Facebook Notification: Justin Bieber Is Not Really Your Friend
By Kate LeaverSeptember 3, 2012
What happens when celebrities become our friends online? You know that’s crazy, don’t you?
Extreme fandom has never been easier. Forget six degrees of separation — the existence of the tweet means all that stands between the ordinary and the famous is 140 characters.
Just this week, US President Barack Obama hopped onto the social news website Reddit for a half-hour session of AMA — Ask Me Anything. This is an extraordinary breach in the distance most politicians maintain, for both safety and authority. He answered questions on national security, the corrupting influence of money on politics, the election, and his favourite beer.
How often are young people granted direct access to the POTUS? What a heady, heightened sense of intimacy the Internet affords us, be it with friends, politicians, movie stars, musicians or models.
The emotional attachments formed online are instantaneous, and powerful — but they are not always positive. For every benevolent 'friend', 'follower' or fan on sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Reddit, there is a herd of haters, more commonly known as 'trolls'. The troll is a willfully nasty presence on the Internet, using social media to cyber-flay someone else's psyche.
A day after the Obama AMA, Australian television personality Charlotte Dawson was hospitalised after a barrage of bullying tweets wore down her usual resilience. Dawson, a New Zealand-born model who recently published a book called Air Kiss & Tell, is a feisty tweeter with 41,000 followers @MsCharlotteD. But 'followers' is not synonymous with 'fans'.
Dawson received some particularly vile tweets and she chose to take the path of 'troll-shaming' — re-tweeting the abuse people sent her (abuse like "hang yourself, s***" and "I'm glad you can't breed"). Sadly, this spurred on some of her abusers.
Hate mail, like fan mail, now comes in short, sharp form, with no Google Analytics to map its emotional effects.
Cheap shots and flattery, informed or ignorant, it's all heard in this global village of virtual conversation with very few mediators.
The young pop star Justin Bieber has 27-million-plus Twitter followers, many of whom daily besiege him with declarations of undying love. Every time he shares a photo, or makes a joke, or thanks his followers for their love, they feel closer to him. They feel part of his world — a confusing and potentially addictive sensation for adolescent fans.
Bieber Fever — a condition with symptoms of hysteria, squealing, fainting, and sometimes vicious behaviour towards other fans who fantasise about being Bieber's girlfriend — is a well-known pop-culture condition. But it's not just teen girls who mistake social media for meaningful social contact.
Everywhere you look, people are forming hypothetical — or as psychologists prefer, 'parasocial' — connections with famous or infamous characters.
Research suggests our brains have trouble distinguishing between real and fictional relationships, and that we crave parasocial interaction. It's the grown-up version of having an imaginary friend.
Some psychologists believe extreme fandom is an obsessive-addictive disorder: Celebrity Worship Syndrome, or CWS.
The spectrum of CWS ranges from the relatively harmless to the mentally unhinged. At the tame end of the scale, someone might favour a particular celebrity over others, seeking out their news, and solidarity with other fans. As the fixation grows, the person forms an intense-personal relationship with the celebrity.
Hardcore CWS sufferers fall into the borderline-pathological category, and that's where the destructive behaviour begins. These fans would do anything for their chosen celebrity, and they believe the celebrity knows who they are. They're also extremely likely to be anti-social, introverted, impulsive, and potentially dangerous — there's a direct correlation between this level of fandom and precarious mental health.
But there's a chasm of difference between choosing a positive role model, and forming such a powerful imagined relationship with a celebrity that it distorts your perception of reality. The Internet enables extreme displays of CWS — several fans have become famous themselves, video-blogging their way to notoriety.
It seems the more platforms we create for self-expression, the more frenzied fans become (and the easier it is for them to broadcast their feelings to dizzying numbers of people).
Take, for example, the latest in a series of distraught video confessionals by a young woman living in the UK: Nearly three million people have watched this video by 'nuttymadam3575', in which she berates actress Kristen Stewart for cheating on Robert Pattinson, her boyfriend and co-star in the Twilight films. She oscillates between anger with Stewart for her infidelity, sympathy for Pattinson, and protective rage towards fans who intervene in the stars' personal lives. She has inserted herself into Stewart and Pattinson's narrative, over-identifying with their personal conflict, and imagining herself to be a player in their lives. "You leave them alone," she screams, "you f***ing leave them alone. And at the risk of sounding like Chris Crocker, if you don't you'll have to go through me."
It was Chris Crocker who became known by bellowing: "Leave Britney alone. Right. Now. I mean it! Anyone who has a problem with her, you deal with me."
Watching Chris Crocker's video tirade again put a little something in context for me. I've noticed that my own fixation with Britney Spears may well place me smack-bang in what Dr John Maltby calls the intense-personal dimension of CWS. It's somewhere between the social-entertainment dimension and the borderline pathological — meaning that I have a firm grasp on reality, but have taken my concern for a celebrity a little further than the average culture consumer.
My attachment to Britney Spears is incongruent with my rationality, but it's very telling of my own fragility. I never really liked her music; I was underwhelmed by Baby One More Time when it first came out, but felt a pang of jealousy looking at her chiseled midriff. When she shaved her head and attacked a paparazzo's four-wheel drive with an umbrella, she became uniquely fascinating to me. She was a broken woman, vengeful, distressed and so deprived of privacy she seemed to know very little about herself. I came to see Spears as the victim of a malignant trend in torturing celebrities with constant surveillance, and the violent trivialisation of their lives.
My own behaviour perhaps indicates a predisposition towards melancholy: I started collecting articles about her, buying any magazine with her face on its cover, and telling friends I wished I could help her straighten up and fly right. I even found ways to sneak The Psychology of Britney Spears into essays at university, which justified much time spent scouring the Internet for information on how mental illness might play out in the public eye.
With access to a bottomless academic library and a stack of gossip magazines brandishing her face, I diagnosed Britney from afar with any number of mood disorders. I became genuinely emotionally invested in her mental health and wellbeing — so much so that my flatmate at the time became truly worried about me.
Call me crazy, call me mad, but I can't help thinking this sort of preoccupation with a celebrity is bigger than me, bigger than Chris Crocker, bigger even than 'nuttymadam3575'. Worshipping the famous — we who are enthralled with their glamour or maternal about their vulnerability — is a mass manifestation of insecurity, and a way of using strangers to mould our own identities.
I confess, I may still be in recovery from mild Celebrity Worship Syndrome; I'd still jump at the chance to tell Britney Spears everything's going to be okay. If you can't understand why my somewhat excessive empathy extends to the woman who sang I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman, then perhaps you've learned to tune out from celebrity commentary. For that I commend you, but I wonder… Don't you miss having an imaginary friend?