Since the rise of YouTube a decade ago, we have seen the emergence and social integration of viral videos. These videos are defined as those that become popular --generally, reaching at least a million views-- through a rapidly spreading process of online sharing. Today, there is a cultural obsession with viral videos and their origins. Companies want to know the most effective way to make their advertisements go viral and aspiring comedians/actors/Kim Kardashians want to know the best way to become famous. Scholars have pointed to a variety of factors which contribute to a video's potential for virality, including the ability to parody it, its unexpectedness, and the popularity of people who share it (Allocca). The first two factors are obviously content-based; its easy to understand how to make a video that will follow these standards. Making a video with high shock value that could potentially inspire community interaction, however, is not enough to ensure a video's popularity. There are simply too many videos that follow this pattern. Thus, a would-be viral video is often dependent on whether a popular figure decides to share it, enabling that video to stand out. Celebrities, then, have the power to significantly shape the YouTube community, making it much less of a democratic space than was originally imagined.
YouTube, an easily accessible video-sharing platform, has been heralded as a democratic platform that allows for everyone to have their voices heard via user-moderation. Scholars began predicting this shift toward "do-it-yourself" online media as early as the 1990s as video recorders and Internet connectivity started to reach the hands of the average citizen (Jenkins). Gareth Branwyn prophesized that the public's ability to easily create media would lead to a "global newsroom and cultural salon blurring the distinction between publisher, reporter, and reader" (14).
Essentially, anyone could create a home movie that could reach a large number of people. These early scholars generally believed that this ability would lead to a diversification of media, with minority populations free and encouraged to share their opinions (Zimmerman). Henry Jenkins argues, however, that YouTube's massive platform has an ironic result opposite its democratic intentions; the overwhelming plenitude of media has the polarizing effect of only making the most popular videos visible (124-25). Though there is plenty of media from minority populations (where the term minority encompasses not solely skin color, but includes niche subcultures with non-mainstream views), these videos rarely reach a vast number of people. More often, only videos that fall under "dominant taste and interests" will have the potential to reach viral status and be widely viewed (Jenkins 124). Thus, the very basis of virality reveals its inherent anti-democratic ability to suppress minority views exacerbated by the fact that popular figures with high cultural influence heavily affect which videos become viral.
How is it that this small subgroup of celebrities can wield such power? Grant McCracken, an expert in the field of celebrity endorsement, discusses the societal rationale behind celebrities' clout in his article in The Journal of Consumer Research. In his argument, "celebrity" is defined as someone who "enjoys public recognition" such as Hollywood stars, athletes, politicians, or business figures (310). McCracken points out that these "celebrities offer a range of personality and lifestyle meanings" that someone without high cultural visibility could never offer with such precision (315). In the advertising world, celebrities can provide special meaning to a product that an everyday, anonymous model could not. Companies often exploit the specific characteristics attributed to a celebrity, and use them to infuse their product with that quality. For example, in 2013 Dove (also known as Galaxy) launched an ad intended specifically to "communicate its 'silk, not cotton' branding" according to Mike McGee in "How We Resurrected Audrey Hepburn for the Galaxy Chocolate Ad" from The Guardian. The company determined that the best way to do that was through the endorsement of a celebrity who, according to McGee, represented "heritage, classiness, and elegance": a young Audrey Hepburn. Dove went to enormous lengths and costs to make a CGI recreation of the deceased Hepburn, all so that its product would be imbued with the qualities she is commonly known for. McCracken, too, cites this commercial as a perfect example of how corporations purposely use the well-known characteristics of a celebrity to add meaning to their product.
Other scholars, however, argue on a more basic level that the main reason for the success of celebrity endorsements lies in a combination of the celebrity’s attractiveness and credibility. There are two paradigms that support this claim: the McGuire model and the Hovland model. The former, also referred to as the source attractiveness model, maintains that a message’s effectiveness depends on the physical attractiveness, familiarity, and similarity of the source to the audience (McGuire 262-69). The latter model, also known as the source credibility model, argues that a message’s effectiveness depends on the trustworthiness and respectability of the source as perceived by the audience (Hovland and Weiss 625-50). Both of these models are well substantiated and offer a reasonable explanation for celebrities’ powerful influence. Those popular figures who appeal to and are respected by the majority of society are those who people listen to. For example, soccer superstar David Beckham is world-renowned for his talent, humble roots, and attractiveness. Recognizing Beckham as a widely respected celebrity, many companies have hired Beckham to endorse their product. In fact, he has made over $40 million from endorsements alone, and has thus been named one of Forbes’ Most Powerful Celebrities (“David Beckham: Celebrity Profile”). Very few of the companies Beckham endorses are athletic-based. Though this may be surprising when considering McCracken’s theory, it is perfectly rational when approached from the McGuire and/or Hovland model. The celebrity need not be directly related to the product in any way. Rather, the mere fact that someone admired and respected endorses a product makes it more likely to sell.
We can apply this advertising principal, along with the Hovland model, to explain how celebrities’ words and actions are so influential, especially via social media. When an admired popular figure calls attention on social media to something—whether it be a social issue, a favorite type of food, or a YouTube video they enjoyed—it elicits interest in that topic. The public will begin to care and discuss that topic, simply because they believe someone they value cares about it. Searches on the topic, the popularity of their hashtag, or hits on a linked site increase rapidly. Celebrities who are well-liked, tend to share their views, and frequently interact with the public through various media channels often reach the cultural status of “tastemakers.” A tastemaker is defined as someone whose opinions are well-respected, and who takes advantage of their unique ability to shape public perception on a variety of topics (Miller 131-35). As we have seen, tastemakers are regularly paid millions to intentionally endorse a certain product. However, tastemakers can, and frequently do, generate trends and discussions without any monetary motivation.
