Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is There a Pathway to Social Media Celebrity?

I’ve spent a lot of time lately looking at the celebrities of social media to try and see what has earned them this celebrity status. These are the people who have tens of thousands of people following them on Twitter (many well over the 100k mark), or those who have blogs everyone is referring to and commenting on.

So, I’ve been thinking about what the qualities are that these celebrities have or that their conversational feeds have. What creates stellar levels of hype around them? What I am seeing is that they are part of a larger ecosystem of four primary groups. Each part is symbiotic to the other – meaning that without one, the whole thing collapses. As well, I think that depending on which group you’re a part of determines if you’ll ever have celebrity potential.

Thus far, I’ve found there are four main ways that celebrities are created:

1. Content is the pivot point – usually.
It seems the social media ecosystem is really made up of four groups – Pushers: the aggregators and promoters of content; Creators: the originators of content; Consumers: the users of the content; and Transformers: those who see not the content, but the ecosystem as the means to an end. A more detailed profiling of the four groups would reveal greater distinctions, but suffice it to say that the primary commodity exchanged is content. The ecosystem thrives on the movement of content from one to another and the Creators, Pushers, and Consumers all live and die by it. However, the outlying Transformers do not participate in the ecosystem because of the content, but because it provides a framework for them to accomplish something else.

One example of this is Wil Wheaton (@wilw). Wil has a gigantic following but appears to use Twitter and his blog as a channel for his various streams of consciousness. Yes, his content is original, but I would submit that content is more for his own benefit – and we just get to be a part of it whereas a Creator is someone who creates for others to use and benefit from. For Wil, the ecosystem appears to be simply an outlet for his expressions. (As of this writing, Wil is ranked 12th with the most Twitter followers at 107k+.)

2. Quality does not equate status; freshness does.
I don’t deny that this is a nearly heretical statement to make, but not everyone who has a massive following is saying anything truly remarkable. Again, thinking of the four groups, those with the largest followings are typically Pushing other content.

Case in point, I was a bit disappointed when I started following Guy Kawasaki’s blog How to Change the World. I hung in there for a month or so, but eventually dropped it from my reading list because I wanted Guy. I love reading his writing but what I got in his blog was other peoples’ content he thought was interesting.

And strangely, this is exactly what makes him so attractive to follow. Social media celebrity Chris Brogan wrote about this in a recent blog post noting that "the most “important” people (in at least the public business sense) I have ever met in my life have all asked me more about myself, and even with me trying hard to turn it around, they were gracious and interesting and still worked hard to know more about me than themselves.”

Now, even though the biggest of the big are not usually delivering messianic insights their key contribution is to scour the ecosystem for fresh perspectives and transmit that freshness out to the rest of us. Key to their celebrity status is their mutant ability to intimately understand the pulse of the ecosystem, find and vet content, then share it with everyone else.

3. It’s who knows you.
If you’ve read Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell you’ll instantly get this next element. Celebrities are connectors. Not only will they remember you, your name, and usually something about you after meeting, but they have the uncanny ability to do this same thing with exponentially more people than the average person while finding links between everyone and everything.

It seems that key to becoming a social media celebrity is being known by the Pushers. A good example of this is when Mashable mentioned @cspenn in an article.

Pete Cashmore (@mashable), even noted the marked increase in followers for @cspenn.

Now @cspenn has a long way to go before he hits true celebrity status as he only ranks with the 700th largest following on Twitter. However, the impact of being known by a Pusher is remarkable. Not only do you get a big bump, but if another Pusher happens to find your ideas fresh, then you’ve got more Pushers transmitting your content to the ecosystem.

4. The metric is relative.
Of course, someone reading this is saying, “Hold on a minute. There are those who are celebrities but exist in smaller ponds that exist outside of the mainstream.” And therein lies the challenge of qualifying what celebrity status is and isn’t. For the most part I’ve used followers as the basis for qualifying a social media celebrity. Tracking your followers is easily captured and most commonly used as a metric of status. Blogger and social media ROI guru Beth Kanter noted in a recent post that calculating your ROI “is a much broader concept than just doing the math.”

Certainly there is merit in noting that celebrity status can exist in different circles in highly meaningful ways. For instance, another way of looking at this is to compare winning Best Actor at the Oscars versus Best Leading Performance by a Leading Actor at the Tony Awards. Ben Daniels or Mark Rylance are highly acclaimed Broadway performers, but not part of the popular mainstream conversation.

However, I submit that celebrity status is a state of relative condition within portions of the ecosystem. If you consider the long tail curve, it appears at first that there are only a few who qualify for celebrity status. But if you were to examine detail within the tail I think you’d find that there are repeating patterns of the long tail curve supporting celebrity status within various niches.

So, what does all this have to do with increasing your ability to market for good? Well, I’ve tried to withhold a label of any sort that identifies whether it is good or bad to be a social media celebrity. But aside from that element, I wonder if there is an identifiable pathway to achieving celebrity? Are there gatekeepers to celebrity? If a cause could figure out this pathway, it is possible to gaining greater exposure to your issues? A huge number of Pushers got behind Twestival’s recent event for Charity: Water raising more than $250,000 in grassroots donations. . Is this replicable?

-- David Kinard, PCM


Wayne Roseberry said...

Other than an academic distinction, does the difference between Creator and Transformer matter? Other than the intent of the Creator/Transformer, isn't the outcome in terms of popularity identical for them if a pusher with enough clout pushes their stuff?

David Kinard, PCM said...

Great clarifying question. To me there seems to be a differences in the intent. Whereas the Creator wants to be followed and the Transformer doesn't really care. But yes, the outcome is the same if the right Pusher get into the fray.

Brian Powell said...

Much to your inherent point, the fact that there are perceived "celebrities" of social media somewhat contradicts the original vision behind the technology: democratizing content and breaking down barriers to communication. Or my definition of social media: "enabling bonds without borders." That said, I'm all for social media, celebrities, or for that matter social media celebrities as cause marketing tools. But it has to be employed as part of a holistic plan.

Wayne Roseberry said...

I don't see it as contrary. The "democratizing" aspect of the technology is to enable content distribution that is not filtered and restricted by governments, media conglomerates, corporations, or any other massive entity that maintains its control by monetary might and or force. With such limits, the voice of the individual is not even allowed on the channel, period. With democratization, access to the channel is a level playing field, at which point the power of the free public gets to decide who is the celebrity, as opposed to the power of the monetary/political elite.

Brian Powell said...

That's fair. Though I'm still not sure social media celebs or any celebs for that matter are as much created by power of free public as much as created by their marketing. And there's nothing wrong with that. Just think when trendy words "social media" are in front of anything right now there's tendency to assume it's fully due to the "will of the people." The bigger question posed is regarding intent of the segments as described. And in my view any and all can be scalable for cause marketing if they want to use their stage for a greater good.

David Kinard, PCM said...


I think you make an excellent point that it could be assumed social media celebrities got to their status because of their content or cause. When it is more likely that a solid marketing plan was behind that rise to fame.