At first thought, I have a hard time disliking Justin Bieber as much as I think I should do. Certainly, his cocksure attitude and posey self-awareness are at best irritating – but then, if we boycotted musicians for that, we wouldn’t have many musicians. Or bloggers.
Anyway, he did genuinely start up on his own, did genuinely get noticed on his indivdual merit (and obvious commercial appeal), and is, essentially, a boy done good – even if his songs are crap. So that itself is hard to hold against him. However, what is very easy to hold against him – or rather, his caretakers, producers, and marketing machine – is the cynical positioning and messaging designed specifically to corral the emotions of his followers, who now number over 20 million on Twitter alone (as a side note, it is interesting to compare the relative efficacy of Twitter and Youtube in the terms of followers vs. subscribers vs. views, and how that information seeding works).
Fans of the JB are noted for the frenzied – some might say feverish – dedication to their idol. They will point out Beiber’s personal relationship with his fans, in the sense that he dedicates, or is perhaps instructed to dedicate, unusually high amounts of time to individual responses and discussion. This is where things differ from previous crazes such as the Beatlemania (or even Lisztomania!) phenomenon, where the band was still very much a separate entity.
Part of this, you may say, is the inevitable product of growing up in an era of social media, which is inherently interpersonal due to everyone having individual handles/accounts, rather than manifesting as a foaming sea of people. And indeed, you only need to look at Lady Gaga and other recent megastars to see that an avenue of social media is now not only desired but expected. It’s not solely a one-way relationship, of course, with many celebrities and other people who are, or who have risen to, prominence on these channels frequently evangelizing about the ‘connection’. Which I, may I just say, completely believe.
However, the thing about Bieber is, well, he’s awfully manipulative. The nature of his particular account and fanbase means that he benefits immediately and disproportionately from romancing his followers:
It’s ultimately difficult to dissect the appropriate reaction to this – girls and women are of course able to arbiter their own emotions and are not simply helpless – but to my mind it seems to demonstrate that manipulating his followers is of such immediate commercial advantage to BeiberCo that it simply must factor in to marketing plans. In other words, I am reasonable sure that those ticket-selling tweets are very much deliberate, and very much with that end in mind. His latest album is rather unambiguously titled ‘Boyfriend’, for heaven’s sake.
Now, the question as to the rightness of this is long and complicated and filled with historical precedent. Rock bands of the 70s, anyone? Where girls were separated from their boyfriends after the show so that the band could ‘meet’ them? More recently, the mega boybands of the 90′s were forbidden to have girlfriends, so as to create the illusion of availability to the fanbase’s imagination. As you might imagine, I’m generally against such exploitative chicanery, but there are reasonable arguments to made along the lines of perfomance and showmanship for at least some elements of this.
However, irrespective of the above, it’s something users of Twitter have to put up with almost every day in the trending topics sidebar. There are two particular issues – firstly, that the practice is expanding to include other guff such as 1 Direction (currently trending as I type: ‘Directioners Love 1D’) and their ilk. Secondly, that Bieber and his fans are both growing up, and so are the trends.
— Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) February 29, 2012
What sparked this post was someone complaining that “The current Bieber “wet” trend is a bit R-rated for comfort” – referring to a trending topic of ‘Justin Bieber makes us wet’. Some of the star’s more fantastically reckless tweets like the above, sent ten minutes before Bieber’s birthday, have started to lend the mania a distinctly sexual tone.
It must put Twitter in a tremendously difficult position.
On the one hand, Bieber and his fans should surely be able to say what they like without fear of censorship – Twitter is noted for being a liberal-leaning platform in any case, but it has always had an identity as an enabler of free speech, especially in the Arab Spring. Furthermore, stamping on the explicated lust of predominantly female participants smacks unpleasantly of denying female sexuality. To cut off this kind of content would come across as prudish at best, and a betrayal of core values at worst. At the same time, though, should people have to put up with such domination of the sidebar by the sexual effervescence of a crowd of whipped-up teenagers?
Twitter have tried to guard against such things by the evolution of what must be an increasingly complicated algorithm to nip spam-trends in the bud – but it’s clear that it hasn’t really worked as intended, and actually caused a minor PR crisis when it inadvertantly obstructed the #Occupy movement (isn’t it remarkable that I automatically included the hashtag there, by the way? Didn’t even stop to think about it).
Of course, they could always just leave it to the Darwinist tendancies of populism, in that if people want something to trend enough (which is indeed the explicit intent of many of these trends), then their collective ingenuity will always find ways around the bulwark. And indeed, Twitter will be enjoying the business benefits of this kind of activity: more users, more advertising options, more exposure, more integration appeal for publishers, and so on. But it’s probably not great in the long term, as they need to avoid the Craigslist scenario. It’s a very good job that Twitter is self-curating and that users aren’t exposed to this stuff too much, but equally they can’t just cross their fingers and hope the practice dies.
Every social network that makes it struggles with spam. Facebook is perhaps the only one that really managed to control the problem by requiring phone and email registration and operating a real name policy. Twitter has far fewer defenses. Hell, Pinterest must be quaking in its boots. But Twitter might be facing the toughest problem of all: controlling a massively vocal segment of the userbase without alienating them or compromising communication values.
It’s spam, Jim, but not as we know it.