College News

CAS News  Back to CAS News

Kelli Burns, Ph.D.

Professor publishes book about celebrity, social media

TAMPA, Fla. -- When the headquarters for manufacturing fame moved from Hollywood and New York to the Internet, the tools and the decision-making power moved with them.

And a revolution was set in motion.

In her new book, “Celeb 2.0: How Social Media Foster Our Fascination with Popular Culture,” University of South Florida mass communications professor Kelli Burns has jumped into the media upheaval wrought by the web – at the intersection of social media and popular culture – and makes sense of all the players, their machinations and the trends influencing this brave new world of communication.

Hers is the first book to focus on social media’s meaning for popular culture and traditional media through its relatively short but lively history, which she also pulls into the overview. Anyone intent on becoming famous or understanding why fame has taken on new characteristics should take note.

Burns shows how the entire communications industry in all its forms – via writers, journalists, musicians, filmmakers, videographers and others – is struggling to find its way, even as the Internet itself reconfigures and changes kaleidoscopically and with alarming speed. Within it, individuals and institutions are fighting for control, with the upper hand shifting from day to day. Burns explains how audiences no longer can be taken for granted, how professionalism no longer guarantees anything, and how 15 minutes of fame for everyone has become more than a clever concept.

“The very notion of producers and consumers has changed,” Burns said. “Anyone can create content with a minimal investment in technology. Social media give us a way to publish and distribute content – entertainment or news – at any time.”

Burns has found the biggest trend to be that people view social media as a way to achieve a previously difficult to attain goal – becoming famous.

“The Internet gives us the opportunity to become known,” she said. “We have witnessed the rise to fame of musicians, entertainers and journalists who found a huge fan base on the web.”

As that happens, major shifts are under way.

“Television is going to change; the music industry is going to change,” Burns said. “All media industries are trying to adapt so that they can stay in the game and have a place. Because music recording, marketing and distribution can be accomplished with desktop production tools and the Internet, many musicians don’t see a need for a record label anymore.

“And talented filmmakers without network deals are creating content for the Web, which drives viewers away from television.”

Burns also pays special attention to blogs. Her story of social media’s evolution and adaptation includes a discussion of “stalkerazzi” bloggers, many of whom blogged to attract an entertainment reporting job with a traditional media outlet. This represents a sea change.

“These bloggers interact with celebrities who in the past were very protected by their PR people,” she said. “Consumers also carry devices capable of capturing photos or videos of celebrities, so the traditional media organizations are not quite as important as they used to be for entertainment reporting.”

The already famous and the wannabes have an established presence to varying degrees.

“Most celebrities feel the need to participate in social media through blogs, Twitter and Facebook,” Burns said. “Some do a better job than others, most notably Ashton Kutcher, who garnered much media attention in his race to beat CNN to 1 million Twitter followers. Some celebrities seem genuinely interested in connecting with their fans while others will delegate the responsibility to their staffs.

“And there’s the phenomenon of the Internet being integral to TV shows that began in 2000 with the then new series ‘Big Brother.’ Fans of the show could watch the 24/7 live feed online. For many people, this was their first online video viewing experience. Today, television shows continue to provide multiplatform experiences for viewers.”

Burns also observes how shared cultural experiences are splintering into ever smaller pieces and the ways in which the “splinters” are forming their own communities.

“Last night’s TV shows used to be discussed with co-workers gathered around the water cooler,” Burns said. “We did not have many other outlets for sharing our feedback or for even finding others who shared our same television preferences. Now we can connect on the Internet in truly meaningful ways.

“I interviewed fans of the show ‘Lost’ and discovered a few who have formed offline relationships, from going out for drinks, to becoming close friends or involved romantically, or visiting when they’re travelling to other parts of the country. People love to talk to other fans, and although this is not a new phenomenon, the Internet facilitates the process.”

Meanwhile, Burns said the media giants are getting more and more savvy. “They’re not going to be left behind. They are refusing to be rendered irrelevant and are going to be a big player in social media.”

For many aspiring celebrities, mass media outlets are the prized destination. The YouTube route to being discovered has led to development deals for television series or appearances in commercials, television shows and movies.

“Social media offer a testing ground for web shows or stars,” Burns said. “Those with a following may be able to be marketable to the masses on television. There’s ‘American Idol’ but there’s also the opportunity to be discovered as talent agents scour the Internet to see who’s popular and who has a following. This fall, for example, you will see a new television series based on a popular Twitter feed.”

With fame comes the necessity to be prepared to be treated as well or as badly as celebrities are treated.

“When you put yourself out there, you make yourself a target of critics and whatever happens – good or bad – goes with the territory,” she said.

But just as fans and others wrest control of the star-making process, Burns points out that the process itself seems to be limited to those who set up shop first. There doesn’t seem to be much room for late arrivals on the scene.

“Although we would all like to think we could be the next Perez Hilton, so far it seems to be limited to whoever gets there first,” Burns said.

The changing face of celebrity news and newsmakers parallels the changing face of hard news coverage.

“Several news stories have started in blogs and were later picked up by mainstream media,” Burns said. “For example, the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys was noticed and investigated by the blog Talking Points Memo. Their work eventually led to the downfall of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

“‘Memogate’ also proliferated in the blogosphere when a blog posted a challenge for readers to prove memos about Bush’s preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard were created on a computer and not a typewriter. Bloggers definitely had an impact on how these stories evolved.”

Burns's other research projects have explored the connection between brands and consumers who use Facebook, mommy bloggers’ responses to FTC regulations regarding product endorsement, the world of fake blogs, and the expression of fandom in MySpace. And she doesn’t just study social media, she is an avid user who maintains several blogs, tweets @TampaCheapTweet and networks through Facebook and LinkedIn.

“Clearly social media gives people an outlet for building community and a way to get their voices out there, to get reactions, agreement and validation,” Burns said. “We are building more connections rather than fewer.”

History is being made so quickly that it is altogether too easy to lose sight of how we’ve arrived at today’s structure and there is no telling how lasting or fleeting anything that exists today will be. “Celeb 2.0,” published by Praeger, ties the past and present together for an easier transition into the future that awaits us all.

Filed under:Arts and Sciences School of Social Sciences Mass Communications Research  
Author: Barbara Melendez