Podcast

with Jasmine Bina

12: Celebrity Culture, Platform Brands and Parasocial Relationship‪s‬

insights in culture

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The nature of celebrity culture has changed in recent years, most notably with the rise of the influencer brand. But why is this happening now, and how have our digital tribes changed because of it? We speak with Cameo co-founder Steven Galanis about how he built a platform that has taken celebrity-fan culture to new levels of access, and sociologist and author Chris Rojek about the parasocial relationships and ‘presumed intimacy’ that is outpacing other forms of relationship in our lives.

Podcast Transcript

May 29, 2020

50 min read

Celebrity Culture, Platform Brands and Parasocial Relationship‪s‬

00:00

Jasmine Bina:
Katherine Kendall lives in New Jersey with her husband and her ten-year-old son, Calvin. Calvin is a highly creative and imaginative kid, and he and his mom have a special connection over RuPaul’s Drag Race, the American reality competition TV series, searching for America’s next drag superstar.

Katherine Kendall:
Drag Race is our thing. RuPaul’s Drag Race, we watch it together. We’ve watched it for so many years. Calvin has an encyclopedic memory of all the contestants. We watch reruns. We drive my husband crazy watching reruns.

Jasmine Bina:
Catherine noticed that recently Calvin has been feeling a little down with the reality of the pandemic and stay at home orders. He’s just old enough to feel complex emotions about what’s going on, but still too young to know how to process them.

Katherine Kendall:
Calvin is 10 and he understands what’s going on more than most kids, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard for him. And especially with children’s emotions, like this pandemic you’re asking them to color something with 108 kranz, but they’ve got a box of 10 as far as emotions. He misses going to his martial arts class. He misses normalcy. He misses his friends going to school. We’re doing these weird Zoom play dates. It all feels unnatural. And he had a day where it just all got to him and he was crying out of loneliness. And that got to me.

01:38

Jasmine Bina:
That’s when Catherine got the idea to cheer Calvin up with a Cameo. If you’re not familiar with Cameo, it works like this. You either go to the website or to the app and you have the option to browse through thousands of celebrities in film, TV, sports, and social media. Starts from today, starts from 20 years ago it doesn’t matter. If you’re looking for someone, chances are they’re there and you can pay a celebrity to make a personalized video for you or a loved one, a friend, a colleague, whoever. People have bought celebrity Cameos as birthday gifts, as love notes, breakup messages, Cameos to tell their bosses that they’re quitting their jobs or to tell their parents to stay home during a time of COVID. You can buy a Cameo for any occasion from almost any celebrity, and they cost anywhere from $5 to $2,500 and up. Catherine realized that she could buy a very special Cameo for Calvin. One that would mean something to him.

Katherine Kendall:
I found a contestant who was on in the earlier seasons of Drag Race, Tatianna. And Calvin and I, we always rooted for Tatianna and even we even used catchphrases of Tatianna’s with each other. So it’s kind of become like an inside joke with us. And I saw that Tatianna was on there, Tatianna is probably not since she was an earlier contestant doesn’t have that same level of probably fame as more recent winners. So I thought I would take a chance and I thought, well, I’ll write a note Cameo and kind of explain this is going to a young fan.

Tatianna:
Hi, Calvin. It’s Tatianna. Just wanted to check on you and see how you’re doing. I know that this whole quarantine thing is scary and it really kind of sucks, but we’re going to get through it. Everything’s going to go back to normal pretty soon. Just stay hopeful.

03:24

Katherine Kendall:
Calvin was just surprised. And I think he was so surprised. I don’t think he knew what to really make of it. His spirits were definitely lifted. It’s just like a little bit of a sugar pill, is that. That just kind of it’s a little bit of a treat. And I didn’t expect it to completely change his outlook on the pandemic, but there was a connection there, and it’s not just a connection between Calvin and Tatianna. It’s almost like a connection between Calvin and Tatianna, and with me

Jasmine Bina:
This week on Unseen, Unknown, we’re going to explore the nature of celebrity culture, the rise of the influencer brand and how we form digital tribes around the personas, characters and heroes that are becoming increasingly easier to touch through social media and technology. We all feel connected to a public figure that we don’t know in real life, a TV star we might love, an athlete we feel bonded to, or even a politician we might hate. Regardless of the emotion, there’s something there. And it’s starting to open up new frontiers in both branding and culture. When Steven Galanis and his co-founders launched Cameo in 2016, they noticed two things happening in the celebrity landscape.

One, famous itself has blown up with more celebrities existing than in any other time in history. And two, these celebrities collectively enjoy more fame than their counterparts in the past. The overall mass of celebrity is increasing and Cameo was built as a marketplace to give that celebrity mass more efficiency in reaching its fan base and of course monetizing it. As Cameo approaches its millions video made, the company has unlocked an enormous well of unmet demand and it’s become one of the fastest growing marketplaces in the US. I spoke with Cameos Co-Founder, Steven Galanis about the cultural drivers that make a company like this possible during a time like now and how he made some very specific decisions in positioning and branding that have started to pay off.

