Celebrities, twitter and “meltdowns”

The fact that celebrities’ public images have long been heavily managed by agencies or PR specialists is not a novel observation. This is still the case, of course. Interviews and late night tv appearances are important tools for shaping public perception, which is vital currency for celebrities. Social media, however, has given celebrities a media platform that they can control, and which often allows them to bypass more traditional channels in favor of ones that they direct.

John Herrman, writing in the culture blog The Awl, describes the increasing tendency for celebrities and other public figures to bypass the media when broadcasting updates, messages or photos, especially when these public figures have access to a social media account whose follower count surpasses the circulation of traditional media outlets. It makes sense: they get to control every aspect of their messaging along with how and when it’s broadcast, and a higher percentage of their follower count, compared to subscribers of, say, people are committed fans of theirs who care about updates in their lives.

Public figures, of course, aren’t always masters of public relations. As Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger observe in vanity fair, celebrities’ access to a platform over which they have total control can actually make their grip on their public perception more tenuous. “No one knows better how to position a statement than a P.R. person, and when you choose to bypass them, you may lose in control what you gain in authenticity,” they write.

During tumultuous episodes in celebrities’ lives — like periods of deterioration in their mental health — it would make sense that spinning a favorable public relations narrative that maintains their privacy and retains their value as a marketable star would be vital but difficult nevertheless. I assume the difficulty increases significantly when the celebrities themselves have access to the means of broadcasting to hundreds of thousands of people. Not only can they push out tweets or photos that the public may perceive as “crazy” or “unstable,” the instantaneous reactions that tweets and instagram posts allow can create a feedback loop of commentary on celebrities’ mental health that, in turn, can deteriorate their mental health.

A case study for this is Amanda Bynes, whose “breakdown” progressed on her twitter feed for all to see between 2012 and 2015. In a summary article about the actress’ struggles with mental health problems, Andrew Gruttarado writes for Complex that “her breakdown was the first that occurred almost entirely in the public eye, with updates coming on a minute to minute basis… The actress’ struggles, in no part helped by the fact that she wasn’t working, were a tiny snowball at the top of a mountain, and with every snicker and decision to funnel uncomfortable concern into a funny list about her “craziest tweets,” it grew bigger and raced down the slope at an unstoppable velocity.”

Social media can give public figures direct control over what they send out, but not how it’s perceived. In a culture that is only just beginning to deal with mental health in a more empathetic way, celebrities have surely considered the question of whether it’s prudent to use social media during times of mental turmoil. Perhaps the best strategy is to do what Kim Kardashian did after being the victim of a traumatizing robbery last October, and take a few months off.

-JT

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