Entry from March 9, 2011

This morning on WTOP news radio in Washington, one of the two morning hosts could not resist reacting to the latest news about Charlie Sheen — I forget what it was — with an assertion that he was heartily sick of hearing about Charlie Sheen. I know that this is an eternal and inescapable media paradox. I also know that the on-air “talent” have only a very limited ability to influence what the station’s or the network’s editors and bosses think is newsworthy. Furthermore, I know that in writing about Charlie Sheen myself I am as much a victim of the journalist’s paradox as anybody — except that I’m not complaining of being sick of hearing about Charlie Sheen. I would be, I suppose, but for the fact that my immunity has been built up by all the other pop cultural dreck I have been forced to swallow along with the mainstream news since Tonya Harding’s hired goon whacked Nancy Kerrigan on the leg in 1994.

But perhaps we need to say something more on behalf of the popular appetite for all things Charlie. The most astonishing fact in all this coverage of the last few days is that Mr Sheen is said to have gone from zero to two million followers on Twitter in less than a week, a record. As of today he has 2.3 million of these people, who are evidently eager to gobble up every crumb that falls from his conversational table. Clearly, the drug “Charlie Sheen” is more than just a media phenomenon, the product of hype and hysteria and a manufactured hunger for celebrity gossip. Not that these things do not also have a place in Charlie’s story, of course. But all those Twitter followers have to be more than just passive receptacles. They made a choice, a positive action in order to follow Charlie, and they must therefore be expecting something more from him than the privilege of watching his self-destruction.

For there is something transgressive — as the literary theorists would say — about following Charlie. I know, I know. I would have doubted it too, but there is no other explanation. He reminds us that we require at least a faint echo of the old official culture — which once celebrated self-restraint and morality and honor — necessary for the title of “bad boy” to be preserved as we want and need it to be preserved. Although we are now otherwise immersed in the former unofficial culture — once only a truancy from the official, a more or less brief vacation spent in self-indulgence and bawdry — that has itself been made official, the celebration of rebellion remains essential to us even when there is hardly anything left to rebel against.

Hadley Freeman in The Guardian agrees with Mike and Bruce of WTOP in recommending  that Charlie “have a nice hot cup of shut up” since “the truth is, a bit of editing is a good thing, as anyone who has been watching Charlie’s webcasts — which should be shown in schools by anti- drugs campaigners — now knows. Remember, ‘having lots of Twitter followers’ is not the same thing as ‘having a career’.” Sounds right, doesn’t it? But it happens not to be true anymore. A fascinating AP story points out that having a lot of Twitter followers can be a lot better, in the sense of remunerative, than having a career — even, perhaps, Charlie’s career which lately yielded him $1.8 million an episode of “Two and a Half Men.”

All the attention has brought a huge amount of exposure to the business of social media advertising. Though companies have been working advertisements into Twitter and Facebook for more than two years, it’s a sometimes unnoticed practice. “A lot of people know about the business now,” says Ad.ly CEO Arnie Gullov-Singh. “It’s a validation of the business that we’re building and the overall industry changes that we’re a part of.” Micro-endorsements can net a celebrity anywhere from $1,000 to the low five figures per tweet, with ad.ly’s top celebrities earning about $10,000 per tweet. Ad.ly and Internships.com declined to discuss the financial arrangements of the deal with Sheen. Pricing is frequently structured on the number of clicks an advertiser gets via the ad, with $1-2 per click. “Celebrities are creating content and they have a right to monetize it,” Gullov- Singh adds. “Otherwise, why should they do it?”

Here we have an economic mechanism for the perfect exploitation of pop-cultural fame or celebrity, it seems. And yet it is not quite the case that Charlie can get richer than he already is just from being Charlie. He — or someone on his behalf — has also got to tweet, and coming up with a regular supply of 140-character, haiku-like compositions could make him or his ghost into the highest paid poet in history. That he knows this is suggested by some of those webcasts that Miss Freeman thinks (sadly, erroneously) would scare a druggie straight. Here’s an excerpt, as retailed by Lisa de Moraes of The Washington Post:

Oh how they once begged to attend my perfect banquet in the nude, now they just beg for the keys to my gold. Here is my unwanted guest list. the names slightly altered to prevent their stench from polluting my magic daiquiri, or even worse, stealing my favorite pony. A pony named Steve, his orange mane painted blue, blue like the evening sky, as he gallops into the basement to acquire the ancient flatware and a rotting cheeseboard covered in the mold of their moral dysentery.

As Robert Schumann said on first hearing the music of Frédéric Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen. A genius.”

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