Social Media and the Everyman: Stepping Stone or Pitfall?

Culture Social Media and the Everyman: Stepping Stone or Pitfall?

It seems obvious to say that 2014 was social media’s biggest year yet, but its impact and popularity really can’t be understated; Facebook alone boasted over 1.3 billion weekly users, followed closely by Twitter and video streaming service YouTube. Alongside this exponential growth came a shift in power, and a further move towards the democratic levelling effect that the internet seems to offer. The growth of social media means that every individual with a keyboard and an email address has a shot at global fame, but is this necessarily a good thing?

2014 saw its fair share of ‘everymen’, from beauty bloggers to video comedians, who utilised social networking sites to rise to a position of fame both within and outside of the UK. It also, however, revealed something much more startling; the power of social media audiences, as an organic whole, over the media. One of the defining aspects of sites such as Twitter and Facebook is that if you have an opinion on something, you have a potentially global platform on which to promulgate it, and for better or worse, 2014 showed us just what can happen if these opinions catch on.

Columnist Controversy
If you follow any form of news, or in fact are exposed to the media at all, it’s unlikely that you won’t have heard of Katie Hopkins, whose controversial opinions both on and offline have earned her a position of nationwide notoriety. As a weekly columnist for The Sun newspaper, Hopkins’ opinions on topics such as obesity, sexism and television are, to put it mildly, polemical and in a lot of cases offensive. Now when you’re writing for a print newspaper, whose readership it’s fair to say will share in some of its values, controversial statements aren’t going to gain as much traction. Take to Twitter with these opinions, however, and you’re quickly going to make a name for yourself. Hopkins regularly weighs in on sensitive current events via the social network, and has even been given slots on national talk shows to discuss topical issues. She has also seen a social media backlash like no other, with users in their thousands reacting to her statements, and nationwide trends devoted to her professional downfall.

What the Hopkins story really draws our attention to is the power that social media can afford you, and how easily, if it is abused, it can be taken away. It calls into question how appropriate it is for individuals to be allowed so much sway, and conversely, if they should be limited or censored in any way.

Video Scandals
As a print journalist for a national newspaper, it’s difficult to properly label Katie Hopkins as an ‘everyman’ but the power of the nationwide social media backlash against her cannot be denied. She’s not, of course, the only ‘internet personality’ to feel the sting of a unified social media audience. 2014 saw the rise of the ‘vlogger’, individuals with webcams who took to YouTube offering tips and opinions on anything from fashion to videogames, with some becoming self-made millionaires on the revenue from their videos.

Perhaps one of the most notable to date was beauty vlogger ‘Zoella’ or Zoe Suggs, who went from recording make up tips to publishing books and making red carpet appearances. Zoella caused controversy online, however, when it emerged that her first book was in fact ghost written, an ambiguous term that basically means she didn’t write a large portion of it herself. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t be an issue, but the fact that the social media community had put their faith in her as an individual meant that choosing to ghost write her book actually felt like an act of falsity. This revelation lead to users taking to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in droves to offer criticism, and resulted in her taking a break from the online community altogether.

Petition Punishments
In the bigger picture, taking a short break from the limelight isn’t that drastic a consequence, but it isn’t the worst thing we’ve seen happen to an internet star who fell foul of the social media organism.

2014 was a turbulent year for Vine star Daniel O’Reilly, who went from making comic clips to having his own TV show and national tour, and then back again. Better known as ‘Dapper Laughs’, the self-styled comedian rose to fame alongside Vine, the app that capitalised on the internet’s demand for short, visual content. His ITV2 TV show however was quickly dropped by the network, which was forced to respond to a petition on that went viral on social media, calling for its cancellation. This was a result of O’Reilly’s controversial statements on LAD culture, and trivialisation of sensitive topics such as rape.

As with other cases, what this really shows us is the inherently democratic nature of the internet, and specifically social media. Yes, it did allow someone with a controversial stance on a sensitive topic to gain nationwide fame and a prime time television slot, but that individual was just as swiftly deposed by the very audiences that put them there in the first place. It’s also an interesting study in our respective boundaries, why is it more acceptable for someone like Dapper Laughs to spread messages like this over social media, but not over television?

At the very least, 2014 was an exercise in studying how much power social media can afford and subsequently take away. It saw what happened when individuals abused the platform, and demonstrated how swiftly, and in some cases mercilessly, the social media body responded to content they deemed too controversial. Examples from last year also undeniably support the growing democratisation of the internet, showing just how much power the individual consumer has in the expanding digital landscape.

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