05:30

Steven Galanis:
I think the first relationship actually is in with the celebrity, but it’s really the customer with Cameo the brand. And I think Cameo almost becomes your connected friend. You could imagine being at a party and it’s like the craziest party you’ve ever been to. And you see a section with a red velvet rope and behind that red velvet rope is as favorite person on earth and everyone you’ve ever wanted to meet. And all of a sudden you’re looking at the red velvet rope and you notice someone you haven’t seen since high school, they don’t remember you, you’re sure and you vaguely remember them, but you make eye contact. They instantly recognize you. They wave you to the red velvet rope. They open it and they introduce you to every single person that you’ve ever wanted to meet.

That’s cameo, I really believe. The secondary relationship is, the Cameo purchaser or recipient with the talent themselves. And I think that the number one reason the talent join Cameo is to have a more personalized, authentic one-to-one relationship with their fans in the world of social media. That’s actually harder to have than ever before. Somebody might have millions of followers and they get tens of thousands of direct messages. And it’s so overwhelming that it’s in some ways it’s harder for talent to ever interact on a one-to-one basis. So Cameo in many ways becomes a safe space where they have the time to like actually learn your name and learn a little bit about you. Unlike going to a meet and greet at Comic Con where or running into a star on the street and asking for their autograph where it’s such like a hasty, short period. It’s kind of giving them room to breathe and interpret everything and create this completely unique piece of content along with the person that booked it. That makes it so special.

07:33

Jasmine Bina:
You know, what’s really interesting too that I’ve noticed is, it’s somewhat transactional. You’re paying for this and you get a video created based on what you want the celebrity to say or to address. But I’ve noticed that a lot of celebrities really speak to their fans in a very heartfelt way. Like there seems to be like heart and soul and thought that’s put into these Cameos, even though they’re just a few seconds long. And you’ve mentioned in other interviews people like Gilbert Gottfried do so many in a day. And I think he was, you said one of your top earners recently, like why do you think that is? I mean, is that even sustainable the fact that these celebrities are really actually making these one-on-one connections because it’s new. Usually it’s one to many, like what kind of feedback are you getting from people? Like, where do you think it’s going?

Steven Galanis:
I think one of the big uncovers that we’ve had with Cameo as we’ve started, is we’ve learned that price is a necessary friction, which actually enables fulfillment. So the price of somebody’s Cameo isn’t the value of their time or it’s not their net worth. It’s really like a good proxy of what their fans can actually afford. And it can be throttled up or down with the willingness that talent has to do more or less of these at any given time. So if they’re on tour or it’s a busy season for an NBA player and they’re getting ready for the playoffs, they may raise their price do less of them. If they’re in the off season or it’s something like what’s going on right now with COVID and every single athlete, actor, celebrity is sitting on the couch, wanting to do more and wanting to have connections with their fans since their concerts are canceled and the meet and greets aren’t happening and their games are postponed.

09:14

What they’ll do is lower their price to become more accessible. And ultimately pricing has been the thing that’s enabled any of these to get fulfilled outside of there being a price next to it, the only way you could get a Cameo before Cameo was to happen to know the person’s agent or to run into them on the street and have the courage to go up to them and have that person say yes, and be of the right mindset to remember that your sister is obsessed with that person. And she’s graduating college this week and if this person congratulated her, that would blow her mind. So it was so rare. I mean, this is something that talent has done not just basically, since there’s been front-facing selfies, people have done things like Cameo, but it was priced. That was the magic that enabled the fulfillment to happen. And ultimately that’s, what’s allowed people to have this deeper relationship. Then you can have a normal social media, which is super one to many and super transactional.

Jasmine Bina:
You know, we have a lot of brand strategists listening to this, and I want to talk about your guy’s brand strategy. You mentioned how really this brand feels like it connected friend and your first relationship is with the brands. And I think a lot of companies that have platforms like access to experts or to thought leaders or celebrities, or whoever struggle with that. And the brand that is on their platform oftentimes is a lot bigger than the brand that the platform actually owns. But you guys have kind of reversed that. And I would love to know, how you were able to do it because I think you’re right. People do feel a connection to Cameo first that’s where like the first order of the relationship is, and then as they’re filtering through and then choose their experiences that other relationship with us every comes into play with their decision-making. But what have you guys done strategically or as a brand or anything with your positioning to kind of make this happen?

