The internet and social media have always been a fickle and confusing world. Virality is not promised and is often random, with new stars popping up and disappearing overnight. Apps like Instagram and TikTok move on quickly — with new trends, audio, and challenges gaining popularity daily. Furthermore, the TikTok algorithm segregates users and places them in different corners of the app: ‘Gay,’ ‘Straight,’ and more, dictating what users see and interact with.
What is all over one person's FYP (For You Page) or explore page will never be shown to another individual. This personalisation of content is also what drives the randomness of viral sounds, songs, and videos. There is no formula for what will and won’t be popular. It all just depends on where content is directed by the algorithm. This speed and happenstance are what lead individuals to huge growth and mass idolisation by their viewers without a second thought.
With virality and so much of people’s lives plastered online comes the endemic of cancel culture. Defined by the shunning and ostracisation of individuals for misconduct or wrongdoing in their past, people can be cancelled due to previous racist comments, sexist tweets, questionable behaviour, and even the price of their merchandise. Youtuber Colleen Ballinger was cancelled in the summer of 2023 when disturbing information about her relationships with underaged fans came to light, along with accusations of grooming. James Charles, another YouTube personality, was accused of betrayal and emotional manipulation by a friend, leading to the loss of three million YouTube subscribers in a matter of hours. By nature, the culture of cancelling is as volatile as the pattern of what becomes viral or internet-famous.
Often, these cancelled stars are household names – people who have been on our screens or in the spotlight in some capacity for years. However, increasingly, we are witnessing an unprecedented speed to virality. Internet personalities truly blow up overnight, going from being unheard of to being seen everywhere – on all of our regularly used social platforms and, in some cases, even on mainstream television talk shows. This sudden rise to fame places them on the highest pedestal as they quickly become an everyday name and someone to discuss. They are suddenly faced with throngs of fans, adoring comments, and huge popularity, with the public lapping up any content or sightings they can get of their new favourite stars.
No more is this evident than in the rise of Jett and Campbell Hunt Puckett, an American couple who achieved TikTok stardom after videos of them together, in which Jett affectionately refers to his wife as ‘Pookie’ in a loving, yet monotonous and amusing way, gained traction online. The audio from these videos went viral, with other TikTok stars and influencers lip-syncing to it.
Others made videos asking their partners to call them ‘Pookie,’ and some even went as far as to cosplay the couple. This newfound fame came as a surprise to the couple, but they delved in headfirst, continuing to create content and sharing their appreciation for any fans who used the ‘sound’ created from their videos. The public idolised and loved them, forming a parasocial relationship without much knowledge of who they were or evidence of longevity in their content.
But within weeks, they were at the centre of criticism and scandal. Photos of Campbell ‘Pookie’ Puckett at a Plantation-themed party dressed as a notorious slave owner resurfaced, and fans turned on them instantly, calling for their ‘cancelling’ and urging others not to engage in their content. They fell as quickly as they rose.
But this is not the first time the internet has idolised and created stars out of individuals only to cancel them days or weeks later over comments, views, or opinions that don’t align with the public majority.
Tube Girl AKA Sabrina Bashoon went viral last year for her videos filmed on the tube. Her acclaim saw her walking in fashion week shows and invited to red-carpet events, yet she was seemingly cancelled only months later over her response to the conflict in Palestine. These individuals, such as Bashoon, are celebrated and put on a pedestal, though we have no knowledge of who they are or what their views of the world are, then consumers of their content seem shocked when stories come to light that don’t paint these near-strangers in the perfect light.
“One of the main problems nowadays about using social media is users’ relationship with social media stars (Internet Stars),” says psychiatrist and mental health researcher Jaafar Omer Ahmed. “They are listening, following, and even sharing their posts! This behaviour has relation to our human needs, to get pleasure and to run away from our main complaints. Also, people like to have someone as a model, internet stars are showing themselves as perfect.”
While some influencers build up a loyal and longstanding following over many years, during which their followers develop a lot of knowledge about them, these viral TikTok stars blow up overnight, and parasocial relationships are created between them and their fans with very little foundation or forethought.
These long-time internet stars may have skeletons in their closets, often acts or wrongdoings from their youth or early days online, at a time when admittedly, what was and wasn’t morally or ethically correct was not as defined as strongly as it is today. However, these viral sensations are often cancelled or de-platformed over current wrongdoings, making the rise to such stardom overnight a scary phenomenon for both stars and viewers consuming their content.
Moreover, this seemingly constant cycle of new stars and cancel culture raises questions about the morality of influencers and those with such a large outreach, and whether giving individuals such influence is inevitably going to backfire. Long-time stars like Shane Dawson, David Dobrik, and Trisha Paytas have all been cancelled for toxic or illegal acts, and we have also seen talk show hosts, singers, designers, actors, and reality stars cancelled over similar acts. These are all beloved stars whom, at one point, the public could never imagine doing anything wrong.
While some of these cancellable acts happened a long time before an individual’s time in the spotlight, many occurred during their stardom – suggesting either that stardom and this pedestalization of individuals inevitably lead to bad behaviour, or that stars have skeletons in their closets and can still make mistakes.
Whether you want to cut stars some slack and acknowledge that others have made similar mistakes, or you are a champion of cancel culture and see the problematic elements of such speedy rises to fame, it is clear that idolising and creating these intense parasocial bonds with our favourite stars is not advisable. They are human just as we are, and they are just as capable of amoral or unethical acts. They have the same capacity to be rude, mean, harmful, or a danger to society as anyone. Being in the spotlight doesn’t change that or make individuals moral people just because they have found fame.
We will never truly know these people on our screens, and we need to stop idolising them as if we do.
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