The New Celebrity Class

Upon landing at Newark Airport, Peter Shankman was greeted by a man in a tux with a Morton’s Steakhouse 24 oz. Porterhouse. Why the celebrity treatment? Well, he is a lover of steak for one thing, and a loyal Morton’s customer; but more importantly, he is a big name in PR and an influential voice online. He jokingly tweeted about wanting a Morton’s steak when he landed, and that’s exactly what he got. The stunt naturally spread far and wide in the media.

Shankman is part of a new class of quasi-celebs who get online buzz and occasional special treatment. It’s because they are social influencers; a diverse group who have made a name for themselves online in their own areas of expertise by sharing relevant, interesting content that people value. In an age of personal broadcasting, the Web and social media are rewriting Andy Warhol’s 15-minutes-of-fame dictum.

Are these rewards justified? On the one hand, they can be payment for taking the time and having the skills to make yourself an online voice that people want to listen to. Brands have a vested interest in identifying and engaging social influencers because they are the ones who can become virtual brand ambassadors (aka free spokespeople who can reach a large audience online and whose opinion matters to that large audience). It’s no surprise that brands have partnered with social influence scoring companies like Klout to offer special rewards to those with high social influence scores.

And then of course there are those who get rewarded for being outrageous and entertaining for a hot second. This isn’t new, of course, but the lightening speed from nobody to posterboy is quicker than ever. Just check out Wade Cothran, the guy who posted that ridiculous craigslist ad looking for a living situation in San Francisco selling himself as the Best. Roommate. Ever.” The funny post gained him tons online attention, including that of social media expert Ashton Kutcher who tweeted about the SF apartment guy to his own 7 million twitter followers.

However, one mustn’t forget that fame comes at a price. The craigslist guy may now lose the job that brought him to San Francisco in the first place thanks to his funny but expletive-heavy craigslist viral sensation. Many people who use social media look at Shankman and even Cothran and think someday that could be them. In a way, that’s refreshing, although it feeds into a certain amount of narcissism that’s begun to define social media. It’s useful to remember that fame, Internet or otherwise, can be less terrific than it’s cracked up to be.

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