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Virtual Communities: No Celebrity is Untouchable

What is a Virtual Community?

Virtual communities might best be defined as a group or community of people within, or forming, a social network who share a common interest and interact through some form of social media.  In his book The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold explains that virtual communities are social congregations within the Internet which gain enough people to carry on a common interest and/or idea for a steady duration, and with enough feelings of connectedness, to form “webs” of personal relationships over the Internet.  What is remarkable about virtual communities is that they are not held together by geographical entities such as cities, neighborhoods, etc., which is characteristic of the traditional definition of “community”.  Rather, virtual communities are often geographically dispersed, given that via the Internet we are able to connect with people from all over and the World Wide Web obsolesces the limitations once imposed upon us by physical space.  Most virtual communities are thus bound by some kind of common aspect, whether that be a feeling, interest or idea, and while physical boundaries are not completely ruled out, they are not vital at all in the case of a virtual community.  One could argue this reflects Marshall McLuhan’s idea of a “global village” in that the electric speed of the Internet can bring people together and thus heighten human awareness.

Where Can Virtual Communities Be Found?

Social networking services are most commonly thought of with the idea of virtual communities and are where most of these virtual communities are formed and thrive.  According to the Wikipedia entry on virtual communities, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter can all be considered virtual communities.  The format of these sites – the option to create a profile or account, and then add, look for and/or follow friends, being so that it allows people to connect to one another using the site as a meeting spot or “gathering place”.  Websites such as these thus enable people to stay connected with the day-to-day activities and goings-on of their virtual friends or acquaintances without having to make an extraordinary effort to do so.

Virtual Communities and Celebrities

Celebrities come to mind in specific regard to the virtual communities.  Many high-profile celebrities, for example, have verified Twitter accounts which their fans can “follow”.  This kind of a collection of fans is an example of a virtual community; the community is bound by their similar celebrity interest, being that geography is obviously no object in that fans from all over the world can follow their favorite celebrities.  As Robert V. Kozinets wrote in this article:

the members of these virtual communities of consumption have implicated their own identities deeply and lastingly with the consumption object and its symbolism (Kozinets 261)

Take pop star Justin Bieber for example.  Just this past week, Bieber reached 40 million followers on Twitter, making him the most followed person on the website.  Fans of Bieber, who often represent themselves through Twitter, call themselves (and are referred to by Bieber as) “Beliebers”.  Given that celebrities like Justin are at the center of their own virtual community, they will attempt to maintain a certain online identity which conforms to the image they want to project to their virtual community.  It is worthy of noting that Bieber attempts to maintain a levelheaded online persona as a merely calm and collected nineteen-year-old devoted to his work and his fans.  In the days prior to social media, before TMZ and Perez Hilton, high-profile celebrities such as Bieber were virtually untouchable, so it was much more difficult to corrode the identity management a given celebrity was maintaining.  Nowadays, however, this is much different.  Take two recent Bieber examples since the year 2013 has started.  In early January, the below picture was run by TMZ depicting the pop star holding what looks like a marijuana joint.

The virtual community of “Beliebers” were devastated at finding out Bieber might not have been as levelheaded as he portrayed himself to be, and reacted with disappointment.  In the days following, Bieber received tweets from fans such as “Justin, I love you, and I don’t want to see you hurt. Please stop!!!!!!!!,” and “Justin, come on, don’t let me down!!”.  A handful of his fans even succumbed to a trolling scam in which fans engaged in self-mutilation and posted pictures of their wounds on Twitter with the hashtag “#cutforbieber” as a pleading attempt for Bieber to stop smoking weed.  These responses from Bieber’s virtual community prompted him to tweet:

everyday growing and learning. trying to be better. u get knocked down, u get up. i see all of u. i hear all of u. i never want to let any of you down. i love u. and…thank u.

In posting the above, Bieber further attempts to maintain his online identity as a humble and admittedly flawed, yet still levelheaded “good guy”.  Just two months later, this video of Bieber lashing out at a paparazzi who cursed at him went viral online.

The popularity of this video again made Bieber look to be the antithesis of his cool and collected online identity.  This video made him look bad in that he appeared to be out-of-control and violent.  In a subtle response, Bieber briefly tweeted to his virtual community in what was a likely effort to restore some sense of normalcy to his online persona.

too many blessings to allow the stress in. the press made things look nuts but really I have enjoyed London. The fans are incredible

Different Types of Virtual Communities

The online persona of former child/teen actress Amanda Bynes, while different, can serve as another example of virtual communities, celebrities and online identity management.  Though apparently retired from acting, Bynes has been more popular than ever lately for her online antics such as posting bizarre videos of herself in which some argue she appears psychotic, posting pictures of half of her head shaved, and talking candidly about her apparent eating disorder, among other things.  Her virtual community (Twitter followers) arguably consists of people who find her antics so entertaining that they wish to be kept up-to-date on them.  Bynes posts many current pictures of herself on her Twitter, and consistently forbids tabloid sites and magazines not to use any pictures of herself she hasn’t personally “approved” (tweeted).  Below is an example of one of these pleas:

Intouch used a photo from years ago on their cover and I hate it! The reason I’ve asked all magazines and blogs to stop using old photos of me is I don’t look like that anymore! I had a nose job to remove skin that was like a webbing in between my eyes. I wasn’t going to tell anyone, but I look so much prettier in my new photos that I don’t want old photos used anymore! I’m so sick of magazines and blogs using old photos! When will they stop? I will never look like that again! Having surgery was the most amazing thing for my confidence!

Though many would call Bynes’s behavior bizarre, arguably with good reason, she is still maintaining an online identity in that she longs to “look a certain way” and even act a certain way on the Web, going to visibly desperate measures to maintain this online persona when her online identity expectations are not met by outside media outlets.  Meanwhile, her virtual community of Twitter followers is unique in that not all of them are necessarily fans, but rather might simply be Twitter users who can’t get enough of her insanity.

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