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Rules of Engagement

The humble bit has changed the very definition of ‘celebrity’ and even their star-studded destinies

Five years ago, a seismic event took place in the history of communication – the ability of individuals to communicate with others, en masse. We call it User-Generated Content. But that’s a disservice to its scope since it’s not just one user creating content but many users, mass communicating with each other simultaneously. Each creation evolves with every piece of information that’s shared.

For instance, a YouTube video that has comments, ‘likes’ and ‘video replies’; or a tweet with its hashtags, re-tweets, replies and trends; or a Facebook post with its ‘likes’ and ‘comments’. This is a total unit of experience, a bit made of other bits. It was in this blast of information that the modern-day celebrity was born.

While platforms like YouTube have grown to create their own stars, others like Twitter amplified the dominance of those that already were stars. The most-followed Twitter accounts aren’t just of nations and media firms but that of famous people. Celebrities and other famous people now command audiences comprising millions. From Gaga’s ‘Little Monsters’ to Priyanka Chopra’s tweeple, each a medium in themselves.

In India, the past year has seen a similar phenomenon, in the form of celebrity voice chats, voice blogs, video blogs and now even SponsoredTweets. While some of these platforms, like chat, operate in much the same way as an offline event would, where a crowd en-masse gathers and then dissipates, others require the celebrity to maintain sustained interaction with their audience and build a meaningful relationship with their ‘followers’.

To some, this can be consuming, to others an exhilarating way to reach out and be heard. Platforms like UTV’s SponsoredTweets allow a celebrity to monetise their Twitter feed by placing ads. Since the ads are controlled by the celeb, they choose what they want or don’t want to publish, and get paid by their sponsor for putting the message out.

Others, like UTV’s voice blogs, allow them to reach an unparalleled audience, to whom Internet-connected devices haven’t yet had the ability to reach. This is as easy as making a phone call but with an order of magnitude larger in terms of reach, while maintaining a respectful distance from the admirer and the admired.

Services like Klout are trying – much like the ‘bit’ did to measure information – to set a standard for “influence”. Having the right kind of friends always helps but now we have the ability to measure HOW much it can help.

Our definition of media has evolved more rapidly in the past decade than it had in the hundred years before that. In a world where all bits are equal, there is little that separates the journalist from the newspaper, the celebrity from the show, each from having its own audience and reach.

Even our definition of the celebrity itself has evolved with the pace of the medium; scientists, politicians, teachers and others not related to the field of entertainment now have a multitude of platforms to encash on their popularity and build on their own identities within the spaces in which they excel. The cult of the celebrity, as an idea, applies more broadly to who and what’s seen on TV.

As an industry, we are built on the cult of the celebrity, to use the current crop to fill our movies, TV and newspapers and to create new ones to replace the old. If the last decade is any indication, our ability to build, control and monetise them is now under-going a radical transformation, one where the tools are now available for any star to be, to change its own orbit, and create their own legion, fan by fan, bit by bit.

Sameer Pitalwalla, SVP, UTV and Business Head - Celebrity and Video

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