Internet Celebrity: What the Hell Is it and How Do You Become One?

Internet celebrity is a unique, rather odd phenomenon. We as a culture (I’m talking U.S. here) have an almost unhealthy fascination with the latest Britney Spears news or an unusual admiration for Samuel L. Jackson. As you might expect, this phenomenon applies to Internet culture as well.

We Internet nerds are no exception. We have given people like Tay Zonday millions of page views (and recording deals) and shower lifecasters such as iJustine with abnormal amounts of praise and love. We’re just a strange culture, aren’t we? And even more so, a lot of us would love this kind of attention, even if we aren’t willing to admit it.

Come on, who doesn’t want hundreds of thousands of readers for their blog? (And yeah, I know a lot of you out there want to be admired by strange guys playing WoW in their basements. Seriously!).

So, with the help of Sarah Austin of Pop17, I’ve compiled seven different themes for how people become Internet celebrities. Most are obvious, a few are Internet-specific, and a few more are more confusing than a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

(Thank you for your time Sarah!)

1) Do something unusual, something people have never seen
Unlike general celebrity culture, Internet culture seems to place high value on being original and unique. Doing something that nobody else can do or has ever seen is going to give you a better shot at being an Internet celebrity.

Example: Tay Zonday
You just don’t expect the deep and booming voice to come out of his mouth, and the lyrics are simple and catchy. Put both together, and you have something unique, addictive, and original. It helped propel Tay to commercials, record deals, and Internet stardom.

2) Do it by complete accident
There’s millions of YouTube videos, blogs, startups, and people on the Internet. What separates a few from the rest? Sometimes, it’s just dumb luck. You may not be shooting for stardom, but because of a combination of hilarity, uniqueness, and dumb luck (in some cases, back luck), your face spreads across the Internet.

Example: Gary Brolsma (Numa Numa Kid)
All he really did was lip sync and make awkward dance movements. I’m pretty sure 80% of guys have done that at a club, half of those caught on camera. But his video had just the right amount of head-scratching hilarity to propel him to unwanted Internet celebrity. After years of saying it ruined his life, he of course cashed a check and made a second video.

3) Be strange. Very strange.
Just be…weird. You make yourself memorable, and that’s a key to sticking around. Sometimes you can make yourself so memorable that people will want to burn the image out of their heads.

Example: Chris Crocker
I don’t have to post the video for you to understand the strangeness – you’ve already seen the “leave Britney alone” video enough times already. It’s become an Internet phenomenon with 23 million views. Even if he did do it as an act, it doesn’t matter – the effect is still the same. You know he is because it was one of the strangest videos you’ve ever seen.

4) Work your ass off
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Samuel L. Jackson didn’t become a star by laying on the couch all day. And Internet celebrity rarely occurs without creating lots of content, connecting with fans, building a brand, and sleeping half the recommended amount. Working your ass off does actually pay off. Seriously.

Example: Sarah Austin.
I had to suck up at some point during this article, right? But really, when you’re editing videos at 2:00 AM to get things just right, you know you’re talking to someone who wants success and will go through the grinder to get it. To be honest, a lot of the people who are popular on YouTube and on the blogosphere work ridiculous hours…

Don’t worry, we’ll talk about life balance in a future article.

5) Be really attractive, preferable in the form of a woman.
Do you really think Natalie Portman or Megan Fox would be on the big screen and in demand without having the looks to back up their acting skills? Having looks that make guys or girls oodle over you is simply an asset. Period. And unfortunately, there is a double standard based on gender on this rule as well.

Example: Justine Ezeraik
iJustine is a lifecaster. She’s also one of the top ten most followed people on Twitter and landed her own show, among other things. She has quietly built a mini-empire out of her lifecasting and her face. To build that empire (and that insane following), she has used two major assets – Tireless work ethic and attractiveness. I’m sorry, Justine just wouldn’t be an Internet celebrity if she had looks closer to that of the wicked witch. Guys go ga-ga for curvy blondes.

(Since I haven’t met my sucking up quota yet: Sarah Austin is also gorgeous)

6) Be passionate about your work
Being overly passionate about what you’re doing and what you love simply bleeds through your screen. Really, that’s all there is to it.

Example: Gary Vaynerchuk
This man loves wine like Favre loves football. Okay, dumb analogy, but you get the point. Vaynerchuk has built a brand by simply being passionate about his work, no matter where he is or who he is with. I can’t remember the last time he’s been off his game. And why is that? Because he is the same passionate wine man off camera as he is on camera.

7) Create something of great value
This is a different type of celebrity. And, in my opinion, the most important. Just as Bill Gates is an international celebrity and worldwide brand for creating Microsoft, the founders of great Internet startups can gain micro-fame on the Internet. This is because they’ve clearly built something people use everyday. They’ve built something of value, just like Gates did when revolutionized the world with Windows.

Example: Jason Calacanis
Say Jason’s name to Joe the Plumber, and he’ll wonder who you’re talking about. Say Jason’s name to Jane the Blogger, and she’ll know exactly who you’re talking about. Calacanis built Weblogs, Inc., making him one of the godfathers of blogging. Now he’s running around as the CEO of Mahalo, retiring and quasi-retiring from blogging in the meanwhile. But you probably already knew most of this, which is why he’s an Internet celebrity in his own right.

So, what should we take away from this little dive into Internet culture? That really, in the end, the same things that get people to the top of Hollywood can get you to the top of YouTube or the blogosphere. Hard work, providing value to people, some eye candy, and unintended hilarity all add up to Internet celebrity.

I don’t suggest debating about whether or not Internet celebrity is a useful pursuit of your time, because it doesn’t matter. It is established now. People are creating following and making money off of it. The question is how far it will go and how well it will translate to fame amongst the general population.