By: Zach Freshwater
Have you seen the Lady Gaga Google Chrome commercial?
If you haven’t, go watch it. Like most Chrome commercials, it’s polished and inspiring. It shows Gaga jogging around New York and tweeting her fans into action. She comes across as a powerful twitter-demi-god that can rally supporters and pushpeople to embrace their individuality. As she types a few words into her 140 character tweeting space, she sets off a tidal wave of fan activity and activism in the ad.
It’s inspiring. But is it true?
Are celebrities really powerhouses of activism and mobilization? Can they replace what David Karpf describes as the MoveOn standard that has canonized online activism?
My answer is twofold. Yes, celebrities are Twitter muscle-machines. They have massive immediate access to people all over the world. But that access is limited and fleeting. Celebrity Twitter accounts are too disorganized and unfocused to supplant the MoveOn model. Tweeters like Lady Gaga who have a message or embrace a cause will not likely replace the current online activism model. They may be powerful, but they’re not revolutionary to the activist network. They’re at most additions or tools to activist groups.
An article by Lucy Bennett from the journal of Transformative Works and Cultures examines celebrity activism and argues that celebrities are postured as transformative and powerful activists. The article, titled “Fan Activism for Social Mobilization”, points to the projected intimacy of Twitter and its direct access to fans as the greatest asset for celebrity activism.
Bennett argues that on Twitter, celebrities are able to engage with fans in real time and purport a feeling of intimacy as they tweet. Fans feel as if they’re directly involved in the celebrity’s life, and when someone like Lady Gaga sends out a tweet urging fans to donate to a cause or rally behind a figure, they will do so because of this projected intimacy. Even though the celebrity is often hundreds or thousands of miles away, fans will respond and support to activism tweets because they’re able to feel like they’re a part of that celebrity’s life or fandom. According to Bennett, the projected interactivity and intimacy are a major draw for fan engagement and consequently, successful activism for the celebrity.
The second activist advantage Bennett draws on is the sheer number of people they’re able to reach in a single tweet. When someone like Lady Gaga sends out a tweet urging followers to donate to a cause, millions of people will see it. Currently, she has over 36 million followers. That is an enormous amount of people. An amount of people that many organizations like MoveOn aren’t able to reach. Bennett uses this as the main claim for the celebrities’ activist clout. And in many, if not most cases, it’s pretty successful. Without even getting out of bed, celebrities can call for an organization of their choosing to receive funding or massive publicity. In 2011, Donnie Wahlberg used Twitter to account to find a kidney donor for a man in dire need of a transplant. Kim Kardashian, though often criticized for her corporatist Twitter habits, raised awareness and funding for victims of the Armenian genocide.
Examples like these undoubtedly show the power of a celebrity’s tweets, but I don’t think they are by any means a replacement for the MoveOn model. Yes, celebrities have resources and followers to inspire action, but they do not have the structural and organizational functions of an actual advocacy organization.
As Karpf details in The MoveOn Effect, MoveOn follows a precise organizational structure. Though they don’t have an actual office, the permanent staff is incredibly focused and self directed. They spend their entire workday formulating campaigns, testing email responsiveness, and producing the innovations needed for successful advocacy. This is their main advantage. They are always focused on advocacy and activism.
Celebrity Twitter activists are only activists part time. Even if someone like Lady Gaga focused all of her tweets on promoting a specific cause, she wouldn’t have structure and organizational support of a real group like MoveOn. And more importantly, she would primarily be an addition to that organization, not a replacement.
I think this is the only real change that celebrity Twitter activism may lead to- an increased usage of celebrity Twitter accounts within organizations. For as Bennett explains, they do have enormous resources. Millions of followers means more potential for awareness for organizations who use celebrities.
Following this line, celebrities have the potential to become useful tools for activist groups, but they stand no real threat to the groups themselves. Lady Gaga’s Twitter muscles may be impressive, but she doesn’t reasonably challenge the MoveOn model.