Celebrities can create these trends completely inadvertently; viral videos are often spawned from a tastemaker merely attempting to share a video that made them laugh. Take, for example, the viral video “Double Rainbow” (Yosemitebear62). This video was published on January 8, 2010. For months, “Double Rainbow” had fewer than 100 views on YouTube. Yet, as of today, the video has over 40 million views, approximately 500,000 of which occurred on one day (Allocca). So, what was it that caused this exponential increase in views? On July 2, 2010, Jimmy Kimmel tweeted a link to the YouTube video. In a matter of hours, the video went viral. Instantly, a community of people sharing this quasi-inside joke was formed, collectively laughing at the video’s ludicrousness. News stations quickly picked up the video, interviewing the publisher Paul Vasquez in an attempt to appeal to the increasingly social media-obsessed public (“Double Rainbow Man Speaks”). Tosh.0, a Comedy Central television program centered on Internet viral videos, joined in, bringing Vasquez on the show (Tosh). In the two weeks after Jimmy Kimmel’s tweet, almost every American who consumed mass media had encountered the video at least once. There were hundreds of remixes available on YouTube, and “Double Rainbow” had reached nearly 5 million views (Brown). Kimmel didn’t tweet the link with the intention of making Paul Vasquez and his video popular. He didn’t sit down and contemplate the best way to set a cultural trend. He was merely sharing something that he thought was funny, and that his followers may appreciate as well. Thus, Jimmy Kimmel, acting as a tastemaker, was able to substantially, though not necessarily intentionally, affect the YouTube community in 140 characters or less.
Still, tastemakers do, however, understand the enormous power that they have on social media; though some celebrities merely want to share their opinions, there is reason to believe that most celebrities have some kind of incentive behind their posts and tweets. As a case study, observe popular musical artist Taylor Swift’s recent Twitter activity. Over the past year, Swift has tweeted the link to 13 different YouTube videos that in some way relate to her music. There is variety in these videos; some feature children’s funny/adorable reactions to Taylor’s music, some are ridiculous lip syncs to her songs, and some are covers of her new album (Swift). Each of these tweets, as could be expected, resulted in a huge spike in the viewership of the linked YouTube videos on that given day, similar to the trend for “Double Rainbow.” In contrast to Jimmy Kimmel’s tweet, however, it can be speculated that Swift tweeted these links—those to the cover videos, which demonstrate talent—with the intention of increasing the popularity of that fan. Swift has been known for trying to give back to her fans, and this appears to be one way that she accomplishes it. The artist’s most culturally significant tweet was one about Louisa Wendorff’s cover “Blank Space // Style” approximately four days after the video was published. Swift’s tweet rocketed the video, along with Wendorff, to viral stardom. As of today, the video has over 22 million views on YouTube (Wendorff). It’s unlikely that Swift was merely sharing a video she enjoyed. More likely, she wanted to help a fan gain the popularity and exposure that Swift believed she deserved. Tastemakers such as Taylor Swift do have the unilateral power to deliberately shape what the public has easy access to via the popular page of YouTube.
If one of the foremost factors influencing the virality of a video is whether a celebrity shares the link or not, this indicates that popular figures are largely to credit for what’s popular on YouTube. When we apply Henry Jenkins’ argument about the lack of diversity in YouTube’s most viewed/subscribed videos and channels then, it is implied that celebrities are somehow incorporated in the suppression of non-mainstream subcultures on YouTube. Of course, there is little evidence to indicate that this is the intent of tastemakers. They are simply people, after all, attempting to share things they like, don’t like, or find funny with their followers. Based on Jenkins’s evidence, however, it follows that these tastemakers generally have views and perspectives that lie within the dominant cultural tastes and interests. Why is it that celebrities do not often hold minority opinions? For one thing, people who maintain minority perspectives are often disliked by the masses and heavily criticized by the media. Tom Cruise, for example, was nearly pushed out of Hollywood in 2006 when he began strongly advocating for Scientology. Cruise’s popularity plummeted, and his career was mainly salvaged by following his publicist’s urging to suppress his unconventional views (“Q Scores”; “Paramount”). Confirming the McGuire model, this example shows that the public feels more comfortable watching films starring more “relatable” characters. But who makes up “the public” that these characters are relating to? Even the most basic analysis of the cultural composition of celebrities reveals that Hollywood appeals to, or is directed toward, white Americans with traditional views, indicated by the manifestation of these ideals in the majority of celebrities.
Hollywood’s profit-driven single-mindedness, whereby pleasing the majority is the prime objective, marginalizes minority audiences—which has always been the case. The new era of social media, governed by the users and thus ideally democratic, could have been Hollywood’s antithesis. The growth of social media instead saw the growth in the power of celebrities, and the trend of majority domination has invaded social media spheres. Though the platform has changed, the pattern of minority oppression hasn’t. We will see a shift in minority representation via YouTube and all social media only when there is first a large-scale cultural shift toward acceptance of minority opinion.
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