The nature of celebrity has drastically changed. The seismic shift of the digital age means I can go into a room and bring up Hasan Piker’s name to a group of people. Half will know who he is and their eyes will light up. The other half will falter and look clueless.
As social media followings have ballooned, there are tons of streamers, YouTubers, and TikTokers with sizable followings that you haven’t heard of or that mainstream media isn’t covering. Fame has become fragmented.
Gone are the days of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, where everyone knew their names. They commanded global attention and their fame was of a different caliber.
I couldn’t, in this day and age, write a fictionalized book about a significant Twitch streamer like Piker and just title it “Brunette,” as Joyce Carol Oates did with Marilyn Monroe and Blonde. Marilyn Monroe was a singular icon, a tour de force that inspired Oates’ 738-page tome and many biopics. Today, books written by and about streamers have come and gone, and they feel like drops in a very large bucket.
This complete fragmentation of fame has resulted in a dramatic transformation in how we regard celebrities. When Kim Kardashian emerged to fame on the heels of Paris Hilton, the media used to decry how she was famous for no reason. Today, she’s a billionaire with more than 364 million Instagram followers, but one thing that hasn’t changed is people’s regard for her legitimacy. If you search up her efforts to pass the California bar exam, tons of strangers online are critiquing her approach to law and questioning her credibility.
“If you look back to the 1950s and ’60s, in particular mass entertainment and mass media consumption, it was highly centralized,” says University of Oregon media and game studies professor Maxwell Foxman. “So as a consequence, to be a celebrity meant traversing a really complicated path. But once you got to that top echelon where you were appearing on television, you were appearing on radio, you were the only game in town, and that really spoke to what created mass appeal.”
Kim Kardashian’s climb to fame was once viewed as unusual. But in today’s climate, it’s commonplace.
“Especially with TikTok and how easily people are able to blow up overnight, fame has become something that many can achieve, but holding that over time can be difficult,” says Jayden Diaz, a Twitch streamer who has amassed more than 400,000 followers.
“If I go to TwitchCon, I can’t go 25 feet without someone stopping me for a picture, an autograph, etc. If I go out in the world, I’ll go months without being noticed a single time,” says Twitch streamer Ben “Cohh Carnage” Cassell. “The fact that fame is now something that people seek out instead of being exposed to all the time has changed what it means to be famous.”
Creators speaking to Polygon say they are at a comfortable amount of fame, enough to earn a living but not so extreme that they will be stopped everywhere they travel.
These days, there are fewer seminal moments in our culture. A few years ago, everyone could remember when Ye took the mic from Taylor Swift and said that Beyoncé should’ve won that MTV music award. As those memories fade and as cable news dies, we’re starting to get pockets of ignorance, news deserts, and collective amnesia.
“There is no more mass media. That’s the same reason Barbara Walters was a famous journalist because there were only five news channels or whatever to watch so the people on those channels inherently had a larger audience,” says Taylor Lorenz, Washington Post columnist and author of internet culture book Extremely Online. “People have more access to famous people now than ever. Famous people used to be this elite separate group; they didn’t have to be beholden to their audiences almost at all.”
With the proliferation of choice comes the master of none. Platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram have granted users glimpses of lives and created parasocial relationships. There’s an unspoken expectation that you’re supposed to share how you’re living, to remind people of your presence.
Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote in her 2022 book Everything I Need I Get From You about how fangirls created the internet: “Fandom is the dominant mode of commerce — the backbone of the influencer economy, the force behind the bizarre rise of self-aware Brand Twitter and the dizzying ascent of a handful of pop stars whose personal fortunes are larger than the yearly budgets for some small cities.”
In this new equilibrium, the role that traditional Hollywood plays may be different, say some internet creators.
“At the heart of every streamer is an entertainer, and entertainers want their craft to be seen and heard around the world. However, I do believe that creators’ desire to transcend digital platforms for the sake of validation has begun to fade,” says Tips Out, chief executive officer of One True King, a Texas-based influencer company, who declined to share his real name due to privacy concerns. “Hollywood and network television have never been less relevant than they are today, and content creators know that now. For many, being featured in a Mr. Beast video or collaborating with Dream is a more meaningful milestone than a quick cameo in a low-budget film.”
For some content creators, bridging Hollywood and social media platforms is just a natural way of growing their audience. At the same time, some actors from yesteryear aren’t especially interested in posting online.
Avori Strib, a Twitch streamer who appeared on Netflix’s competitive reality show The Mole as a professional gamer, says that content creators will jump at what’s available, whatever that may be.
“People who like being in front of the camera, myself included, will always take the opportunity to do something like this.”