For the past two days, E! Online has been at war with a million irate teens. And as the battle winds up, we must conclude: The teens are winning.
It all began in the wake of Sunday night’s Teen Choice Awards, when Seija Rankin — a 30-something editor for the celebrity network — published a tongue-in-cheek listicle that spent a lot of real estate hating on the social media stars at the show. Maybe Rankin was joking and her jokes were bad; maybe Rankin was serious. In either case, she appeared shocked to see awards for Vine, YouTube and Twitter celebs, and — of several top social media stars — wrote only, “who is this?”
Both the “unknown” luminaries and their fans were, suffice it to say, upset about the debacle: In the day after the post published, many of YouTube’s top stars tweeted their complaints — to thousands of RTs from a peeved teen audience.
— Tyler Oakley (@tyleroakley) August 17, 2015
— Joey Graceffa (@JoeyGraceffa) August 17, 2015
Literally why would you put this in an article lol it's just flat it rude and ignorant pic.twitter.com/TDty3evSet
— Ricky Dillon (@RickyPDillon) August 17, 2015
Even Grace Helbig, a prominent YouTuber whom E! signed as a host earlier this year, called the network’s behavior “embarrassing.”
“If you’re in media and know nothing about Internet talent, you’re not cute or clever,” Vine’s Jeremy Cabalona tweeted. “You’re genuinely irrelevant and terrible at your job.”
With apologies to Cabalona, we won’t go quite that far. I mean, there are plenty of people at like, small-town papers, who don’t need to know who Zach King is to do their jobs.
But we will agree that the whole bizarre incident does seem amazingly emblematic of a major fault line in modern celebrity culture: Namely, despite overwhelming evidence that so-called “Internet talent” commands a massive and not-ephemeral following, cultural gatekeepers don’t want to allow these new celebrities in. In fact, they don’t want to acknowledge that social media celebrities might serve any sort of greater social function, besides perhaps amusing children.
I actually watched two (very incredible, knowledgeable, savvy) reporters make that case after Vidcon, not so long ago: Why, they asked, do we have to care — or pretend to care — about the meaningless, momentary fads of the teenaged?
Why not just write it off, as Seija Rankin did, as a product of age or immature taste?
NEVER ever say that a YouTube Celebrity is not a "REAL" celebrity. YouTubers have 10x the Influence on viewers. I'm looking at you, @eonline
— Dani Abe (@DaniAbe) August 17, 2015
Well, for starters, because that totally misunderstands what our culture is going through right now: Far from a “fad,” social media stars are the next step in celebrity’s evolution. Celebrity has never been a fixed or static distinction; as the scholar Fred Inglis details in his history on the subject, the people whom we choose to call “celebrities” has changed more or less constantly since the late 1700s. First moneyed socialites elevated by industrialization, later Hollywood starlets rising to global fame in the aftermath of World War II … now YouTubers with webcams, high-speed WiFi and nothing better to do.
If industrialization and post-war globalization weren’t fads, the Internet’s probably here to stay, too.
On top of that, writing off social media celebrity — even in its silliest, most overtly generational iterations — ignores the fact that these people signal huge and fascinating things about our culture. Forget the fact that Zach King has basically perfected a new genre of short-form video art, or that Joey Graceffa’s book is among Amazon’s best-selling biographies. Independent of their individual accomplishments (which are many!), they, whether they are teens themselves or not, speak to teenagers’ collective beliefs, their politics and anxieties, their game-changing interest in collaborative, democratic media and their desire to bypass middlemen and gatekeepers like E!.
— Scott Rising (@Rising) August 17, 2015
These stars express the collective values of an otherwise disjointed and amorphous population. They are, to steal a line from the conventionally famous Lena Dunham, the voice of their generation.
Granted, you don’t have to listen to that voice if you don’t want to; I do not, admittedly, spend a lot of time surfing Seniorific.com. But if you don’t listen, you’re not just “old,” in Rankin’s terms: You’re willfully ignoring the socio-cultural currents that will eventually shape your universe.
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