Who should we call the first “Instagram billionaire”? It’s a mark of the new Gilded Age we’ve entered that both women vying for that title belong to the same family, the illustrious Kardashian-Jenner clan. In 2019, it looked like Kylie Jenner had passed the ten-figure mark, only for Forbes to revise its estimates, declaring that Jenner had juiced her net worth with “white lies, omissions and outright fabrications.” (Her real wealth, the magazine thought, was a paltry $900 million). So, as of April this year, the accolade belongs to Jenner’s no less enterprising sister, Kim Kardashian West.
Social media has ushered in a new fusion of celebrity worship and celebrity entrepreneurship, giving rise to an elite class of “influencers” like Jenner and Kardashian West. Reality TV stars who were, in that wonderful phrase, “famous for being famous,” they now rely on their vast social media followings to market advertising space and fashion and beauty products. As such, they are closely entwined with another freshly minted elite, the tech oligarchs whose platforms are the crucial instruments of celebrity today. Word has it the good people at Instagram are all too happy to offer special treatment to the likes of the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga – not to mention His Holiness the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church (that’s @franciscus to you and me). And there’s every reason for social media companies to accommodate their glamorous accomplices: in 2018, Jenner managed to wipe $1.3 billion off the market value of Snapchat with a single tweet questioning the platform’s popularity.
It’s perfectly obvious, of course, what hides behind the embarrassingly thin figleaf of “influence,” and that is power. Not just financial power but social status, cultural clout and, on the tech companies’ side of the bargain, access to the eyeballs and data of huge audiences. The interesting question is where this power ultimately stems from. The form of capital being harvested is human attention; but how does the tech/influencer elite monopolise this attention? One well-known answer is through the addictive algorithms and user interfaces that turn us into slaves of our own brain chemistry; another invokes those dynamics of social rivalry, identified by the philosopher René Girard, whereby we look to others to tell us what we should want.
But I think there’s a further factor here which needs to be explored, and it begins with the idea of charisma. In a recent piece for Tablet magazine, I argued that social media had given rise to a new kind of charismatic political leader, examples of which include Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Jordan Peterson and Greta Thunberg. My contention was that the charisma of these individuals, so evident in the intense devotion of their followers, does not stem from any innate quality of their personalities. In stead, charisma is assigned to them by online communities which, in the process of rallying around a leader, galvanise themselves into political movements.
Here I was drawing on the great German sociologist Max Weber, whose concept of “charismatic authority” describes how groups of people find coherence and structure by recognising certain individuals as special. And yet, the political leaders I discussed in the Tablet piece are far from the only examples showing the relevance of Weber’s ideas today. If anything, they are interlopers: accidental beneficiaries of a media system that is calibrated for a different type of charismatic figure, pursuing a different kind of power. I’m referring, of course, to the Kardashians, Biebers, and countless lesser “influencers” of this world. It is the twin elite of celebrities and tech giants, not the leaders of political movements, who have designed the template of charismatic authority in the social media age.
When Weber talks about charismatic authority, he is talking about the emotional and ideological inspiration we find in other people. We are compelled to emulate or follow those individuals who issue us with a “calling” – a desire to lead our lives a certain way or aspire towards a certain ideal. To take an obvious example, think about the way members of a cult are often transfixed by a leader, dropping everything in their lives to enter his or her service; some of you will recall the scarlet-clad followers of the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 2018 Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country. Weber’s key observation is that this intensely subjective experience is always part of a wider social process: the “calling” of charisma, though it feels like an intimate connection with an exceptional person, is really the calling of our own urge to fit in, to grasp an identity, to find purpose and belonging. There’s a reason charismatic figures attract followers, plural. They are charismatic because they represent a social phenomenon we want to be a part of, or an aspiration our social context has made appealing. Whatever Rajneesh’s personal qualities, his cult was only possible thanks to the appeal of New Age philosophy and collectivist ways of life to a certain kind of disillusioned Westerner during the 1960s and ’70s.
Today there’s no shortage of Rajneesh-like figures preaching homespun doctrines to enraptured audiences on Youtube. But in modern societies, charismatic authority really belongs to the domain of celebrity culture; the domain, that is, of the passionate, irrational, mass-scale worship of stars. Since the youth movements of the 1950s and 60s, when burgeoning media industries gave the baby-boomers icons like James Dean and The Beatles, the charismatic figures who inspire entire subcultures and generations have mostly come from cinema and television screens, from sports leagues, music videos and fashion magazines. Cast your mind back to your own teenage years – the time when our need for role models is most pressing – and recall where you and your chums turned for your wardrobe choices, haircuts and values. To the worlds of politics and business, perhaps? Not likely. We may not be so easily star-struck as adults, but I’d vouch most of your transformative encounters with charisma still come, if not from Hollywood and Vogue, then from figures projected into your imagination via the media apparatus of mass culture. It’s no coincidence that when a politician does gain a following through personality and image, we borrow clichés from the entertainment industry, whether hailing Barack Obama’s “movie star charisma” or dubbing Yanis Varoufakis “Greece’s rock-star finance minister.”
