opinion | Neal Gabler

A generation of wannabe celebrities

selÇuk demirel for the boston globe

Last week PBS’s “Frontline” examined the ways in which marketers are learning to deploy social media to encourage young people to promote and sell products to one another under the guise of community. The idea is to get kids to “like” products on Facebook or tweet about them or pin them on Pinterest, thus bringing those products to their friends’ attention.

As “Frontline” saw it, this is a potentially pathbreaking foray for Madison Avenue. But the show may have missed a larger, more socially significant and pathos-wrenching issue. What it reported collaterally were the stories of a dozen or so young folks who aren’t using social media to sell products; they are using social media to sell themselves. In fact, many of these young people do nothing but sell themselves. Their lives are dedicated to self-promotion, even though none of them seem to have anything to promote except their own desperation to be famous. For them, the social media are a fame machine.

In his 1962 book “The Image,’’ historian Daniel Boorstin famously defined a celebrity as a “person who is known for his well-knownness.” Boorstin’s analysis was that celebrities were not celebrated for their value but for their visibility. Or put another way, celebrities were people who had accomplished nothing save getting themselves publicity.


Boorstin’s tautology was a clever idea and a resonant one in a society where there are hundreds, even thousands, of “names” who seem to be nothing but “names” — everyone from Zsa Zsa Gabor to Paris Hilton to Kim Kardashian. What do they do? But if it was resonant, it wasn’t necessarily because these celebs were individuals to be emulated. In Boorstin’s day, the 1960s, young people still dreamed of being movie stars or singers or athletes — that is, they dreamed of being famous via talent. We all seemed to recognize that the hunger for fame for fame’s sake was a kind of social aberration.

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Not any more. The “Frontline” report showed teenagers and young adults trolling the Internet for some form of acknowledgment, any form of acknowledgment. They were fame junkies. One group of high school friends plotted on how to get more “likes” for a new Facebook photo one of them had posted. Another girl spent all her time (literally) on the “Hunger Games’’ Web page trying to become the “ultimate fan” by posting about the movie and collecting virtual rewards.

It seems not to have occurred to these kids that what they were doing created no value whatsoever. More than even traditional celebrities, they were the actualization of Boorstin’s definition. They lived to be known, even if it was only being known as the biggest fan of “Hunger Games’’ or the guy who expatiated on what he ate for lunch or the 13-year-old girl who crooned amateurish covers of songs on YouTube. (Her mother crowed that the girl got more “hits” when she wore less clothing.)

Of course, the desire for fame is nothing new, even fame without achievement to warrant it. What is new is that there is now a ready-made, easily accessible mechanism which allows one to be known for being known. In the good old days about which Boorstin wrote, celebrities at least had to attract media attention — magazines, newspapers, television. Nowadays, aspiring celebs have Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and dozens more ways to reach their public — the lack of value in almost direct proportion to how many outlets there are.

This may be a matter of cause and effect. We live in a world that so honors and rewards fame that you can’t blame kids for devising means of getting it, and whatever else the Internet may do, social media have converted it into a fame machine for sad, lonely, desperate, narcissistic, often talentless kids who only want acknowledgment, even if it is from other sad, lonely, desperate, narcissistic, talentless kids. The need for acknowledgment is the real tragedy.


Far from an anomaly, this may be the new norm. In the movie “To Die For,” which was about the lust for fame, one character effuses how great it would be if everyone could have his or her own television show — to which a friend ripostes that if everyone had his or her television show, there would be no one to watch.

But that was before social media. That was before everyone became a celebrity.

Neal Gabler is author of “Life The Movie.’’