He has twice as many Twitter followers as Chris Pratt, his Instagram presence is two times the size of Hugh Jackman’s, and he’s accrued almost as many Facebook fans as Robert Downey Jr., so he should be a shoo-in for a leading role in a superhero flick, right? Well, maybe not.
His name is Tyrese Gibson and he’s a moderately successful R&B artist and D-list actor who has been on a social media tear campaigning for the starring role in Warner Bros.’ 2020 reboot of the Green Lantern franchise. So far, his Facebook posts about the potential part have racked up hundreds of thousands of likes and his Instagram feed is full of much-hearted photos of himself Photoshopped onto mock posters of the film.
The retweet, apparently, is the new audition.
For all we know, Tyrese would make a lovely Green Lantern but it’s noteworthy that his bid for the role would have been impossible before the social media age. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Vine are changing what it means to be a star. Not only is social media giving D-List actors an unexpected second wind, it’s also raising a new generation of celebrities who look nothing like the Clooneys and Jolies of bygone times. Video may have killed the radio star but social media is killing the movie star. And fast.
Tyrese isn’t the only supporting player to leverage his social media presence into a shot at a more high-profile role. His longtime Fast and the Furious franchise co-star Vin Diesel may have landed his part as the talking tree Groot in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy because of his “very vocal fan base on Facebook,” as Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told New York Daily News. For reference, Diesel has the largest Facebook following of any Hollywood actor—he has over 90 million Facebook fans, about twenty five times the number of fans of Chris Hemsworth, who has already been a Marvel leading man thrice. In fact, several of the actors with the most cachet on Facebook aren’t exactly megastars at the moment: Jackie Chan, Adam Sandler, and Dwayne Johnson (which, incidentally, sounds like a recipe for a great buddy comedy).
Social media is also acting a sort of formaldehyde that preserves celebrities beyond their normal expiration date. There’s no way Conan O’Brien would have landed another talk show hosting gig after exiting the Tonight Show, for example, if it weren’t for the viral Team Coco campaign. The ever breathtaking Cyndi Lauper is active on Twitter a full 40 years after “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and her career is as vibrant as it can be for a pop star in her 60s. Remember Fran Drescher? She’s social media savvy as well, which has allowed her to become an outspoken cancer advocate. Girl Meets World—which, as the Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon notes, likely owes its existence to social media buzz —managed to bring the beloved Topanga back into the spotlight once more. Social media is making it possible to endlessly recycle the ideas and stars of the past instead of allowing them to fade into obscurity. In some cases, this is great news (see: the return of Twin Peaks) and in others it’s cringe-inducing (see: that Prisoner remake).
But social media isn’t just a place where traditional media stars are finding ways to stay relevant; it’s also where the next set of stars is being made. And the celebrities of tomorrow look nothing like the stars of yesteryear. According to a 2014 Variety survey, the five biggest celebrities for U.S. teens ages 13 to 18 are all YouTube stars like Smosh and the Fine Bros. Jennifer Lawrence, widely reputed to be Hollywood’s biggest star, falls in line at a lowly number seven, miles behind a YouTuber known as PewDiePie who, as far as I can tell, is a handsome Swedish man in his mid-twenties who makes cute noises while playing video games. To put this in perspective, Jennifer Lawrence only has about 12 million likes on Facebook—and she’s not even on Twitter—whereas PewDiePie boasts a subscriber base of over 34 million people, a number that amounts to over 10 percent of the U.S. population. In this awkward interstitial moment in pop culture history, social media has become a sort of combined retirement home, rehab, and preschool for fading, middling, and rising stars respectively. You can follow Ginger Spice and a wide variety of teenage pranksters on Twitter but Brad Pitt? He’s nowhere to be found.
As the media landscape continues to shift, too, the future of celebrity looks a little grim, at least to older eyes. Right now, the most popular piece of content from the most popular creator among U.S. teens is a comedy video about liquefied meat that you can drink out of a tube and, yes, it’s even less funny than it sounds. But YouTube and Instagram stars seem to be valued precisely for their ordinariness and their mediocrity. They’re neither self-serious nor uproariously funny—just kinda goofy. They’re smart enough to maintain a lucrative following but if you give them the chance to interview Barack Obama, they’ll come across as teenagers even if they’re in their thirties. In other words, they’re exactly what you’d get if you allowed Goldilocks to choose the next generation of superstars: a lineup of people who are poised somewhere halfway between edgy and bland. But in today’s media landscape thoroughly ordinary means relatable which translates into followers and, of course, consumer influence. And publicists love them for that very reason. As the New York Times’ Sheila Marikar reports, YouTubers and Instagrammers were able to snag thousands of dollars of free merchandise at Sundance because companies can tacitly count on them to produce free advertising in turn.
But now that invites, paychecks, and Beverly Hills mansions have been replaced by likes and followers as markers of prestige, it’s harder than ever to understand who is famous and who isn’t. Fake followers can be purchased at the click of a button, so there’s no telling how powerful anyone on the Internet really is. Late last year when Instagram decided to cull millions of spam accounts, for example, we learned which celebrities had genuine online followings and which social media emperors had no clothes. Hip-hop artist Akon lost half of his followers, Justin Bieber shed over 3 million robot Beliebers, and rapper Mase reportedly watched his follower count plummet from 1.6 million to less than 300 thousand overnight, prompting him to delete his account in shame. Are Tyrese, Vin Diesel, and Adam Sandler really the most famous men on the Internet or do they just have publicists who pad their social media accounts with extra fans? If you dive deep into data about their level of “engagement”—i.e. how many of their fans interact with them, thereby proving their humanity—you can learn the truth but, at a glance, it’s hard to say who holds the most sway.
And although Tyrese Gibson might dream of becoming a leading man based on his social media clout, there is less and less room for traditional movie stars in the social media era. Simply put: the same technology Tyrese is trying to use to become famous is making it even harder to stay famous. In the 80s and 90s, it seemed perfectly natural for Harrison Ford to be Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Jack Ryan. But these days, stars who get too big quickly get cut down to size on social media, where public opinion turns on a dime. We’ve already seen this happen with Anne Hathaway whose career is only now recovering from the sudden and irrational hatred of her that overtook the Internet two years ago. And the Daily Dot’s Nico Lang warns that if Chris Pratt does indeed land starring roles in Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World, and a new Indiana Jones movie, there will almost certainly be a Prattlash of the sort that Ford would never have faced:
“This happens to actors every once in awhile,” Lang writes, “where we all discover we love them at the same time—thus, the Internet beats them into the ground until they’re think-pieced to death.”
If anything, too, it’s even easier to shame actors for even wanting to climb the ladder. Tyrese hasn’t even landed Green lantern—and he probably won’t, although he did just sign a promising deal with Universal—but entertainment headlines are already throwing shade at his campaign. According to the Internet, he is “practically begging” for the part and he “really, really wants to be the next Green Lantern.” These days, it seems, you can’t try to be famous, it just has to happen to you organically as you make silly videos just because. And if you do manage to get famous through conventional means Twitter will pounce on you just as quickly as it once buoyed you up.
As the old saying goes: The Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away.