Celebrity charisma relies on a peculiar suspension of disbelief. We can take profound inspiration from characters in films, and on some level we know that the stars presented to us in the media (or now presenting themselves through social media) are barely less fictional. They are personae designed to harness the binding force of charismatic authority – to embody movements and cultural trends that people want to be part of. In the context of the media and entertainment business, their role is essentially to commodify the uncommodifiable, to turn our search for meaning and identity into a source of profit. Indeed, the celebrity culture of recent decades grew from the bosom of huge media conglomerates, who found that the saturation of culture by new media technologies allowed them to turn a small number of stars into prodigious brands.
In the 1980s performers like Michael Jackson and Madonna, along with sports icons like Michael Jordan, joined Hollywood actors in a class of mega celebrities. By the ’90s, such ubiquitous figures were flanked by stars catering to all kinds of specific audiences: in the UK, for instance, lad culture had premiership footballers, popular feminism had Sex and the City, Britpoppers had the Gallagher brothers and grungers had Kurt Cobain. For their corporate handlers, high-profile celebrities ensured revenues from merchandise, management rights and advertising deals, as well as reliable consumer audiences that offset the risks of more speculative ventures.
Long before social media, in other words, celebrity culture had become a thoroughly commercialised form of charismatic authority. It still relied on the ability of stars to issue their followers with a “calling” – to embody popular ideals and galvanise movements – but these roles and relationships were reflected in various economic transactions. Most obviously, where a celebrity became a figurehead for a particular subculture, people might express their membership of that subculture by buying stuff the celebrity advertised. But no less important, in hindsight, was the commodification of celebrities’ private lives, as audiences were bonded to their stars through an endless stream of “just like us” paparazzi shots, advertising campaigns, exclusive interviews and documentaries, and so on. As show-business sought to the maximise the value of star power, the personae of celebrities were increasingly constructed in the mould of “real” people with human, all-too-human lives.
Which brings us back to our influencer friends. For all its claims to have opened up arts and entertainment to the masses, social media really represents another step towards a celebrity culture dominated by an elite cluster of stars. Digital tech, as we know, has annihilated older business models in media-related industries. This has concentrated even more success in the hands of the few who can command attention and drive cultural trends – who can be “influencers” – through the commodification of their personal lives. And that, of course, is exactly what platforms like Instagram are designed for. A Bloomberg report describes how the Kardashians took over and ramped-up the trends of earlier decades:
Back in the 1990s, when the paparazzi were in their pomp, pictures of celebrities going about their daily lives… could fetch $15,000 a pop from tabloids and magazines… The publications would in turn sell advertising space alongside those images and rake in a hefty profit.
Thanks to social media, the Kardashians were able to cut out the middle man. Instagram let the family post images that they controlled and allowed them to essentially sell their own advertising space to brands… The upshot is that Kardashian West can make $1 million per sponsored post, while paparazzi now earn just $5 to $10 apiece for “Just Like Us” snaps.
Obviously, Instagram does not “let” the Kardashians do this out of the kindness of its heart: as platforms compete for users, it’s in their interests to accommodate the individuals who secure the largest audiences. In fact, through their efforts to identify and promote such celebrities, the social media companies are increasingly important in actually making them celebrities, effectively deciding who among the aspiring masses gets a shot at fame. Thus another report details how TikTok “assigned individual managers to thousands of stars to help with everything, whether tech support or college tuition,” while carefully coordinating with said stars to make their content go viral.
But recall, again, that the power of celebrities ultimately rests on their followers’ feeling that they’re part of something – that is the essence of their charisma. And it’s here that social media really has been revolutionary. It has allowed followers to become active communities, fused by constant communication with each other and with the stars themselves. Instagram posts revealing what some celeb had for breakfast fuel a vast web of interactions, through which their fans sustain a lively sense of group identity. Naturally, this being social media, the clearest sign of such bonding is the willingness of fans to group together like a swarm of hornets and attack anyone who criticises their idols. Hence the notorious aggression of the “Beleibers,” or fanatical Justin Bieber fans (apparently not even controllable by the pop star himself); and hence Instagram rewriting an algorithm to protect Taylor Swift from a wave of snake emojis launched by Kim Kardashian followers. This, surely, is the sinister meaning behind an e-commerce executive bragging to Forbes magazine about Kylie Jenner’s following, “No other influencer has ever gotten to the volume or had the rabid fans” that she does.
In other words, the celebrity/tech elite’s power is rooted in new forms of association and identification made possible by the internet. It’s worth taking a closer look at one act which has revealed this in an especially vivid way: the K-Pop boy band BTS (the name stands for Bangtan Sonyeodan, or Beyond the Scene in English). Preppy outfits and feline good looks notwithstanding, these guys are no lightweights. Never mind the chart-topping singles, the stadium concerts and the collaborations with Ed Sheeran; their success registers on a macroeconomic scale. According to 2018 estimates from the Hyundai Research Institute, BTS contributes $3.6 billion annually to the South Korean economy, and is responsible for around 7% of tourism to the country. No less impressive are the band’s figures for online consumption: it has racked up the most YouTube views in a 24-hour period, and an unprecedented 750,000 paying viewers for a live-streamed concert.
