"YouTube Celebrity." I read those words earlier today when checking out the trending topics on Twitter and trying to figure out why some kid named Connor Franta was dominating hashtags. I admit that I'm not up on every element of celeb gossip. In fact, it might be fair to say that my knowledge of it extends only as far as the trash magazines I buy my wife for trips to the beach and the weekend I spent as a stringer for US Weekly.
Still, when rumors about Beyonce and Jay-Z crop up or photos of Zac Ephron and Michelle Rodriguez getting hot and heavy appear in my Facebook trending stories feed, I'm aware of who these people are and may even know some of the back story. And when those things cross paths with sports or Internet nerdery, it triggers a part of my brain reserved for obscure statistics and trivia from sci-fi films. In short, I'm not completely clueless.
But, when #WeLoveYouConnor and other variations on this hashtag appeared on Twitter, I was stumped. First, to Google. No Wikipedia entry? That was surprising. I'm pretty sure one of my cats has a Wiki entry, so who is this guy who is so popular he can drive massive traffic on Twitter but not have some reference on the Encyclopedia Britannica of the web?
Then, I began to see references to Our Second Life or O2L. A little more digging and it turns out it is a YouTube "super group" but they don't sing. They just do videos about themselves and their daily lives for other tweens. Um, what?
This confused me even more. I mean I understand that there are places I don't know about. I've heard the "darknet" is a place where you can buy drugs or hire contract killers or something. I know you don't mess with Anonymous, the Internet "vigilante" organization, or they will close down your website and destroy your online life (whatever that may be). But, a bunch of kids who became celebrities and millionaires (yes, millionaires) on YouTube for making videos about their lives? You're kidding, right?
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Well, apparently not. And Connor Franta was at the epicenter of this Jonas Brothers for the online video set...and he's leaving. One tweeter said all she had now was "my bed, tissues and my tears." Franta himself even posted a dramatic video that had received more than 400,000 views at the time of writing this about how his life isn't all sunshine and roses, something anyone over the age of five generally already knows, although spending time with my nephews at the beach recently might ruin that hypothesis.
And lest you believe this is just some random social media tragedy, this affects a whole world IRL (that's In Real Life for you old codgers out there). There is even a Digitour (http://thedigitour.com/2014/index.html) that features "80+ of the best talent on social media." This means more than just bands. I can't fathom what they do? Create tweets live or maybe make videos to post online in real time? Ben Folds once engaged users on Chat Roulette live during his concerts. Somehow, I can't imagine the Digitour being quite that interesting, but I'm not 14.
Years ago, my niece had a YouTube channel. She and her friends would make silly videos and engage in comment wars with other youngsters. Her channel description simply read "SUBSCRIBE ASSCLOWN." Had I thought she and her friends had a chance to earn their first million before becoming teenagers, I might have encouraged greater participation. But, with that fortune comes a kind of fame that has managed to turn Disney kids into drug-addled adults. Celebrity can be like that.
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A number of years ago, Bob Costas said of being famous that we had reached the first time in American history when celebrity can come without achievement. Enter Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian and the hoard of people famous for simply being famous. This, at least it would seem, is the same thing for the tween set and it is only possible with the Internet.
It is the web that has created the space for kids like Franta to generate fame and money out of nothing. At least it seems like nothing to me and others who aren't under the age of 25. In fact, I'd argue that the most critical digital divide in our world today is not between the rich and the poor but between the young and the old.
This weekend, my three-year-old nephew was absolutely killing it at a video game on my brother-in-law's phone. He knew instinctively how to use the phone, the computer, the portable DVD player and any other piece of technology in his path. As I was explaining to some of the older members of our party, if you know the construct, you can extrapolate and when kids learn it early, it is like when we learned how to ride a bike. Once we learn, we don't forget.
They stared at me with blank faces no doubt wondering if one of the kids would be around later to help them work the TV. I can't imagine what they would think if I tried to explain to them what a YouTube celebrity was. I'm not even sure I know and I'm the one they call when they can't figure out how to reboot a computer.