Dead Cats, Pop Stars, and the Age of Overshare

My hamster have died today. (writes @likeastargirlI’m very sad 😦 Rip Slevin 😦

@Fernanda_Jordan says: she is almost so perfect like you Harold!!!! My puppy died 😦 i am so saaad her name was nutella

I am so sad, my cat died yesterday. 😦 I had him for 6 years, now he is gone, I miss him so much!!! :,( (this from @Niamhroberts44)

It’s a bad day for pets, that’s certain.

This is an odd collection of tweets with which to start a blog post, and yet it’s only a tiny fraction of the weirdest Twitter account going these days: Harry, My Cat Died. See, those bereaved pet owners up there aren’t just tweeting their sadness out at the wide open internet. They, and hundreds of others, are aiming their need for condolences straight at Harry Styles, the floppy one from One Direction.

I don’t know why Harry is a target for pet loss bulletins. I’m not a One Direction fan, so I may have missed out on some crucial newsletter wherein he discussed a dead hamster/sympathised with the loss of a fan’s goldfish/revealed a psychic ability to communicate with deceased animals. I’m really not sure that the contents of the tweets matter – the point of them is to try to get the attention of a pop star by outdoing all rivals in a weird game of one-down-manship.

The pet tweets are one thing. They get stranger.

You can try physical pain:

i’m on my period so i’m already emotional as it is so why don’t you follow me to make me feel better (@helloshans)

imaginary pain:

I’m sat here thinking what it would be like if any of you boys Died 😦 and I’m crying my eyes out 😥 this shows how much ily? (@RealGeorge12)

or, er, this:

if i died you wouldn’t even know, yet you mean more than my own life to me. (@LiamsPaynis).

It’s hard to tell whether these tweets are true or not. A certain fraction of them must be, I’d imagine, but even a truthful one will get drowned out by the waves upon waves of nonsense that form Harry’s @-replies from his eleven million followers. It’s easy to see Harry, My Cat Died as a piece of fluffy internet humour – I did, and do, but then I’m a terrible person – but it’s also a fascinating example of collective psychology.

If you’re not a member of this group of people (the One Direction/1D fandom), this looks like aberrant behaviour. Who lays themself bare like this to a stranger? Who barrages a stranger with 50 or 100 numbered tweets to try to get noticed? Who on earth thinks that’s likely to create a positive reaction in the first place?

Someone whose peers are all doing the same thing, that’s who. The 1D fandom demographics skew young and female, making them – generally – one large peer group. They see behaviours arise, be replicated, echo, and replicate again. The goal is obviously to be noticed by Harry himself or to have a tweet retweeted by him; the successful tactics remain a mystery. There are the obvious pleas on sympathy (dead cat/granny/platypus) and the seduction attempts (which are uncomfortable, coming from underage fans); there’s the brute-force method (50 identical numbered tweets) and the single-but-intense – aka the They Don’t Love You Like I Love You.

Let’s not lose the point here: all of this is weird.

If any one of my Twitter friends started acting like this off his own bat, I’d be concerned.

It’s just that when there are thousands of you, every one incidence of weirdness is subsumed into the whole. The group mentality feeds into a behavioural cycle: you want to be part of the group, so you behave like the other members of the group. The group grows bigger and draws in more members. Membership of the group is a desirable state, which desire overrides any reluctance you might have toward the behaviours displayed and required.

This is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Call it Beatlemania with a broadband connection. The crucial difference is that before social media, the closest you could come to personally communicating with the object of your obsession was by attending an event as part of a crowd, or writing a fan letter, which are usually filtered through a bevy of PAs and never reach the celebrity at all. Now, you have a means of access to them 24/7. Of course there’s still a good chance it’s an assistant looking after the account, and an even better chance that the celebrity never reads their replies. But in a time when the President of America occasionally writes his own tweets, it’s still a possibility that you’ll be the lucky one who gets noticed.

The current cohort of twenty-somethings – of which I’m a member – is the last to have reached its teens without the social media ubiquity of the late ’00s. We were online as teens, certainly. We had Hotmail and Livejournal/DiaryX/Typepad accounts. But ten/twelve years ago, when I was setting up my first online accounts, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no ask.fm or Formspring or even Myspace. We grew alongside the social media phenomenon and attained adulthood as it crested its first massive wave.

2013’s fresh teenagers are coming into a world where social media profiles are not just useful but de rigeur. Living your life out loud becomes the norm from the word go – no gentle slope from blog to Bebo to Facebook. It’s a blessing and a curse, in my opinion – certainly finding ‘your people’ on the internet helps ease the pain of social exclusion at school, for kids being bullied – but on the other hand, it’s hard to impress upon younger internet users the very permanence of the internet.

Put it this way: it might make your day to find people who love Harry Styles’ dulcet tones as much as you do, and you may not be so jubilant when a future romantic prospect or employer Googles you and finds your HarryLuver4Ever Twitter bio – but a thirteen-year-old can’t possibly be expected to understand repercussions on that sort of timescale.

There’s an argument that internet oversharing (either by current children/teens themselves, or their mommy- and daddy-blogging parents) will have reached such a universal status by ten or fifteen years down the line, that it will no longer carry the same weight that it does today. If everybody’s baby pictures are archived on blogs, and everybody’s teenage crush is acted out in the Twitter spotlight, perhaps that very universality will mean that public adolescence will become the new normal. Group behaviour – and the public promulgation of that behaviour – may yet be be the hallmark of this decade, communications-wise.

Maybe the 1D fans are giving us a glimpse of things to come.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a goldfish to exhume and Twitpic to a pop star.

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