A catchy Wired Magazine ad caught my Internet-scrolling eyes this morning, and I ended up reading the magazine's cover story on Internet celebrity Julia Allison.
It's a strange story for several reasons. Allison is a Web star—probably unrecognizable to most people that pass her on the street (at least outside Manhattan or San Francisco). But Wired reports that Allison, who works as a dating columnist for Time Out New York, has built her fame on little other than relentless self-promotion:
But with all due respect, Allison's renown has little to do with her day job. Indeed, it's hard to describe exactly what she's famous for. She's not an actress or a singer or a misbehaving heiress to a hotel fortune. She hasn't recorded any meme-ready videos like Tay "Chocolate Rain" Zonday or Tron Guy or the "Leave Britney Alone!" dude. She doesn't flaunt tech knowledge like bloggers Robert Scoble or Dave Winer. She is undeniably pretty—flowing black-coffee hair, sparkling eyes, gamine physique, broad smile—but beauty alone can't account for her celebrity.
Allison is the latest, and perhaps purest, iteration of the Warholian ideal: someone who is famous for being famous. Like graffiti writers who turned their signatures into wild-style gallery pieces, she has made the process of self-promotion into its own freaky art form. Traditionally, it takes an army of publicists, a well-connected family, or a big-budget ad campaign to make this kind of splash. But Allison has done it on her own and on the cheap, armed only with an insatiable need for attention and a healthy helping of Web savvy.
Of course, along with the fame comes the censure. Nearly all successful bloggers are prone to tremendous amounts of vitriol—not unlike that aimed at traditional celebrities, but the words are harsher because they generally take place via the blogger's critical medium (the blog) and because they're largely posted under the commenters' comfortable cover of anonymity. The language is also rarely censored.
Some bloggers have garnered fame and a major audience by carving a niche and serving a purpose—like Dooce.com's Heather Armstrong, who has written about motherhood and been forced to defend her writing, and the imposed title "mommy blogger," against questioning by folks like Kathie Lee Gifford, who interviewed Armstrong on NBC's Today Show. (Gifford asked why she felt the need to publicly air the sorts of sentiments that one would share only with a best friend, and questioned Armstrong's boundaries for blogging about her daughter.)
But what I find so strange about Allison's story is her willingness to subject herself to the incredible burden of online criticism, when there isn't much she's defending. I feel like I'm missing something. Armstrong, for one, is charged in part with the mantel of carving this new path for the Internet where mothers are free to share the challenges and thrills of raising kids and making families.
Interesting twist: Since the Wired story was first published, Allison has reportedly said she's tired of the fame game and wants to refocus on writing.