Status Update:

Celebrity, Publicity, & Branding in the Social Media Age
By Alice Marwick | Review by Amber Buck



Through her interviews, Alice E. Marwick (2013) painted a portrait of status in the tech industry that emphasized entrepreneurship and wealth flaunted through travel and the latest tech gadgets rather than traditional items of conspicuous consumption like property and cars. Chapter two described the ways in which status functions in Silicon Valley, name-dropping creators of social media startups, emphasizing the importance of Twitter within the tech industry, and detailing conferences like South by Southwest (SXSW), TED, and Internet Week New York. More interesting, however, were chapters three and four that featured descriptions of online identity construction through the experiences of individuals Marwick called micro-celebrities and the process of self-branding.

"Micro-celebrity," a term coined by Theresa M. Senft (2008) in her book Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks, is defined as "a new style of online performance that involves people 'amping up' their popularity over the Web using technologies like video, blogs, and social networking sites" (p. 25). Marwick (2013) described micro-celebrity as a "status-seeking practice that both reflects the values of the technology scene and is intimately integrated with social media tools" (p. 128). Microcelebrities are not individuals who have had their work or talent validated by traditional media, but instead create interest and support through different Internet sites, especially blogs, video hosting sites like YouTube, and social media. Through interviews with many in the tech industry whom Marwick deemed to be micro-celebrities, including bloggers, YouTubers, and other personalities, Marwick argued that micro-celebrities operate through authenticity; while they present carefully crafted identities through social media, they are expected to remain authentic and connect with their followers.

Julia Allison
Julia Allison, one of Marwick's case studies

Being a micro-celebrity, Marwick noted, requires a certain level of "self-commodification," a process that many of her interviewees found demanding and often all-consuming (p. 117). While more traditional celebrities like actors, musicians, and athletes are expected to hide elements of their private lives from the public and often do not interact with their fans through social media, micro-celebrities are expected to be accessible and to interact with their fans and followers, yet they still undergo the same kind of scrutiny and often online harassment that celebrities with agents and bodyguards receive. Much of this type of attention Marwick detailed in her study was fueled by sites like Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag, which followed members of the tech community like celebrities, detailing infighting, reporting rumors, and repeating gossip about business dealings as well as relationships. This phenomenon was demonstrated most clearly through Marwick's case study of Julia Allison, a blogger and celebrity writer turned reality star who dealt with a strong anti-fan contingent online. Her detractors even curated a blog ReDiscovering Donk that followed and ridiculed her every move.

The micro-celebrity phenomenon is a unique element of Web 2.0 culture, and Marwick's analysis demonstrated how individuals created personas that were highly commodifiable, but in a way that communicated a level of authenticity. The case study of Julia Allison in particular will resonate with anyone following recent news of the harassment of several prominent female bloggers and game creators connected to the #Gamergate situation. While Marwick noted the often-gendered nature of this harassment, she saved much of her critique of gender disparity in the tech industry for the final chapter in her critique of the myth of the male entrepreneur. In detailing the experiences of several of her female participants and analyzing discourse describing male entrepreneurs, Marwick provided important evidence for this continued gender imbalance. While this analysis is an important aspect of studying the way that status works within Silicon Valley, this attention to gender feels a bit tacked on rather than a central critique.