Celebrity Me (and the secret of TikTok)

This essay is about the transition from Brand You to Celebrity Me. I wrote it ages ago, and as usual, I stuffed it in a drawer and forgot about it. But as Culture camp approaches, I wanted to get it “on the table” so that people can see some of the things we will be talking about there.

Celebrity Me

Instagram images, TikTok performances, the profusion of memes, the outpouring of creativity, the mugging for the camera. Much of the stuff of the internet amounts to performances designed to seek celebrity. What is going on here? Why are people performing? Why are they seeking celebrity?

The Tom Peters precedent

In the late 20th century it was customary to see this sort of thing as a symptom of vanity, exhibitionism, self absorption. Tom Wolfe talked about a “me decade.” Christopher Lasch accused us of narcissism.

But Americans are sometimes vain to a purpose. They “front” to make something of themselves. In a world of intensely competitive individualism, narcissism is an adaptive response.

Tom Peters helped clarify this when he created a movement called “Brand You.” Everyone, he said, is obliged to build their own brand. Vanity? Not at all. Peters could see what Wolfe and Lasch could not. That Americans are obliged to craft themselves as public creatures. His idea “Brand you” idea proved influential. Millions took it to heart.

Celebrity Me

It feels like the playbook is shifting again. Brand You is turning into Celebrity Me. Once mysterious and fetching, “branding” has lost a lot of its charisma. Marketing matters less. Celebrity more.

Celebrities put themselves at the center of our culture by stages. As MIT research shows, it took them most of the 20th century to supplant social elites, politicians, artists, lawyers, CEOs, clergy, academics and intellectuals. But by the end of century, celebrities stood almost unchallenged.

What’s not to like? Celebrities are talented, charismatic, beautiful and, best of all, replaceable. The moment we are done with them, we are so done with them.

Making ourselves in, and out of, popular culture

Peters’ imperative stands. We are, all of us, on our own in the world. A brand or profile improves our chances in every domain of life. Being a brand was good. Being a celebrity, even a minor one, is really good. What we fear is obscurity.

Celebrity Me consumes us. I have done ethnographies with young women who say they can’t really know whether they enjoyed their Saturday night until the next day when they can see how they look in their Instagram “rushes.” Did they look good? Is that their best angle? Is it time to retire that wardrobe?

You might say, “but people always care how they look.” But ‘celebrity me’ takes this to an entirely new level. One of the reasons people are drinking less in public is precisely that they do not want to be captured by a photo that shows them drunk and or drooling. As one of them told me, “A bad shot of me on line. I just can’t afford that. I really can’t.” (Does ‘celebrity me’ matter? Ask the liquor industry as they watch their sales tumble.)

TikTok is clearly the beneficiary of the ‘celebrity me’ trend. Do they grasp the cause of their good fortune? Do they understand that their rise to great heights and big profits was driven by “celebrity me” culture?

You decide. Here’s how TikTok describe itself on the app store.

“TikTok is a global video community. We make it easy for you to watch awesome short videos AND you can also make your own videos by capturing those funny and memorable moments to share with the world. Spice up your videos with our special effects filters, fun stickers, and so much more. Life’s moving fast, so make every second count.”

Imagine the reaction from the people who use TikTok.

Huh? “Funny and memorable moments.” Have you seen my Instagram feed? Do you follow anyone my age? This is not Vaudeville. This is me inventing me…out of culture. This is me building celebrity…out of culture. Thanks for the “fun stickers,” but it’s clear you really don’t get what’s happening in my world…or yours.”

But then capitalism is often clueless when it comes to culture. It is a hard to grasp, conceptualize, create, and turn into value. This means the folks at TikTok are inclined to diminish their fans as kids showing off and carrying on. Ya right. ‘Celebrity me’ is a cultural form driven by deeply serious imperatives.

This is the purpose of Culture Camp, to help us getting better at reading culture and showing how it animates the consumer, the brand, and new opportunities for creative, strategist, designer and marketer.

Come join us! You can sign up here.

I'm an anthropologist & author of Chief Culture Officer. You can reach me at grant27@gmail.com.