Microcelebrity in the Paper of Record

Curator's Note

In Theresa Senft’s initial use, microcelebrity referred to the experiences of camgirls, women in the 1990s and early 2000s who recorded their daily lives through desktop cameras. Jennifer Ringley and her JenniCam site are among the most well-known. From her study, Senft perceived these women to experience a more intimate version of celebrity through their online connections, the everydayness they captured and the closeness that could create with their audiences.

Since Senft’s study, use of the word has changed. Analyzing its appearance in the New York Times since 2002, it remains tied to Internet forms and figures known for being “themselves.” However, performances of the self differ. The paper’s most common application involves online aughts “It girl” Julia Allison. Providing punditry on contemporary media and celebrity, Allison is like the camgirls in being known as “herself.” However, instead of being present primarily through a single site she controls, Allison’s persona is dispersed through multiple sites and platforms: her own “official” webpage, various social media sites, and assorted television and print forms. Furthermore, her persona is highly reflexive, as her career involves commenting on media and celebrity from her own experiences. This version of microcelebrity thus functions more like Daniel Boorstin’s concept of someone “known for their well-knownness.” In contrast to Senft’s use, this deployment depends on lack of connection, singularity, or authenticity. The “micro” here signals not the closeness between celebrity and audience in one-to-one online venues, but the profligate fragmentation of celebrity through virtual multiplicities.

Two recent articles show continuing shifts. “Turning Microcelebrity into Big Business” tracks Oliver Luckett and theAudience, his management firm matching mostly online celebrities with promotions, reading something like Jordan Belfort selling off penny stocks. A piece on Vine star Jerome Jarre does not use “microcelebrity” specifically but implies its logics in Jarre’s rise. These articles differ from past examinations in their concentration on men, entrepreneurship, and explorations of art and commerce. Jarre and Luckett both apply artistic frames to their work, Luckett seeing a balance between art and commerce, Jarre tipping toward art by stepping away from more “synergistic” opportunities. These recent applications demonstrate how microcelebrity is--and arguably, always has been--a macro phenomenon, hinging on legitimating discourses of quantity and quality. “Microcelebrity” may eventually exist without qualifiers, but its evolution in one of America’s most legitimating institutions shows how its parameters have transformed but still remain.


Jennifer, this is a really interesting introduction to what sounds like a rich study you have gained footing in. I am drawn to the literature for future interest and how cases of Self-projection digitally not only translates into perceived versions of Self, but now clearly represents transformational processes self-commodification. I am reminded of how many comedians first reacted to Twitter about 2-3 years into its boom. I specifically recall a couple mentioning how Twitter changes the perception of when and how they can be funny, but perhaps in reverse ways from the micro celebrities you describe. Whereas microcelebrities draw upon social media to elevate them toward cultural currency cum economic gain, the comedians I recall found anxiety in "always" having to be funny alongside Twitter representing a "free" forum to which the felt pressure to perform their creative labor. The microceleb seems to be the younger sibling to the "YouTube Millionaires," except now industries and individuals are finding ways to capitalize quicker and perhaps more profitably. But to what end, I typically wonder? Or rather, does 'where' a microceleb locate themself play a much larger role in their ability to generate these "synergistic opportunities" as you put it? Great food for thought piece that also gives us some sources to chew on.

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