The point of the messaging app Snapchat is to share words and images that don’t last. You can capture them (with a nimble screenshot) but the service was designed around the idea of fleeting thoughts and pictures that disappear in seconds.
This does not sound like an ideal medium for creating new “stars.” But that is apparently happening anyway: Forbes and Time, among others, have recently pointed to Shaun McBride, 27, as a leading example: He is “Snapchat’s first homegrown celebrity” and is “known by brands, social media celebrities and agencies as a Snapchat pioneer.”
Probably you’ve never heard of him. But that’s beside the point. His snapshots, humorously embellished with his own rough digital drawing marks, have earned him more than 140,000 fans eager to see what he’ll share next. That puts him among a number of elite Snapchatters who have built an audience that’s not only significant — it’s also profitable.
Forbes reports that brands — it names Disney, Taco Bell, and Major League Soccer as examples — are now “shelling out up to $30,000 for advertising deals with McBride and other power users, hoping to reach Snapchat’s demographic: the fickle and influential 13- to 25-year-old bracket.” Time cites unnamed sources to the effect that “the most coveted [Snapchat] stars now earn anywhere from $1,500 a day to more than $100,000 for a week’s work for a company.”
Something about this sounds satirical. How good can a Snapchat message be, anyway? And is there no limit to the fame-making power of the Internet and mobile Web? YouTube stars, Instagram stars, Vine stars, Twitter stars — are we fated to witness the rise of celebrity Yo users?
But jokes aside, the curious-sounding emergence of Snapchat fame as a lucrative phenomenon should really be no surprise at all. In part it’s just the latest example of how the Internet and related technologies have been redefining fame for years.
It’s not just because of the way the technology has changed — it’s the way we’ve changed, too.
New audiences, new fame
Long before people started declaring that YouTube had “gone pro,” in the years when it was still dismissed as a forum for skateboarding dogs, clever individuals who really understood the medium were building their own audiences — and making a good living.
Even today a list of the most-watched YouTube channels contains many names you may not recognize — these are not marquee Tonight Show guests, let’s say. But the numbers next to those names are impressive. Familiar with stampylonghead’s channel? Well, it piled up 181 million views last month, so somebody must be. Something called SevenSuperGirls had 131 million. And so on.
As Instagram, Vine, and now Snapchat have come along, there’s been a similar dynamic: Creators are less concerned with leveraging fame on a given platform into a shot at the official big time, and more interested in bringing home big paydays from that platform itself.
When fame got small
Scholar Terri Senft has used the term “micro-celebrity” at least since her 2008 book Camgirls. Here’s how she defined it: “A new style of online performance that involves people ‘amping up’ their popularity over the web using technologies like video, blogs, and social networking sites.”
Sounds familiar, right? By the time her book was published, we’d become familiar with more mainstream variations on Internet-made fame — from grassroots political bloggers crossing over to professional punditry to the role of MySpace in launching acts like the Arctic Monkeys onto the charts to whatever the whole Tila Tequila thing was about.
The recurring narrative involved some version of the idea that fame was being “democratized.” Fame-seekers could end-run traditional gatekeepers (talent scouts, television executives) and still wind up on the biggest cultural stages.
But it also proved that no matter how “democratic” the platform, stars always emerge: Someone is the most followed, the most liked, the most shared. It’s as if media consumers demand the right to glom onto something, someone popular. Even if popularity, like Snapchat, is fleeting.
Fickle fame, fickle tech
This may sound vaguely reminiscent of the DIY/indie culture of the 1980s and early 1990s — the self-made post-punk success of, say, Black Flag, or Fugazi, or outsider filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch. It’s true that like the indie creators of ye olde times, the microstars of social media are building their own audiences, not trying to horn in on the audiences that mega-media collect.
But many old-schoolers were also squeamish about being “co-opted” by or “selling out” to commercial culture more generally. In contrast, the whole point of building an “independent” audience, for many of these new microstars, is that this audience can be sold directly to major advertisers.
It’s about cutting Big Media out of the creative process — and the monetization process.
YouTubers were early movers in figuring this out — they make money by sharing in Google AdSense revenue, but forging side product-placement deals and so on is now routine.
Indeed, the really striking thing about more recent examples like Instagram and Vine and now Snapchat is how swiftly the indie stars of those platforms moved. While the actual services were still gingerly exploring the risks of introducing actual money-making elements that might alienate fans, brands were going straight to microstars and making deals.
Snapchat has of course been dealing with this issue itself lately: It’s another popular service in search of a business model that won’t ruin the experience.
It may be for this very reason that Snapchat introduced a feature called “Stories” that lets members build videos that can hang around for 24 hours rather than 10 seconds — some advertisers would surely be more interested in the former time frame than the latter.
Whatever the motive, this was attractive to creators and seems to have sparked the Snapchat fame rush.
Interestingly, this includes Vine stars who may be fretting that the six-second-video platform is losing steam. Which raises one last noteworthy point about modern microcelebrities: The rewards clearly go to those who act fast to make the most of today’s hot social platform. Build enough of an audience, and maybe it will follow you to whatever comes next.
Because fame can be fleeting. But it’s not nearly as fleeting as tech-media trends — which can change faster than you can say, “Yo!”