11:23

Steven Galanis:
I think it was all very intentional. I had run a book about category creation. I believe it was called Play to Win. And I really took that to heart. And as we were thinking about the idea for Cameo, it was very clear that there had never been a business like this before. It was a completely new product in a completely new category. And because it was a new category, we had to think about how we wanted the brand to be positioned. And that’s why at the very beginning, it was so critical to have the right name, which my little brother came up with. We had hired a branding for him to pick the name and four of the names that could have been Cameo that aren’t were Hypd, H-Y-P-D, Thrillo, what was another one, Power Move and there was like another, Oh, Hero Hub was the one that we like almost became.

And the thing is it’s like Cameo was really the perfect name. It’s like we’re recreating these tiny moments in your life that are super impactful and memorable where somebody recognizable is coming and making a brief appearance in your life. And I think it started with the name. I think the logo was really critical to being able to develop the brand equity that we needed to make Cameo at once something that was cool enough for the most like hottest people in the world right now, but also accessible enough that someone like my dad could come on and purchase there. We run the gamut from super hot TikTok stars to people like Dick Van Dyke.

And the thing that’s so cool about Cameo is that while our top demographic for purchasing is 25 to 34, 34 to 45, 45 to 55, 55 to 65, 65 plus all by more Cameos than 18 to 24, even though 18 to 24 year olds visit the site the most.

13:30

Jasmine Bina:
Wow.

Steven Galanis:
So it’s really become this thing where mom can buy a Cameo for her mom for mother’s day. Like grandma can find the YouTuber that her granddaughter loves. The granddaughter can find something for father’s day. And it creates this culture of giving where we really have somebody for everyone. And that was extremely intentional from the beginning to do that. The other big brands strategic decision we made early, was to choose authentic over high quality. When we first started, there were a lot of people that said things like, “Hey, what you should do is, you should go book a celebrity and put them in a Hollywood warehouse for one day and have them record every possible name and every possible creating and have sounded lights and all this type of stuff.”

But at the end of the day, we had high conviction that the magic was seeing these people in their natural environments, like having them be in their house or being in the locker room or the fact that you never know what you’re going to get. And I think that anticipation of never quite knowing what is going to be said, or how it’s going to look is another, like Hallmark of the way that we’ve been able to surprise and delight so many people

14:48

Jasmine Bina:
You’re absolutely right about that. And I’ve been surprised, I think with almost every Cameo that I’ve seen and it’s for that reason, although you don’t think about that, you don’t articulate it as a user. You just experience it.

Steven Galanis:
I think that’s the hallmark of a iconic brand. We did a lot of thinking about that, so you don’t have to. For us, it was all about how do we make you feel? And one of Cameos corporate values, our first value is actually roll out the red carpet. And we really use that for every single interaction that a customer has with our business. A talent has with our business or an employee or prospective employee has with their business. We’re always trying to roll out the red carpet and make everybody feel like a VIP on our platform.

Jasmine Bina:
It makes me think also you were talking about celebrities, like showing up in their homes, kind of like not made up or I’ve seen celebrities without makeup or in their beds or at the kitchen table, things like that. And you always hear this old adage of like, never meet your heroes because it kind of deflates the world that you’ve created around them, but that’s not happening here. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about, why do you think this isn’t doing that? And instead it seems to just be strengthening people’s relationships.

16:05

Steven Galanis:
Totally. It’s actually really funny that you mentioned that we’re currently in the middle of partnering with the new creative agency and the agency that I just talked to before this kind of pitch their whole pitch was around. The old adage was never meet your heroes because they’ll disappoint you, but on Cameo, it’s like you can meet your heroes and they become bigger heroes of yours than ever before. And one of the things that we’ve long talked about to talent as a value prop is, the people at the other end of these Cameos in many cases are your single biggest fans in the whole world. So the opportunity to come and talk to them and for 15 seconds to a minute, take a tiny amount of time out of your day, but have a such a massive impact on their life.

I think it’s a really powerful thing. And I think that’s why we haven’t had that disappointment, because it’s so unbelievable that most of these people that this can happen. And even in a world where Cameo now is three years old, coming on year four. And even in a world where we’ve done nearly a million Cameos, people are still surprised every single time, as you mentioned, you get one, you’d never know exactly what’s going to come. And I’ve always loved this idea of the talent and the customer almost co-producing a piece of content together. This is an idea that I’ve thought a lot about it. And ultimately, I think that’s part of it. It’s like you, as the customer are a huge part of the creative process here. And it really is much more of a partnership than like going to Hallmark and just selecting a cheeky card.

17:49

Jasmine Bina:
Right. And then how many celebrities you can say are on the platform right now?

Steven Galanis:
We now have over 30,000 talent on Cameo.

Jasmine Bina:
Okay. So that number says so many things. One, the whole celebrity world has just completely blown up or talent, as you say, which I want to talk about. But first I want to ask you, how do you guys define or decide what constitutes talent that can actually be on the platform?

