Ellen Watts and I I have just completed a new book chapter that is forthcoming in a volume edited by Rebecca Lind at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the third in her series Produsing Theory in a Digital World.
The book will be published next year, but if you would like a preview copy of our chapter, feel free to email Ellen or me.
In the meantime, here are some excerpts from our introductory section:
In January 2016 Watson launched Our Shared Shelf (OSS), a feminist book group and discussion forum hosted on the Goodreads platform.
By January 2019, OSS had grown to over 220,000 members and had hosted discussions on topics ranging from feminist literature to personal experiences of sexual discrimination. Watson framed her decision to start the group in the context of her formal UN role, telling prospective members she wanted to “share what I’m learning” and “hear your thoughts too.”
These stated aims of interaction and sharing, however, potentially placed Watson the movie star and UN ambassador in close proximity to those who responded to her call to “join up and participate.” This raises the question of how Watson’s celebrity status actually works in an online community grounded in collaboration and community building, and how she manages her relationship with audiences who sometimes become co-participants, or what we term user-audience networks.
Understanding how these processes play out matters because the response of user- audience networks is today central to how celebrities achieve the legitimacy, the authority, and ultimately the power to switch back and forth between the fields of entertainment and politics. We argue that the ability to translate the celebrity capital generated through entertainment media representations into the political capital required for advocacy and mobilization for political ends is built on claims to represent user-audience networks. Our approach to the relationship between celebrity and politics therefore places celebrities’ modes of interaction with user-audience networks at the center of explaining how celebrities migrate into the political field. To obtain the political legitimacy required to advocate for feminist causes, Watson needed to gain, and continuously maintain and renew, the acceptance of user-audience networks. Doing so, however, required that she avoid accusations that she was inauthentically stage-managing this process from above, for her own personal or reputational gain.
In this chapter we blend interpretive and digital ethnographic methods to show how Watson performed three types of claim to represent user-audience networks and, in turn, how these claims were evaluated by members of those networks. We show that Watson’s activity on the OSS forum allowed her to act in close proximity to co-participants as an ordinary member of the forum, while simultaneously creating the social distance that was required for her to be the group’s connected representative. Watson was actually more visible as the group’s external representative when she used her activities beyond the group, particularly her social media posts, to assume the role of authentic ambassador for the group’s feminist ideas. We argue that Watson’s framing of OSS as a discussion “with and between you all” (Our Shared Shelf, 2016) was a carefully formulated rhetorical move. This phrasing managed the contradiction between, on one hand, Watson’s minimal levels of direct engagement with others on the OSS group and, on the other hand, her role as a representative of the group. Interviews with ordinary OSS members show that it was precisely Watson’s negotiated distance from the everyday entanglements of interaction with user-audience networks that underpinned OSS members’ comfortable acceptance of her as a political representative.
Although Watson’s celebrity capital supported her representative claims by affording her considerable reach on social media, this capital alone could not facilitate her acceptance as a legitimate representative. It was her connections with formal politics in the UN, together with the perceived appropriateness of her professional self-presentation and engagement at a distance, which enabled OSS members uncomfortable with celebrity to accept and support Watson as a worthy exception. In contrast with the view that digital media place celebrities and audiences in close proximity to each other by blurring the boundaries between media production and consumption, we show that social distance and boundary maintenance remain key resources that enable entertainment celebrities to act in the political field.
Here is the full reference:
Watts, E. and Chadwick, A. (2020, forthcoming). ‘“With and Between You All”: Celebrity Status, User-Audience Networks, and Representative Claims in Emma Watson’s Feminist Politics’ in Lind, R. A. (ed) Produsing Theory in a Digital World 3.0: The Intersection of Audiences and Production in Contemporary Theory. New York: Peter Lang.