Lucy Bennett is the co-founder of the Fan Studies Network. She graduated with a PhD in online fandom at JOMEC, Cardiff University, with a thesis focusing on online R.E.M. fans. Her research examines audiences and their use of the internet, with particular focuses on fandom, music and social media. Lucy’s work has been published in the journals New Media & Society, Transformative Works and Cultures, Participations, Social Semiotics and Continuum. This week, Lucy explores how celebrity activists use social media platforms and how Lady Gaga fans responded.
The use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube by celebrities to communicate with their fan bases is becoming an increasingly widespread practice. Rather than previously having to go through the filters of their management or news media, celebrities can instead now speak directly and immediately to their fans and online followers, seemingly allowing revealing glimpses into their everyday lives, and potentially appearing more within reach than before. Thus, as I am currently exploring in my work, this communicative practice has sharply and strongly begun to complicate some of the processes within celebrity activism and how they attempt to engage fans towards these causes. As I have shown elsewhere (Bennett, 2012), for some celebrities, their skilful use of social media can result in large responses from their online audiences – from Ian Somerhalder’s environmental and animal rights activism, to Misha Collins’ Random Acts initiative. In some of these instances, and as I will go on to describe through the example of Lady Gaga and her activist efforts that engage large amounts of her online fans, these responses can often involve explicit and direct action, rather than simple ‘re-tweets’, or ‘likes’ (which, it could be argued, can still possess a fair degree of importance generally with regard to making people aware of causes).
Lady Gaga has crafted a huge online following and, I would argue, is a timely example of how social media can be used as a tool by modern celebrities in an effort to connect and mobilise their fan base towards activist causes. Gaga has been involved in many activist efforts, most notably in the, eventually successful, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (a law that prevented gay people from serving openly in the military), the combat of bullying and homophobia (her Born this Way Foundation was launched in 2011), the furthering of HIV/AIDS fundraising and awareness, and the maintenance of healthy body images. During the latter half of 2010, and early 2011 I conducted a survey based study exploring how fans of Gaga responded to, and articulated their perceptions of, her calls for direct action and participation surrounding these activist causes. In the journal article produced from this research (Bennett, 2013, forthcoming), I argue that the use of social media platforms by celebrities such as Lady Gaga to communicate seemingly directly with their audiences, and through what could be regarded as a ‘performed intimacy’ (Marwick and boyd, 2011), involving tweets revealing their everyday life and thoughts, can be interpreted as instigating a reconfiguration of celebrity activism.
However, an important element of this occurrence, and something that I have been exploring in this work, is how fans respond to these efforts, in an age where ‘likes’ and ‘re-tweets’ are very often the currency of activity and are somewhat easy to perform. I discovered though, most notably, that Gaga’s quest and efforts to provoke her fans and followers into explicit and direction action, on some occasions, evidently worked, with some going beyond the online click. As I examine further in the forthcoming article, The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy repeal efforts demonstrated this. In September 2010 Gaga posted a video of herself giving a message to the senate and encouraging others to phone their senators to ask them to vote for the repeal of the policy. In the video, Gaga is shown attempting to phone her own senator. She is unable to get through, but urges her fans to keep trying:
This video resulted in fans recording themselves phoning their own senators (some of whom had never contacted them before, or even knew who they were), urging friends and neighbours to also phone and leave messages, and then placing the videos on YouTube, in an effort to reach a wider audience. Other fans posted video responses to these, and they were all then collated in an official playlist by Gaga, with another message thanking her fans and urging them to keep inspiring others to also call their senators.
However, and as I outline further in the article, it is the video of two college students, Lauren and Ellie that resonates the most, and starts to unravel further the most interesting, and powerful, processes at play. The two students are shown phoning their senator for the first time, having to look up his name, since they had never contacted him before, or even knew who he was:
After two attempts, the students successfully leave a message for their senator. However, after doing this, and accompanied to a soundtrack of Lady Gaga’s music, they were inspired to film themselves going around their student accommodation, knocking on the doors of housemates and encouraging them to phone the senator, whose voice mail service eventually becomes full. A few days later, the senator placed a video message to the students on YouTube, thanking them for their calls, and confirming that he would be voting to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The eventual repeal of the law in 2011 was greeted by the students’ exclamation, ‘We did it guys! Fight for Equality’.
This example demonstrates how powerful and meaningful the reach of celebrity/fan activism through social media can be, when both parties work together as partners through these platforms towards an activist cause. In sum, this skilled use of social media by celebrities such as Lady Gaga to engage their fans and followers in activism is working to reshape our traditional understandings of the possibilities of engagement and action. Communication and motivation are now able to flow directly and horizontally between celebrity and fans, rather than through the filtered and vertical, primarily top-down manner evident pre-social media. Finally, and most significantly, it is through this process that some fans can be given a strong insight into the potential change they can make as citizens, and instigate their vital and empowering first connections to political and public figures.
Bennett, L. (Forthcoming, 2013) ‘“If We Stick Together We Can Do Anything”: Lady Gaga Fans in Philanthropic and Activist Engagement through Social Media.’ Celebrity Studies.
Bennett, L. (2012) ‘Fan Activism for Social Mobilization: A Critical Review of the Literature.’ Transformative Works and Cultures, No. 12, June 2012.
Marwick, A. and boyd, D. (2011) “To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter.” Convergence 17 (2): 139–58.