Steven Galanis:
Yeah, that’s a good question. Historically we had said that, to be on Cameo you either need to be a person of note or you needed to have like X amount of followers on Instagram, 20,000 followers was early the number that we picked that we saw you could still do well on Cameo with that. There’s actually a woman named Legion from Andreessen Horowitz who just wrote a pretty interesting report about this. And she called the time that we’re living in for creators. She calls this whole economy, the passion economy. And one of the big parts of her research was that today with the direct to consumer monetization platforms like Cameo or Patriot or Substack, a creator only needs a hundred true fans to actually like support them. If you can get a hundred people to pay a thousand dollars a year to support you, you can make a living and you can actually support yourself.

19:17

So I think that’s a pretty interesting concept. And I think Cameo is part of the larger trend of direct to consumer monetization for talent in every industry. And there’s good reason for that. On YouTube, the top 3% of creators makes 97% of all the ad revenue, on Spotify, the top 1% of musicians makes 1% of all the streaming revenue and off the platform, they make the vast majority of the concert and merchant revenue as well. So I think this A-plus versus long tail problem is something that exists in every single genre. So the fact that we never built Cameo to like make Drake more money, we really built Cameo to be a place where talent could monetize their social in a way that’s actually brand positive. So our core value prop to town is, you’re getting paid to become more famous on Cameo.

Jasmine Bina:
You were talking about how we’re at a point where people can have deep engagement with their audiences but not necessarily be that big. And that kind of authenticity is what you were looking for. And it kind of brings me to this concept of culture. I know we talked about sub-culture a little bit, but I want to know, I know that you guys have gotten a lot of press and I’m guessing your numbers have jumped because of COVID because people have the time, or maybe people are just seeking some sort of creature comfort or connection, but before COVID even, you were really starting to skyrocket, why do you think culturally right now we’re ready to receive something like Cameo, because I don’t know that we would have been 10, maybe even five years ago.

Steven Galanis:
Totally. I think that’s a great question. So to answer it, yes, we have seen a huge boost in our business since COVID started. Bookings are actually up a thousand percent-

21:08

Jasmine Bina:
Wow.

Steven Galanis:
Since COVID started. Ahead of that, we were already the fastest growing consumer marketplace businesses in the country. So Cameo had been growing really fast ahead of COVID. But I think the reason that we’ve really seen this explode is on the supply side, on the talent side. Like I mentioned, nobody talks about this, but every single talent at scale is really a gig economy worker. They get paid per game, they get paid per concert, they get paid per appearance. And right now in a world of shelter in place, everybody is out of work. And historically, a lot of people that we had talked to had said, “Hey, Cameo school.” But I’m making too much money to be on it, or I don’t have time to do it.

21:51

They’re suddenly not having income coming in and they have a lot more time because they’re sitting on the couch like us. So I think that, that really has caused our business to turbocharge maybe multiple years in the future. I think it’s very similar to what you’ve seen with Zoom prior to COVID. There were 10 million monthly active users on Zoom, after COVID there are now 300 million daily active users. So I think something like COVID and the shelter in place orders largely prompted social change and cultural change to just accelerate. And I know we’ve certainly been a beneficiary of that. Secondly, on the why, now. So even outside of COVID, I think it really comes down to the proliferation of more social platforms.

So today, if you look at some of the most famous people on earth, whether it’s Justin Bieber or Chance the Rapper, these people came up on YouTube and SoundCloud, respectively. David Dobrik has the highest engagement on Instagram, who’s a huge vlogger right in and was an original Vine star. And I think one thing that’s interesting is the celebrity of 2020 is very, very different than the celebrity of ’80s or ’90s. When the classic like Michael Ovitz CAA model was holding Tom Cruise out of commercials or television shows because that would hurt him getting a movie deal. Today because social and Snapchat, I think started this, but then Instagram story, and TikTok now, and YouTube, because social media enables talent to have the ability to interact with their fans on a daily basis.

23:38

That is becoming the expectation. And it would be weird if J Lo wasn’t on TikTok, but maybe five years ago it would have been unthinkable that she ever would have been doing it. And I think when you’re looking at the biggest celebrities on earth, whether it’s Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber, I think go on it’s on Instagram every single day and make Instagram stories for free because their fans are demanding this content. But over the last five years, you’ve seen less of Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston or Brad Pitt or George Clooney, because again, they’re kind of these old house Hollywood stars that while they’re a plus and iconic, they haven’t embraced the tools that are available on social as much as some other folks.

