On August 25, 2009, Adam Goldstein tweeted a melancholic, ominous message to his followers. It was the last time he tweeted, three days later he was found dead of an accidental drug overdose brought on by a history of depression. Then, Charlie Sheen went on a manic media blitz in the winter of 2011, and it took him only one day on Twitter to gain a million followers, each one thrilled to witness the frantic and somewhat curious "#tigerblood" and "#winning" rants. Another example of a moment where the collective Internet-dwelling populace held their breath was during Kanye's Donda-gate, where the rapper went on an hour-long rant about his idea to start a design collective or school (it was unclear) called Donda, after his mother. Then, of course, we've all read, followed, or talked about Amanda Bynes, the likable star of She's The Man and Easy A who has suddenly become tabloid fodder, flinging bongs (or "bongs") and wearing wigs in court.
All four of these instances are diverse and have different implications — a death, a crazed rant, a desperate plea to be liked, and a meltdown, but they share one common trait: Each one was a direct, unmediated, and unfiltered look into a celebrity's psyche. No publicists, no press releases, and no paparazzi lenses with which to view this intense/sensitive/destructive moment, a moment which belonged to people we (as the public) are so used to seeing filtered through images, film, or music.
Up until quite recently, every time the pressures of fame exacerbate a celebrity's mental state, the public at large only receives snaps and moments from manic descent. One of the most iconic images of the aughts was the upsetting, crazed photo of Britney Spears with a shaved head, wielding an umbrella at paparazzi. Imagine, of course, if Spears would have had access to Twitter during her meltdown? (Or don't. The thought is kind of disturbing.) But now, with a direct link to fans via social media (or the decision to forgo a middle person), we literally get actual, unmediated 'postcards from the edge.'
The appeal to Twitter, especially for those who feel disconnected from a sense of community, can be strong. Psychology Today brings up an excellent point about the social and emotional effects of the microblogging site. "Twitter aims primarily at social needs, like those for belonging, love, and affection," author Moses Ma suggests. In fact, the piece goes on to suggest that Twitter is capable of making someone feel like they are fulfilling several of Maslow's higher level hierarchical needs, specifically community, self-esteem, and even self-actualization. Ma writes, "Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognize you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won't cure it."
Yet, researchers have proven that an increased reliance on social networking (like, say, an obsessive usage of Twitter), can actually lead to larger, anti-social behavior. According to a study done by the University of Maryland, "The cell phone directly evokes feelings of connectivity to others, thereby fulfilling the basic human need to belong." The result is a bit of an ouroboros — people use Twitter in order to feel connected and self-assured, but an increased consumption of (or, say, addiction to) social networking can leave a user feeling more isolated than ever.
Photo: Via Twitter/AmandaBynes
Endless publications are trying to figure out what is wrong with Amanda Bynes, including (reportedly) her parents. While it is clear that she is going through a rough time (when Courtney Love tells you to pull it together, it's not a good sign), we'd posit that Bynes is turning to Twitter for the emotional feedback it is giving her — as non-Bynes expert Chrissy Teigen points out below.
Teigen has a point, however. Since her "meltdown" has begun, there have been a consistent, even gleeful group of followers to retweet and encourage Bynes, reveling in the type of joy her pain brings (otherwise known as schadenfreude). It appears as if Bynes is caught in an emotional feedback loop, on a social-networking site that's entire purpose is to remove the filter between the persona and the audience, and where gratification occurs when someone is successfully the object of attention — even if that attention isn't always positive.
If this wasn't enough to accelerate an underlying mental issue, we could speculate it certainly encourages the speed of a descent — and the manic joy with which Twitter watches.
What happens when managing your "brand" or interacting with your audience becomes a legitimate form of communication? Or that a celebrity breakdown, an understandable event given the pressure of being famous, is something that the public can now witness in real-time? What will stop that infinite, self-actualizing loop that both affirms a famous individual's personhood (see: Maslow's hierarchical needs) while also creating spectacle that will inspire attention and support? Will young celebrities (or, heck, even young people) without an intact emotional network turn to increasingly odd behaviors, or is this just an instance of a young person in distress suffering from something more serious? For that last part, we'd hazard a guess that the answer to both is yes.