Those last stats are the most suggestive, because BTS’s popularity rests on a fanatical online community of followers, the “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth” (ARMY), literally numbering in the tens of millions. In certain respects, the ARMY doesn’t resemble a fan club so much as an uncontacted tribe in the rainforest: it has its own aesthetics, norms and rituals centred around worship of BTS. All that’s missing, perhaps, is a cosmology, but the band’s management is working on that. It orchestrates something called the “Bangtan Universe”: an ongoing fictional metanarrative about BTS, unfolding across multiple forms of media, which essentially encourages the ARMY to inhabit its own alternate reality.
Consequently, such is the ARMY’s commitment that its members take personal responsibility for BTS’s commercial success. They are obsessive about boosting the band’s chart performance, streaming new content as frequently and on as many devices as possible. The Wall Street Journal describes one fan’s devotion:
When [the BTS song] “Dynamite” launched, Michelle Tack, 47, a cosmetics stores manager from Chicopee, Massachusetts, requested a day off work to stream the music video on YouTube. “I streamed all day,” Tack says. She made sure to watch other clips on the platform in between her streaming so that her views would count toward the grand total of views. […]
“It feels like I’m part of this family that wants BTS to succeed, and we want to do everything we can do to help them,” says Tack. She says BTS has made her life “more fulfilled” and brought her closer to her two daughters, 12 and 14.
The pay-off came last October, when the band’s management company, Big Hit Entertainment, went public, making one of the most successful debuts in the history of the South Korean stock market. And so the sense of belonging which captivated that retail manager from Massachussetts now underpins the value of financial assets traded by banks, insurance companies and investment funds. Needless to say, members of the ARMY were clamouring to buy the band’s shares too.
It is this paradigm of charismatic authority – the virtual community bound by devotion to a celebrity figurehead – which has been echoed in politics in recent years. Most conspicuously, Donald Trump’s political project shared many features with the new celebrity culture. The parallels between Trump and a figure like Kylie Jenner are obvious, from building a personal brand off the back of reality TV fame to exaggerating his wealth and recognising the innovative potential of social media. Meanwhile, the immersive fiction of the Bangtan Universe looks like a striking precedent for the wacky world of Deep State conspiracy theories inhabited by diehard Trump supporters, which spilled dramatically into view with the Washington Capitol invasion of January 6th.
As I argued in my Tablet essay – and as the chaos and inefficacy of the Trump presidency demonstrates – this social media-based form of charismatic politics is not very well suited to wielding formal power. In part, this is because the model is better suited to the kinds of power sought by celebrities: financial enrichment and cultural influence. The immersive character of online communities, which tend to develop their own private languages and preoccupations, carries no real downside for the celebrity: it just means more strongly identified fans. It is, however, a major liability in politics. The leaders elevated by such movements aren’t necessarily effective politicians to begin with, and they struggle to broaden their appeal due to the uncompromising agendas their supporters foist on them. We saw these problems not just with Trump movement but also with the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon in the UK, and, to an extent, with the younger college-educated liberals who influenced Bernie Sanders after 2016.
But this doesn’t mean online celebrity culture has had no political impact. Even if virtual communities aren’t much good at practical politics, they are extremely good at producing new narratives and norms, whether rightwing conspiracy theories in the QAnon mould, or the progressive ideas about gender and identity which Angela Nagle has aptly dubbed “Tumblr liberalism.” Celebrities are key to the process whereby such innovations are exported into the wider discourse as politically-charged memes. Thus Moya Lothian Mclean has described how influencers popularise feminist narratives – first taking ideas from academics and activists, then simplifying them for mass consumption and “regurgitat[ing] them via an aesthetically pleasing Instagram tile.” Once such memes reach a certain level of popularity, the really big celebrities will pick them up as part of their efforts to present a compelling personality to their followers (which is not to say, of course, that they don’t also believe in them). The line from Tumblr liberalism through Instagram feminism eventually arrives at the various celebrities who have revealed non-binary gender identities to their followers in recent years. Celebs also play an important role in legitimising grassroots political movements: last year BTS joined countless other famous figures in publicly giving money to Black Lives Matter, their $1 million donation being matched by their fans in little more than a day.
No celebrity can single-handedly move the needle of public opinion, but discourse is increasingly shaped by activists borrowing the tools of the influencer, and by influencers borrowing the language of the activist. Such charismatic figures are the most important nodes in the sprawling network of online communities that constitutes popular culture today; and through their attempts to foster an intimate connection with their followers, they provide a channel through which the political can be made to feel personal. This doesn’t quite amount to a “celebocracy,” but nor can we fully understand the nature of power today without acknowledging the authority of stars.