24:28

And I also think too, that every social media platform has kind of created its own stars. And when you think of Twitter, you think of Ashton Kutcher and Shack being like two of the people that just skyrocketed to fame because of that platform, or when you think of Snapchat, it’s all about DJ Khaled. And what do you think about Instagram? It’s the Kardashians and the Jenners that just took that platform and went to another level. But I saw the Hollywood reporter did a big feature on TikTok and the most famous person on TikTok is a girl named Charli that’s got 50 million followers and she’s just a random girl from Connecticut or something like that, a 17 year old girl.

So I think that’s another interesting thing is that every single platform creates its own talent that are uniquely situated for it. And that’s why you see on cameo, someone like Gilbert Gottfried, for example, or Michael Rapaport they’re not the most famous people on the platform, but they might be the best at delivering on the value prop that Cameo uniquely gives. And if their content and their videos are ultimately better, that trumps how famous they are in comparison to other people, and that enables them to do better. One other general thesis I have about why now for Cameo, I believe that today there are more famous people on earth than there’s ever been at any point in history. And secondly, I believe that fame is more enduring and lasting than ever before because of social media.

26:00

Steven Galanis:
Imagine you’re a one hit wonder in 2020, you may have the biggest song in the world like little Nozstock stayed last year with old town road. And you may develop 20, 30 million followers on social media. And those people are going to stick with you no matter what, you don’t unfollow people on social. So going forward, these people now have a platform that they can monetize off for the rest of their life, where you and I were kids, like who knows what happened to Jumbo Womba, but their song was every bit as big as old town road here 20, 30 years ago, but now nobody knows where they are. So I think that’s a huge point in one of our thesis is about Cameo, is that there are, we believe there’s 2.5 million people in the world today that could charge for Cameos to be talent.

And we believe that number will double in the next five years, as TikTok and SoundCloud and YouTube and all these new platforms keep churning out new, emerging talent. I also think, with every Netflix show, we see new stars so far this year, the most booked people on Cameo have been people like Jerry Harris from Cheers or the cast of the Tiger King.

Jasmine Bina:
Wow.

Steven Galanis:
These people literally out of nowhere are doing better on Cameo than people that have been famous for 20 years. So, that’s another aspect I think of the culture that really gave rise to Cameo.

27:31

Jasmine Bina:
That’s super interesting. And then you’re talking about these other platforms where talent is developed and in non-traditional ways, it’s not like the usual path to becoming famous or a celebrity. Can you see a future where Cameo might be the platform where people kind of start to develop their fame and grow through that kind of relationship instead of through social and content?

Steven Galanis:
I think it’s certainly possible. But the thing that I think is really interesting about our positioning is that we kind of today, like we let people get famous in whatever capacity it is, whether that’s from YouTube or Netflix or SoundCloud or Instagram, but ultimately we are the place that everybody can go to engage with their fans at a one-to-one basis and monetize their social in a brand positive way. So I really like that positioning for us. Would it be very cool if the next Justin Bieber emerged on Cameo versus YouTube? Like yes, of course. I think that we’re constantly thinking about ways to help promote, especially the long tail of talent and figure out how to take some of the people that are making the best videos in the world that might be unknown. Like how do we surface those folks better? But for right now, I think our place in being the best place in the world to connect directly with your fans, I believe that’s a really strong position to be into. And we’re happy to fill that role.

Jasmine Bina:
So on the user side, as we get closer to our cultural heroes and leaders and celebrities and whoever as fans and platforms like Cameo, give us such intimate one-to-one connections and actual like, yeah. Well, they’re kind of two way conversations because you put in a request and you get an answer back. Is this sustainable? Like what’s going to happen? Like what comes after this?

29:27

Steven Galanis:
Yeah, that’s a great question. From our perspective, we believe it’s really diving even deeper into that back and forth and facilitating two-way conversations. The next product that we’re launching is called Cameo Direct. And in that product you’ll be able to direct message anyone on the platform and start a texting conversation back and forth with them, which I think goes to your point of making Cameo something more accessible for somebody to do to themselves. But B it actually helps deepen the relationship and makes the use cases for giving a Cameo or engaging with the platform. It opens it up infinitely and then suddenly you could see texting for advice or asking a recommendation for something or micro coaching or mentorship. And I’m really excited about the early data that we’ve seen in our beta test of that product. And I think it has the potential to completely transform what we’re doing.

30:34

Jasmine Bina:
I did want to ask you what would be your prediction for the future of social, like let’s say in 10 years, social or celebrity culture, what’s your craziest prediction that none of us see coming, if you had to just throw one out there?

Steven Galanis:
I think the craziest prediction I have is that you’re going to see the rise of avatars and things like little Mikayla. So I believe that the celebrities of tomorrow may not even be human or living, but they may be computer generated or they may be, you know, things like characters in fortnite, for example. So that I think is pretty crazy. But in the interim I do believe that the pure amount of fame in the world is increasing. I have really strong convictions about that and I believe that will happen, but I just saw a little Mikayla got signed by believe CAA this week. And this is the first time that I know of that a non-human has been signed by a major Hollywood talent agency. And I think you will start to see more fast followers and more things like that. So that’s probably my crazy prediction.

