Social media: Fast-food for celebrity stalkers?

Sat in the library I can’t resist having a quick peek at my Snapchat; what’s Rihanna up to today? And a little look at her Instagram can’t hurt, too. We all do this. We keep up dated on what our favourite celebrities’ are up to via social media, so this isn’t stalking right?

There’s no denying the prevalence of celebrities’ in our culture today. Chris Rojek famously said in his book Celebrity, the “celebrity race is now ubiquitous in all walks of life”. But that was over 15 years ago: before the invention of social media, when the quickest way to get celebrity gossip was from a magazine.

Now, celebrity culture is even more widespread and celebrity privacy is even more rare. Once a celebrity is spotted, it only takes a moment for a picture to be tweeted with a geo-tag and the whole world knows exactly where they are.

For many celebrities, updating social media revealing every detail of their private life to their fans is simply part of the job. After all, fame is a two-way street, as celebrities wouldn’t exist without their fans. But this means celebrities are seemingly becoming more and more exposed.

This growth in exposure means that consumption of celebrity culture has also grown. Professor of Communication at San Diego State University Brian Spitzberg informed me, “Studies indicate that our society’s ‘screen time’ has been increasing over the decades”. Thanks to the development of smart phones and tablets which most people keep on them at all times, this comes as no surprise.

Gina, a 19-year-old student, loves following the lives of celebrities and admitted to me that she can check her phone 40 times a day. But a 2015 study carried out by Nottingham Trent University suggested that 18-33 year olds are likely to check their phone twice as much as they realise (often around 85 times a day).

We can even watch celebrities’ lives examined in 24-hour news cycles, as they are now deemed so significant that they appear in the mainstream news as well as being scrutinised in blogs, magazines, chat shows and more.

However, as Professor Spitzberg, pointed out to me, as a celebrity you often get “enormous privilege that wealth provides in purchasing privacy”, many opt to stay out of the limelight. Celebrities like Adele, Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, despite their immense fame, manage to avoid rumours and gossip. So is stalking simply a price of fame? Or can it perhaps be evaded?

The Kardashian Empire, for example, has been built around over exposure: first a leaked sex tape, then an internationally successful reality TV show. All 5 sisters have a prominent presence on Instagram, Snapchat and their own personal apps, which fans pay to subscribe to. So, does it really surprise us that Kendall has had a stalker arrested outside her home and Kylie has had multiple run ins with a stalker?

On their reality show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians (2007-), the family has even discussed their fears around Snapchat as it shares your location as you post. And yet, they continue to broadcast their lives for all to see.

Fandom is often a normal part of identity development, so, when does celebrity admiration become obsession or stalking?

In our post-modern world boundaries have been blurred between reality and appearance. It can seem as if we really know a celebrity, but we don’t. Fans and celebrities continue to blur these lines with live Facebook Q and A sessions, fanfictions and so on.

Arguably, stalking has become normalised to an extent. The word “stalk” has become embedded into our vocabulary. Gina told me her friends accuse her of stalking certain celebrities all the time, but this does not raise concerns.

Celebrity stalking at times is even encouraged. For example, a recent article was published on entitled “Venmo is a Low-Key Amazing Way to Stalk Celebs”, advising readers on how they can use the social payment app Venmo to find out personal information about their favourite celebrities.

Perhaps, it is this standardisation of celebrity stalking that is preventing people from thinking of extreme fans as stalkers. Stalkers don’t have to be middle-aged lonely men, they could also be a group of teenage girls searching for Harry Styles’ whereabouts on Twitter.

Even though the media often focuses on cases of extreme celebrity stalking, it fails to recognise extreme online fan behaviour as stalking and neglects the potential dangers of, what is perceived to be ordinary, obsession. The media can often employ humour in stories about Justin Beiber’s ‘Beliebers’ or Benedict Cumberbatch’s ‘Cumberbitches’.

Professor Spitzberg told me that there is no evidence to suggest that stalking has increased correspondingly with the increase of social media; however, a 2011 survey by Bedford University does suggests that cyberstalking is now more common than physical stalking.

Professor Spitzberg explained to me that consumers of celebrity culture could experience physiological, affective, cognitive, behavioural, relational, economic and spiritual effects. These could range from spending too much money on an item endorsed by a celebrity on Instagram to developing an eating disorder in the process of trying to look exactly like a celebrity.

Although, through identifying with a celebrity, some fans can gain a sense of personal strength. For example, seeing Serena Williams’ passion for tennis and disregard of body shamers really inspired Gina. “It gave me hope that I’d be able to rise above haters, too,” she explained.

So, these effects beg the question, does our social media encourage celebrity stalking and obsession, or does our obsession support celebrities’ involvement in social media?

What is clear is that we can enjoy glancing at what Beyonce is wearing today, but we must prioritise what’s important in our lives. As Professor Spitzberg put it, “Society badly needs to be able to place celebrity where it belongs – about 20 spots below caring for our planet and each other”.