Appropriation, Participation and the Creation of Celebrity: Introducing Internet-Mediated Urban Eccentrics

Abstract for AoIR11 (Ben Light and Helen Keegan)

Our paper concerns the potential, and processes of, the internet-mediated construction and communication of urban eccentrics; ‘local characters’ who have traditionally been known to unconnected groups within a geographic locale. Our work suggests that the internet has the potential to connect these groups and generate notoriety for urban eccentrics, transcending time and space. This is not a new phenomenon; the Nowhere Guide, launched in the 1990s, allows contributors to share memories of ‘local heroes’ and Gawker has spawned similar sites (Wired 2008). However, despite literatures around online fandom (Baym 2002) and micro-celebrity (Senft, 2008) it appears that the relationships between digital media and urban eccentrics have received very little academic attention. Our research is based on a discourse analysis of the Facebook fan page associated with a particular urban eccentric and other artifacts connected with them and shared throughout the Internet.

Drawing upon Monaco’s (1978) concept of the Quasar, a category of celebrity, we undertake a reading of an urban eccentric: the Market Street Mincer (MSM) someone known for walking around Market Street in Manchester, UK during 2001-2003. Monaco defines the Quasar by their unwillingness to ‘be’ a celebrity, that fact they have little control over their status and that our interest is due to what we believe they are. In our case, the MSM operates as an enigma, no-one knows for certain why he does what he does and the extent to which he is willing to become a celebrity and under what terms. For example, several Facebook posts state that he walked to be spotted by a scout for a modelling agency. If that is the case, the attention he has received is something very different from that which he set out to gain. Thus, we need to think about the concept of the Quasar, and their abilities to influence their identities in the light of user generated content.

The rise of user-generated content combined with the ubiquity of mobile devices has resulted in a 21st century ‘citizen paparazzi’ who participate by for example, tracking and recording individuals in a specific locale within the physical world and then creating spaces and discussing them in arenas such as SNS, internet news sites and even ‘traditional media’ such as radio and print. With respect to the MSM, it appears that his ‘name’ was given on a radio show and there is much discussion about his path of travel. These activities fuel the process of data gathering about urban eccentrics allowing people to contribute and experience them further. This ‘data’ takes many forms and covers various topics. Nicknames and memories of manchester are shared alongside speculations about the motivations and identity of the MSM. A combination of fondness and mockery characterise the dialogue around the MSM and there are links in to the trope of cyberbullying/cyberstalking (Adam 2005) which we will touch upon.  Many of the participants have now left the city but he has left an impression. The community was established in May 2007 and is still active – as of February 2011 there have been 385 posts.

Is the MSM a micro-celebrity? Terri Senft states: “micro-celebrity is perhaps best understood as a new style of online performance in which people ‘amp up’ their popularity over the Web…” There is no evidence to suggest that the MSM has ‘amped up’ his popularity via the web – this has been done ‘for him’, knowingly or otherwise. Thus, we maybe need to nuance the definition of micro-celebrity or introduce some form of category that includes internet-mediated urban eccentrics.  More generally, this work asks us to continue to unpack the affordances of digital media and how these might be implicated in the shaping of social networking practices.  For example, the MSM was present before the arrival of video recording capability on mobile phones. It will be interesting to see, as with pre-digital fan networks, if artifacts surrounding Internet-mediated Urban Eccentrics at a particular point in time become valued more so than others due to the amount and type of data available about them.

REFERENCES

Adam, A E 2005, ‘Gender, Ethics and Information Technology’, -Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Baym, N. 2000. Tune in, log on: Soaps, fandom, and online community. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.
Monaco, J. (1978) Celebrity, New York: Delta.

Senft, T. (2008) Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networking. New York: Peter Lang Publishers. Manuscript version, used with author’s permission.
Spiegel, B. (2008) Websites Go Crazy Tracking Urban Eccentrics. Wired Magazine.

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