31:47

Jasmine Bina:
And I’m guessing you would want your own Cameo.

Steven Galanis:
For sure. And animation like look my co-founder Martin has twin six year old daughters. So ever since we started the platform, he was always like, man, if we could get The Smurfs or we could get My Little Pony I’m here, but the Disney Princess is my daughters, Sabrina and Sabana would absolutely go nuts. So we’ve always thought about that. And we’ve had some really interesting discussions with different studios about how to do it. But as of now, the technology to create personalized versus stock animations is pretty laborious right now. And it’s not quite there, but I do believe that it will eventually be there. And I don’t see there would be any reason why every Disney Princess couldn’t be on Cameo in the future.

Gilbert Gottfried:
Hi, this is Gilbert Gottfried. This is Frank Laura, and it’s being sent by Jeff. Now, Jeff says he forgot to send you a thank you God for christmas. How the hell you forget a thing like that. How difficult is that to remember? Anyway he claimed she forgot it, which means she cheated.

33:18

Jasmine Bina:
The nature of celebrity has changed over the past 10 years. But even before the internet, celebrity was starting to change was normal people becoming stars on reality TV or talk shows or game shows, obviously as time has moved on. And with the proliferation of social media platforms, we’ve all become a lot more engaged in fan culture. And not too long ago, the influencer was born, a new kind of celebrity that’s starting to change the rules. We feel remarkably close to these people. There’s something happening here culturally. And it starts with our relationships. Cameo has captured an emotional layer in celebrity culture that is really resonating right now, but to understand why this is happening, we need to understand how celebrity fan relationships operate. Sociologists call these parasocial relationships and chances are you’re in a pair of social relationship right now.

Chris Rojek:
Parasocial relationship isn’t on-screen or online relationship with someone who you are not interacting with face-to-face. So the whole thing is conducted by social media now, but also a parasocial relationship would refer to the kind of relationship you have with people on television, people in film, people that you’ll never meet, but with whom you develop strong attachments in many cases.

Jasmine Bina:
This is professor Chris Rojek. He’s a sociologist who has written extensively about celebrity culture, its evolution, and how it sets certain norms for our interactions and behaviors. His most recent book, Lifestyle Gurus, co-authored with Stephanie A. Baker is about how authority and influence are achieved online. In 2015, he published Presumed Intimacy where he discusses media power structures, the impact of relationships of presumed intimacy with our celebrities and of course parasocial relationships. I talked to Chris about my own parasocial relationship with the TV show, The Office, I’ve watched every episode of The Office multiple times.

35:15

Jasmine Bina:
I know the plot points in every episode and even though I don’t really laugh at the jokes anymore, I might throw the show on in the background if I’m anxious or bored, because it feels familiar. I feel like I’m in the office with my friends. It’s easy and it’s safe. And I can relax with people or characters that I know personally and intimately, according to Chris, this is a classic pair of social relationship. And it’s a trick of the mind.

Chris Rojek:
What you’re describing is actually self deception. You are thinking you are with friends and everybody is thinking in the same way as you are, but you don’t know that since you can’t see the audience. So it’s a kind of confidence trick that brings you into a term I’ve used elsewhere into a relationship of presumed intimacy. Usually when you get to know someone, you develop intimacy as a result of trial and error, but presumed intimacy is automatic and it comes from on-screen, online trust relations that you formulate with figures that you like.

Jasmine Bina:
That’s interesting. And is there a biological predisposition to this? I mean, this is such a universal thing that people experience, like why do we form these pair of social relationships?

36:25

Chris Rojek:
Well, the answer to that really is not so much biological, but social. If you look at societies, when they move from the struggle for survival, they get involved in a struggle for acceptance and approval. Once the survival question’s been handled, once we’ve got enough food, we’ll have accommodation and so on, we become much more concerned with the kind of impact we have on people and the kind of impact they have on us. So this whole celebrity culture relates to changes in the personality structure of Westerners.

Jasmine Bina:
And then what’s led to the rise of this. I mean, I think it’s fair to say that parasocial relationships, what we’re describing here is probably flourished generation after generation as more and more media becomes a part of our lives. Over the last generation specifically, have there been events or developments or technologies that you think have really led to where we are now?

37:22

Chris Rojek:

To answer that I have to wind back a little bit because parasocial relationships are very, very contemporary. The people who develop the concept we called Horton and Wall to Americans and our paper published in 1956. And what struck them was the rise of television that hadn’t been there before you had best television in the States. And suddenly you were getting ordinary people falling in love with weather girls or newsreaders and following whatever the weather goal did. And then the magazines and newspapers reinforce that by having interviews with the weatherman and the weather girl. And so you began to feel, you knew about their private lives and began to feel you’re immersing yourself in a friendship relationship with them.

