Who Did You Think Teenagers Were Watching on Their Phones?

Photo: Instagram

The nexus between old but lingering ideas of fame and new measures of notoriety sits firmly, for now, outside Los Angeles, in a Calabasas mansion, with the Kardashians. Having recently landed the cover of Vogue and reportedly spurred projected sales near Beyoncé and Michelle Obama levels, Kim has completed her seven-year journey from “famesque” (known for being known) to genuine star, only to find herself coveting the online influence of her 16-year-old half-sister.

“Kylie has this amazing Tumblr that just, like, is such an expression of who she is,” says Kim, whose most demonstrable skill is a nose for fame, in the eighth season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. “What can I do to get on Kylie’s blog?”

Kim knows what much of Hollywood is just waking up to: There is a parallel universe out there, on the internet, of celebrity—true, valuable, vast opportunities for reach and audience connection. Stars don’t just start online; they live there. For teenagers, there exists a whole other set of idols, who are so famous that “real” celebrities, like Kim—not to mention corporations and the newly selfie-obsessed president of the United States—want to learn their secrets.

It’s the kind of fame that allows a collection of pretend pop stars with zero radio play, but YouTube fans in the tens of millions, to sell out stadiums on something called the DigiTour. (Some barely even play music, but concertgoers thrill just at the prospect of seeing them outside a screen.) Beauty bloggers command subway ads, Carrie Bradshaw style, in major cities, with their follower counts included; Bethany Mota, famous for putting on lipstick well, landed a collection for Aéropostale and has 5.8 million subscribers. Boyish comedy duo Smosh has 17 million subscribers to its YouTube channel—and probably better ratings than Girls—for its weekly video-game and movie parodies, aimed at 12-year-olds or those nostalgic for their tweens (Pokémon and Super Mario feature heavily).

Precocious cultural critics like the proud “professional fangirl” Tyler Oakley (he sells the title on T-shirts) went from monologuing about his traditionally famous icons into a MacBook camera to interviewing them on the MTV Movie Awards red carpet.

It’s a total rethinking of how to be a celebrity. Only now we don’t need paparazzi for access to their intimate moments, or a producer type scripting reality. The internet-famous are happy to supply it all themselves. In fact, that willingness to offer up their lives for consumption is what made them famous in the first place. The rough edges of the Real Housewives, even, read as prepackaged and fake compared with the intimacy of a girl staring directly into the camera and cataloguing her latest shopping spree in more detail than you might have thought possible. Or of Jenna Marbles, a basic blonde with extra sass who tells her 13 million YouTube subscribers (more than Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, or Taylor Swift) what’s going on in her life. Many teenagers today (girls and boys) find this a lot more interesting than what’s on television—not least because by watching, clicking, and commenting, they are the ones making performers into stars.

As with modern art, the thought “I could do that too” is in many ways more compelling than “I could never do that.” And entry to this new star system is as simple as signing up for YouTube, Twitter, Vine (the six-second-looping video service owned by Twitter), Tumblr, Instagram, or, most likely, all of the above. But just because anyone can post a video doesn’t mean that anyone can build an audience. And the system for becoming internet-famous is just as brutal—maybe more so—than Hollywood. Offline, after all, there are gatekeepers, but also a whole system of talent management: huge marketing budgets propping up a star’s brand. Online, it’s pure click-driven democracy—your worth can be measured precisely, to the fan, so almost definitionally, the people who are racking up big followings are doing something really (though often bizarrely) impressive.

Corporate brands can’t help but drool at the grassroots hordes. Paychecks, or at least free stuff, may follow: YouTube says thousands of channels in its partner program make six-figure revenues, up 60 percent over the past year as intake from mobile ad sales has tripled, while product placement can earn online stars five figures in a few seconds and sponsored tweets thousands of dollars per character.

Some internet-native stars have been able to transition to Hollywood-style renown (i.e., Justin Bieber). Just lately: Two tracks on the Hot 100, “Gas Pedal” and “Red Nose,” by Bay Area rapper Sage the Gemini, were fueled largely by anyone-can-do-it dances in Vine clips. Jen Selter’s perfect butt went from ­Instagram to the New York Post to a relatively classy Vanity Fair pictorial in four months. Kate Upton’s “Cat Daddy” dance turned her into a supermodel. Vogue is chasing her, not the other way around.

Of course, nothing about this new system is stable or permanent. Just ask Rebecca Black, YouTube’s one-hit wonder. Somewhere in the internet ether sits a surreal document on the subject, a WikiHow entry titled “How to Become Famous on the Internet,” which boils it all down to ten steps. “Determine your style of fame so that you can remain focused on your online purpose,” the all-knowing voice recommends. But also: “Expect your internet quest for fame to require effort” and, lastly, “Realize the fleeting nature of fame.” The entry has fewer than 500,000 views. No one is listening.

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