Interacting with Online Public Figures: A Double-Edged Sword
It’s very rare nowadays to meet somebody who doesn’t have an online presence.
With social media, it’s easier now than it used to be to keep track of what people are up to. You can share pictures from a vacation, tell your friends about the newest TV show you’ve been watching, update your likes and dislikes, and connect with anyone from anywhere at any time. You can find out information almost immediately, for better or for worse.
As the general public relies very heavily on social media, it’s no surprise that public figures have come to rely on it as well. From singers, actors, athletes, reporters and even government members, many have created verified accounts to connect with the public and share their accomplishments or news updates. In many instances this is in the form of a status like a tweet on Twitter or a picture on Instagram. Granted, not all that they share is necessarily good, truthful, or even age-appropriate, but social media has made it easier for public figures to reach more of a bigger audience than ever before.
There’s no denying that it’s exciting when someone you’re a fan of acknowledges something you’ve said about them on an online platform. Seeing that a celebrity may have followed you on Instagram or liked a tweet that you’ve tagged them in can feel like a big deal. It sometimes almost feels like a school crush – an exhilarating feeling of having that person you like knowing you exist. Positive interactions between public figures and fans are generally lauded by others watching the interactions, as it provides examples of why people like the celebrity in the first place. As you get to see more and more of what a public figure puts out online, it almost feels like you know them personally, like they’re an acquaintance of sorts. On some social media, you can even set an alert on your phone so that you get a notification when they’ve posted something new.
But with this, there is somewhat of a darker side to social media interactions between fans and celebrities. Talking about this subject is rather tricky and feels a bit like taking a blindfolded swing at a hornets’ nest. I am not intending to make this into a conversation about “cancel culture” either. What the main discussion point here is appropriate conduct and actions – that of both the public figure and the public audience.
Let’s use the video-sharing website YouTube as an example here. Many people subscribe to content creators because they like the work they produce – it’s a place to escape from the real world and find comfort. Perhaps it’s a channel where you watch someone play video games. It could be a channel of a vlogger who talks about their everyday life and the antics they get up to. Many singers or bands have personal channels where they showcase their music. Film buffs praise or critique the world of cinema on their channels. The variations go on and on.
But here comes the uncomfortable question: how much of what their fans see them do on camera is true to how the public figures are in real life? How much do we really know about someone we admire from afar?
Rooster Teeth, an online production company famous for gaming videos and web series like Red vs. Blue and RWBY, fell under some controversy in 2020 when a couple of employees left due to
unsavory behavior. One of these employees, Ryan Haywood, was accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with fans, some of whom were underage. Leaked messages and photos confirmed numerous accusations, and other employees quickly condemned and denounced their former coworker. It certainly came as a blow to the fanbase – Haywood was one of the viewers’ favorites and a big part of the company and community. There was a sting in thinking about how someone who was part of something that brought joy and happiness to fans worldwide turned out to be so awful. It left a sour taste in the mouth of many and left them questioning if they could ever watch anything again from Rooster Teeth.
In this instance, we can see that this celebrity took advantage of adoring fans and exploited that love they had for him. Haywood, who happened to be married with children, thought it would be a great idea to message people who found comfort in his work and flirt aggressively with them. Again, being noticed by someone you admire is certainly a flattering feeling. But what this man did was abuse his status. He preyed on and manipulated people who adored him, often meeting up with them for sexual encounters.
I want to ask the question: “What possesses a successful, wealthy, happily-married father to flirt with and have affairs with his very young fans?” But I feel that I know why already. It’s not just about sex in this case. It’s about him wanting to exert the power he has as a public figure and taking advantage of young people – simply because he can. It’s an ego trip. As one victim described in their accusation, Haywood is a predator.
This is just one example where a celebrity was accused by someone online of using their star power to take advantage of a fan. And while I’m very aware there are both true and false allegations of this sort, it’s certainly troubling each time something comes out.
I am not trying to say that all online celebrities should never again interact with their fans or followers – there’s a reason that so many of them produce the content they do, and that’s to keep a fanbase going. But there are some standards that they should be held to. I’m not talking about petty standards, like how to look on camera or the topics to cover in content, I’m talking about appropriate conduct with the people around them. It may not be the best idea for them to interact online with an underage fan of their work past thanking them for their support. They shouldn’t try to use their status as a celebrity to get things for personal selfish gains, be it sexual or otherwise. They are as human as everyone else. Maybe it does sound preachy, and I’m not expecting absolute perfection from everyone online. But there should be a reasonable expectation for online figures to be held accountable for certain actions taken.
However, the same can be said when the roles are reversed. Many celebrities’ fanbases have made their presence pretty well-known on the Internet. You have Taylor Swift fans calling themselves “Swifties” or fans of Beyoncé in the “BeyHive” – and fans of Korean pop stars (aka K-Pop) celebrate those singers in the genre to a nearly frightening degree. Fan pages or accounts devoted to a celebrity’s every action are common on places like Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr. Artwork and videos revolving around something they did are displayed proudly on fans’ profiles, often with the celebrities tagged in posts. There’s even real-life fanfiction written about celebrities, with authors believing they know how this public figure would act in a fictional scenario.
While the praise from fans to the people they admire is surely well-intentioned in a good number of instances, there are many others where it can get quite uncomfortable. Seeing celebrities sexualized by fans on social media – even tagging them in these instances – is more than a little creepy, bordering on harassment sometimes. Again – do you know these people in real life?
Christina Grimmie was a YouTuber and singer on The Voice who was killed in 2016 by an obsessed fan at a meet-and-greet after a performance. She was just 22 years old. It was alleged that the murderer, who committed suicide directly after shooting Grimmie, had an infatuation with the star and tracked her excessively through her social media. He had even gone so far as to change his look, like getting hair implants and whitening his teeth, just for her. And yet there was no evidence confirming that the two had ever met or talked before. A young woman died due to someone’s dark obsession – it seems that if he couldn’t realistically be with her, then no one could.
Seeing the rare occasion where a fan stalks or obsesses too much over someone is also a little frightening. To put someone, especially a celebrity, on a pedestal is dangerous – to hold them to such high standards is a good thing to do. What will you do if it turns out they’re not the person you imagine them to be? These people may have brought you happiness and comfort, but can we always say we’ve made them happy or comfortable?
After a public figure is accused of doing something bad, there are many variations online of the following fan reaction: “Wow, Celebrity A turned out to be bad. That sucks, but I know Celebrity B wouldn’t ever do anything horrible like that!” And that absolutely needs to stop. How do you know that Celebrity B wouldn’t do anything horrible like that? Unless you know them well personally (and even then!), you have no absolute certainty that they wouldn’t do something awful.
As the fans or audience members, we have to remember that these celebrities and public figures we look up to put on a persona when they’re online. What we see on Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube is probably not who they are in real life. We have no idea what they’re actually like behind closed doors.
For most of us, no one is truly innocent when it comes to talking about that public figure online. I’ve made posts in the past online praising or pining for singers and actors that I know would never give me the time of day (and on the exceedingly rare occasion they notice, I freak out like a fangirl normally would). But the fact remains that whatever you put on the Internet stays there in some form. Even if you delete something, it’s never really gone. Let’s just hope that there wasn’t anything too explicit or inappropriate.
At the end of the day, there’s one rule that both public figures and a public audience should want to abide by: it’s up to all of us to decide who we follow or interact with online. We should all have to be held accountable for our actions.