38:10

Although, as you said before, parasocial relationships are largely one-sided you, you don’t really have much power to impact the onscreen or online presence. But in addition to what I’ve said, in order to clarify your question, we have to make a distinction about different types of celebrity. And there are three types. The first is a scribed celebrity. These are people born into fame. People like the queen in this country, Prince William, anybody who acquires social prestige through bloodline, they were pretty dominant until the 1800s, 1900s when democracy and industrialization took off. And they were kind of elbowed out to a certain degree by achieved celebrities.

These are the dominant type and achieved celebrities, a movie star, sports idol, a pop star, or somebody who’s achieved fame as a result of their talents and accomplishments. The third type is called sally toyed. And a sally toyed is someone who is famous for short periods of time and then is entirely forgotten. And these are becoming far more plentiful in society, mainly because the TV and social media outlets revolve around them. They want to find people who are sort of interesting for a few days. Then they’re dropped and people then move on to the next sally toyed. People think of celebrity as if it’s just all the same, but actually it’s quite important to make those distinctions.

39:48

And just to give you some sense of the dynamic involved here, Princess Diana was to begin with an ascribed celebrity. That is to say she was an aristocrat, who married the future King of England, but it was only when she went on television and talked about three people being in this marriage, that she became a supernova celebrity, somebody that everybody was talking about. She achieved celebrity because she was going through something as a woman, a married woman, that many married women go through and, you know cheating, adultery, these kinds of things. So in trying to understand her popularity, we have to use two lines of thought. One is that she was born into fame, but in showing her vulnerability to the world audience, she actually magnified that original fame.

40:40

Jasmine Bina:
What you’re describing here is something that, correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve also talked about micro-celebrities as well, which I think are subcategory of sally toyed.

Chris Rojek:
Again, let me rewind it and try and focus it in context. In the 1960s, there was something that academics talked about, which was the nod count. The nod count was the number of people you are on nodding terms with, but who you never really talked to. So there are people that you notice on your local railway station in the mornings, when you catch the train, they may be the guy you buy your coffee from. You’re aware of them but you don’t really formulate relationships with them. In the ’60s though, most people were thought to have about a hundred of those kinds of relationships. With social media we now have those kinds of relationships in the thousands because we’re following lives online.

Following lives on blog sites with people who we never really interact with, but who we are very, very informed with. It’s a huge paradox that when we meet a celebrity, we know a lot about their private life automatically as a result of following them, that’s quite different from me meeting you. If I met you, we’d have to get to know each other, but with a celebrity the being is known before the encounter to kind of strange dynamic.

41:57

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah. And you’ve described, this self-disclosure as a product, the idea of disclosing parts of your personal life like that helps you in some ways acquire attention capitalism as you described it. I feel like we can see that with our Instagram influencers today, but you have to remember that even somebody like Princess Diana, like she did disclose parts of her personal life. And that was how she managed her celebrity I guess you could say in some ways.

Chris Rojek:
She didn’t just disclose. She manipulated the media to get her own way. I mean, she was an abused woman in the relationship, but she knew what she was doing with those interviews with Martin Bashir, she was creating space where people would identify with her, in her plight. You asked about micro-celebrity that is slightly different for solitude in that. A micro-celebrity is someone who builds up a blogging site and has many, many followers. And there are now thousands of these sites available. Last year I was teaching a course and I asked an Italian student about micro-celebrity. And he said, “In Italy, I am a micro-celebrity.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “I have 55,000 followers.” And I say said to him, “Well, what do you talk about? What do you do?” And he said, “Nothing. I woke up, I went to the lecture. It was a nice day.” But he says he has 55,000 people following them.

Now there are more and more and more of these micro-celebrities. And they are known in the literature as social media influences. That is to say, they’re not just friends, but they shape opinions and they can also shape buying habits. Belle Gibson is an Australian who created a site in the last 10 years called The Whole Pantry. And that was the site giving recipes and advice for people who were suffering from cancer. She claimed that she had suffered from cancer. And in following the dietary advice that she was giving to others on site, she’d cured herself. She got many, many followers, hundreds of thousands. And she also signed a book deal with Penguin for a cook book called Cooled The Whole Pantry. She became Australian cosmopolitan woman of the year.

44:16

And then it was discovered that she’d lied from start to finish. She’d never had any kind of cancer. She’d never been to a hospital. She just made it all up. You may say so what, the real issue here is that many of the followers who followed her, I now dead because one of the things she was advising people to do is not to take chemotherapy, not to take radiotherapy, just to use whole food solutions to their plight. Now, this kind of advice is fairly unregulated. I mean, she prospered for quite a few years, but it’s also lethal. And micro-celebrity particularly in the area of health, but also in the area of how to get a job, how to find a partner, how to look cool? Micro-celebrities can have huge opinion formation influence without much accountability.

