “personas,” social networking, and “branding” it is not fashionable to confess that I consider myself a digital foreigner to sites like Facebook. In fact, I have had an on and off again relationship with the site, often spending years without logging in which has afforded me the kind of non-native view that we anthropologists refer to as etic. So, I logged on to Facebook recently after an absence of several years and began to spot a pattern. What I noticed is that some people posted “selfies” and/or updated their “status” everyday, often several times a day. They did this from places as varied as work, home, their cars, wearing make-up, wearing no makeup, hanging out with their families, working out at the gym, eating their breakfast, and so on. Often, these same people posted albums with photographs of their travels, the events they attended, and the people they were with. They also used the location application on their phones to pinpoint the restaurants where they had dinner or the hotels where they stayed.

The fact is that on-line communities, like any community has well-established social rules and expectations and I suppose that part and parcel of taking part of an on-line community is the expectation that individuals share the happenings of their lives. In part, sites such as Facebook fill a void in a world in which friends and family are often dispersed across continents and in which social isolation is a reality for many. While I admire the courage of those who are able to pose for the camera while doing downward dog in their yoga class and so on, this kind of sharing and self-disclosure is simply unimaginable to me. Much has already been said about the ways in which social networking sites thrive and even prey on people’s narcissistic tendencies. But I think there is still more going on Facebook than just self-centered and narcissistic displays. I think there is a group of individuals who use the site to build a persona and a status that is akin to those of reality television celebrities. I’ll call these folks “Facebook celebrities.”  We all know who they are. They are those friends in our “friend’s circle” whose lives, and not just the fantastic parts of live, but their full lives, with the ups and downs included, are put on display for the entire community.

“LIKES” as Measure of Facebook Celebrity Status

So, how would an anthropologist go about determining who is a Facebook celebrity? Well, there are several obvious markers of celebrity status. One telltale sign is the number of friends a person has, another is the frequency of posts, and by far the most significant is the number of likes a person receives each time they post something. Recently, a friend jokingly mentioned that when he post photographs on Facebook he only gets about 40 “Likes,” whereas when another friend posts she receives upwards of 100 “Likes.” He then declared, “I guess I am not very popular.” Of course, the number of possible “Likes” is also linked to the number of friends in your circle. In other words, a person with 156 friends cannot expect to receive the same number of “Likes” as a person with 998 friends. As I reflected on my friend’s comment I decided to run my own experiment on Facebook. My simple hypothesis was that by posting increasingly personal photographs and details of everyday life people are able to turn into celebrities within their social network. The “Like” button serving as the “mark” of acknowledgement by the on-line community to which a person belongs. And “Likes” also serve as measure or proof of a person’s popularity or “likeability.”

I total around 250 friends on Facebook. For the most part, my posting activity is limited to content related to current events, mainly news and art. Seldom, do I post personal pictures. My posts related to current events receive a tiny number of “Likes” (averaging 11 Likes) usually from the same small group of like-minded friends.  For the experiment, I decided to post more personal photographs and compare the reaction using the number of “Likes” as the meter. I began by posting a photograph of my son at his seventh birthday this drew 27 “Likes.” Next, I posted photographs of an event I attended wherein I met Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and this one received 67 “Likes” (no doubt the number of “Likes” in this instance was linked to Sotomayor’s popularity). A tribute to my husband on Father’s day, in which I posted various photographs of him with our son, alone, and with me, received 64 “Likes.” The outcome of this modest experiment leads me to believe that my hunch is correct: that on Facebook friends want to see personal photographs no withstanding how repetitive a person’s “selfie” might become. What we want to see when we log on to Facebook, even when we roll our eyes or sigh at seeing a friend touring Cairo or Singaraja while we are sitting at our desks, is people’s depiction of their lives. We want personal “views” and details even when those views are arranged for the camera (i.e. hold the phone up in an angle above your face when taking a “selfie,” offer a wide and natural looking smile when hanging by the pool with friends, offer close-up shots of delicious looking food before you dig in and know what it actually tastes like, etc.).

I was having coffee with friends when the conversation turned to a Facebook argument we had witnessed, privately on our own computers, in our own time, between two “Facebook celebrities” in our friend’s circle. The argument, over a trivial misunderstanding, publicly showed difference of opinions in a nascent activist group. I took the opportunity to share my hypothesis about “Facebook celebrities” and my observation that “Likes” are more likely to be given when people share personal feelings and/or images, rather than impersonal news stories. One friend recounted that he had a similar conversation with another friend, a renowned writer, who told him that whenever she shared a piece of interesting news, she received an anemic number of “Likes.” But each time she shared steamy personal stories about her love life or a recent breakup or her frustrations with writer’s block or her failing health or images of herself at Yoga class she would received hundreds of “Likes.” This, my friend recounted, had let the famous writer to conclude that what friends want to see and know is the personal details. I believe that even in digital spaces we predictably act all too human. When witnessing the lives of others we are simultaneously validating theirs and our own humanity.  

The lives of “Facebook celebrities” are a real cultural phenomenon playing on our computer screens. Even when a person has not always been popular in their everyday lives, the good news is that by learning and applying the cultural rules of sharing on Facebook individuals have the opportunity to build and experience digital popularity. As I have already noted, a way to achieve this is in one’s willingness to share personal photographs and details (i.e. moods and opinions). The operative word is “sharing.” To achieve this “digital celebrity” status, friends must “share” the events of their lives as much as possible, as often as possible. The more personal the events, such as pictures of weddings, births, children, dinner dates, birthdays, hospital visits, reports on weight loss, and so on, the greater the likelihood of receiving acknowledgements in the form of “Likes.”

In other words, what “friends” want to see on Facebook is their friends’ full narrative construction—the heroic, the fantastic, the vulnerable moments—that makeup everyday life. The “Likes” work as validation that we do indeed exists that someone other than ourselves get to witness these “constructed” or “framed” snapshots of our lives. My previous insight into the workings of reality-television suggests that the tautology “reality-life” signals similarities in the mechanisms by which everyday people have learned to create their on-line personas, and indeed their on-line lives. That is, the successful reception of on-screen personas depend greatly on a willingness to share “real views,” the more snapshots the better and nothing is too personal for sharing with on-line friends. After all, isn’t it true that friendships are built on sharing?