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On Fame and Celebrity (Mostly the Crafty, Internet Kind)
I've been trying to write this post for nearly four years. It's difficult and complicated to say what I want to say, in a way that doesn't sound any of the ways I fear it will sound. I'm grateful to Tara, Elizabeth and K for their feedback and suggestions.
Even the reasons why I want to write about this subject are complicated and hard to articulate. Here's the thing: I've been a member and a watcher of the online crafty community for nearly seven years now. I've seen crafty celebrities come and go, and I've watched some interesting new breeds of celebrity form in the internet age.
For the most part, I don't think fame or celebrity are necessarily bad things (more on that in a moment). But as I've watched the crafty community grow and evolve online, I've also watched this idea of "crafty celebrities" engender not-so-great things like envy, assumptions and judgements without information. I think these not-so-kind responses to celebrity happen largely because of outdated mindsets. And I think that some powerful new ideas are emerging about celebrity now.
So here, for better or worse, is what I've been thinking about. I hope we can have a nice, productive discussion of this subject in the comments.
Image by djwudi, via Flickr
We (Apparently) Need Our Celebrities
Here's what's interesting to me: we humans create celebrities everywhere. Every special interest community has its own celebrities: cooking nerds have folks like Ina Garten and Jamie Oliver. Video gamers have Billy Mitchell. Photographers have Ansel Adams. We even create celebrities in our local communities – like here in Portland, we have Storm Large. There are always people (and, in our online community's case, bloggers) whose names we say with a special significance in our voices.
It used to be that we all knew of mostly the same celebrities, because the mainstream media used to tell us who was and was not famous. But then the web gave us the ability to share our own stories, and then we splintered into a million niches, and each one evolved its own celebrities.
What, exactly IS this kind of niche celebrity, then? I think that, at best, it's basically a public declaration of admiration: "I think what you do is amazing, and far beyond what I think I can do." I think we need our celebrities because they can create positive standards that help us keep striving to learn and grow and get better at whatever it is we do. Elizabeth suggested to me that what we're really creating here isn't so much celebrities as heroes, and I like that distinction.
Image by CAA Photography, via Flickr
Ambivalence About Celebrities
So, when we're in a good frame of mind, our celebrities can give us targets to aspire to. But we're human, so we don't always stay in that good frame of mind. In a bad frame of mind, sadly, our celebrities can make us feel smaller and less-interesting and less worthy. (Notice: the celebrity hasn't done anything different. Only our minds have.)
To pull an example from our community, let's think about that fabled "perfection veneer" of many crafty blogs. On a good day, these blogs transport you do a prettier, more organized world, and you think the blogger is amazing and inspiring. On a bad day, they can make you feel horrid for having piles of laundry and dirty dishes, and you think the blogger must be some kind of stuck-up jerk.
…Given that we may have never met this blogger, or have any reliable window into her life, these careening judgements seem a bit unfounded, don't they? I have a theory on why we yo-yo between these two extremes. It's because essentially, our world contains two different kinds of celebrities:
- People we've made into personal celebrities because we value the things they've done
- People we've been told are celebrities by someone else.
Image by stevelyon, via Flickr
When We Let the Media Make Our Celebrities
Celebrity goes wrong, I think, when we get too passive about it and let other people tell us who we should be paying attention to. And frankly, it's hard not to let other people tell us who the celebrities are – mainstream media constantly capitalizes on celebrity to sell newspapers/magazines/ad slots/anything else you can imagine.
The problem with that is, we get fed a steady stream of people we did not choose as celebrities. The danger happens when we accept their celebrity at face value without checking to see whether, all things being equal, we would really find them significant to us. Because we didn't take an active role in making them celebrities, we're far more likely to have those backlash feelings – and perhaps we feel safer about doing it? (One word: Kardashian.)
Closer to home, I see this kind of thing going on with mainstream craft media all the time. I regularly get press releases that babble about "the hottest crafters and the coolest projects," or that tout one crafter or another as being a "crafty superstar," "crafty powerhouse," or "famous crafter." (Sigh. Press release language.) If I listen to the mainstream craft media, I'm presented with a whole range of celebrities, and expected to assume that they're worthy of my admiration.
It's this mainstream media capitalization on fame that leads, I think, to many of us taking what are, at the end of the day, fellow human beings, and treating them like commodities.
Image by RobW, via Flickr
Celebrity is Now a Personal Thing
Ok, so all of that said, let's not get too gloomy about celebrity, because as it turns out, the internet age can make celebrity exciting again. The web can free us once and for all from imposed mass-media celebrity, if we'll only let it. We each get to make our own personal "pantheon" of people who are significant to us, and we get to decide why they're significant.
Let me rephrase that in very pointed language: nobody – no magazine, no website, no TV show – has the authority to tell you who's worthy of your attention. Create all the heroes you want, but do it because they're super good at something that's important to you. Use your celebrities as positive, motivating role models, not as reasons to feel bad.
You get to decide how important fame and famous people are to you - and incidentally, you are equally wonderful with or without them.
Whew! I may need to lie down now. But I would love to hear what you think. Why do people become celebrities to you? Do you ever find yourself feeling abivalent about celebrities? How much do you tend to listen when the mainstream media annoints someone as a "celebrity crafter?"