Jasmine Bina:
Yeah. There was something you had written about that really drove this point home for me because lifestyle influencers in the US are a huge force right now. And a lot of millennials and Gen Z consumers, I don’t want to over-generalize, but I think a lot of people do get their lifestyle and health cues from these kinds of influencers. And you said something that was so interesting. You said they rise to fame in a culture that continues to associate heroism with overcoming pain and suffering. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Chris Rojek:
Yeah. Many of these micro-celebrity sites are set up in the same way. The person who is running the site presents themselves as somebody who’s overcome a hurdle, it may be health. It may be a bankruptcy. It may be some life problem that they’ve got to grips with. And in doing that, they have solved the problem. And that’s really the basis for their authority. That’s why people listen to them.

46:11

Jasmine Bina:
I even think you described that this can happen even after a star has had a misstep or fallen with the pair of confessional, as you describe it. And I think Belle Gibson even did that. When she apologized and she disclosed, she tried to explain why she had lied about these things. She captivated our attention again.

Chris Rojek:
Yeah. I mean the classic case is Tiger Woods David Letterman, both of whom had committed adultery. Tiger Woods lied about it to begin with and pretended it hadn’t happened. And therefore, when he had to come clean and admit that he had committed serial adultery, the public never really forgave him. David Letterman was in the same position, but what he did was immediately go on Prime Time television and say he was being blackmailed because of his adultery. And he confessed on live to the audience that this has happened. So celebrities who are kind of honest and straight, get a lot more purchasing power with their fans than those that try and pull the wool over their eyes.

Jasmine Bina:
Is there something positive here in kind of seeing these people for who they actually are people with flaws and accepting them for them?

47:17

Chris Rojek:
Yeah. I think it’s quite hard to generalize about celebrities because an individual celebrity may influence people in very positive ways. They’re not all bad influences. Celebrities present perfection, but the problem with that, is that perfection does not exist. It’s always manufactured. People are always straining to give a particular impression which cannot be actually sustained. So people sometimes say to me, when we reached this point in the discussion, will we get beyond celebrity? Well, we won’t. And the reason for that is quite apart from the things we’ve spoken about already, celebrities I like to think of as primarily informal life coaches, that is to say, they give tips about how to look good. What the right things to say are, how to hold your body. This is important because seven out of 10 jobs in America and Europe are in the service sector. They’re people skills, jobs, communication, information, knowledge, retailing, the people who have the best people skills are celebrities.

That’s why they’re paid so much. And they play an important part in present day life in giving people hints about how to behave. I’m not suggesting that they do this by design. I’m just saying that by presenting themselves as successful individuals, people pick up on what has made those individuals successful. The second reason why I think celebrity will not disappear is, celebrities give us two things. First of all, they give us a scapeism. We can get away from the monotony of our lives by following a celebrity of our choice. But perhaps more importantly, they give us at a time when religion, at least organized religion is in decline.

They give us a sense of transcendence, a bigger personality, a bigger story than our life scripts, the life scripts that we lead. So celebrities in that sense provide an important sense of grounding for individuals. You can follow, if you’re interested in Tom Hanks, you don’t have to contact on that. She may not know how to contact him, but you can find out what he’s doing on a daily basis simply by looking at the internet. You can develop a relationship with him over time, which is one of presumed intimacy, one of closeness.

49:45

Jasmine Bina:
Do you ever indulge in any parasocial relationships yourself? I mean, we’re all human. I know you study this stuff day in and day out and it’s been your life’s work, but I mean, do you have any parasocial relationships or interactions?

Chris Rojek:
I think I have a parasocial relationship with Donald Trump. I follow whatever he is saying when it comes out and shake my head in wonder. You can’t avoid parasocial relationships because they’re the relationships of our time. We are relating to individuals that we don’t know on a kind of minute by minute basis. When we look at the internet, we’re finding out about people who are famous and we’re following stories about them and those stories into law with certain aspects of our own life. So you might as well stop eating in terms of trying to stop being influenced by our social relationships. They are ubiquitous.

50:49

Jasmine Bina:
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Unseen, Unknown. We hope you enjoyed it. And the other episodes we’ve published so far, we feel really passionate about helping you understand business through culture. And if you like what you’re listening to, please leave us a review or give us a shout out. We’d love to connect. And if you want more brand strategy insights, we have a newsletter where we share our writing, our conversations, videos, events, and you can subscribe by going to our website, conceptbureau.com and clicking on the insights tab. We’ll talk to you next time.

 

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