MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

Grounding Chuck: Lessons from Mr. Sheen | March 9, 2011

If you haven’t heard anything about Two and a Half Men actor Charlie Sheen in the last two weeks, perhaps you inhabit the parallel planet from which he claims to have come — where each resident lives on tiger blood, shares the DNA of Adonis and colludes with his fellow citizens to eliminate the wretched race of trolls from existence. Otherwise, you know nearly by heart the bizarre, endlessly-quotable media rampage of self-proclaimed epic proportion upon which Mr. Sheen has recently embarked: his mere presence in the room has lifted ratings for Piers Morgan Tonight (CNN), 20/20 (ABC) and Dateline (NBC) in turn, his record-breaking Twitter account has accumulated one million followers in just over 24 hours, and his home-filmed variety show has garnered some 600,000 viewers of its first episode. Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (see below) have parodied him, countless psychiatrists have analyzed him for free, and a California hot dog stand has immortalized his legacy in footlong form. Indeed, in the long history of celebrity meltdowns, Sheen’s ongoing episode is on its way to becoming a definitive chapter.
Still, there’s something different — even endearing — about Sheen’s public breakdown, something that the myriad media outlets questioning his semi-psychosis with half-smirks have yet to analyze: Charlie is the first major celebrity to openly embrace social media in the face of his own potential demise. Normally, such destitute circumstances encourage celebs far from the limelight — so much as a DUI can result in a timely PR statement and self-imposed hiatus, not the sort of exposure-driven bloodlust that has come to define Sheen’s continuing sideshow. But as mentioned above, Charlie took to Twitter and became the site’s top star within a day’s time. Then he self-produced an internet show, which he later criticized as “treason,” in the tradition of the countless webisodes, web-only series and web-based talk shows that dominate the current blogosphere. (Sheen’s, of course, was far more popular than your average online show.) What this proves, however, might be more cause for concern than for celebration. It seems that Twitter and other social media have acted as enablers in Sheen’s battle with sanity, as they allow him an automatic audience and the immediacy of staggering numerical data to provide the illusion of acceptance — and, because Sheen’s career equates popularity-driven stats like ratings with achievement, the mirage of success ensues.

But Twitter can’t exactly be chastised or taken to court in this case — that would be like blaming a gun for murder. Instead, it’s the responsibility of society to recognize that the rampant celebrity obsession enabled by social media has a dark side, and that the emptiness of one Facebook user engaging with his or her favorite star is far outweighed by the emptiness of one star engaging with millions of cyberspace fans. Part of the mystique of the celebrity’s fall from grace has always been the ability of the typical viewer to watch its every increment from afar. Now, however, those same viewers can directly engage with the celebrity in freefall, courting him into conversation via Twitter or commenting on his every thought in user forums. The line between private and public is therefore squandered, and the celebrity — for better or for worse — is further encouraged to completely lose grasp on reality.

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    Established in 2009 at USC, the Master's of Science in Human Behavior is designed to equip students with knowledge of consumer psychology, social media and market analysis skills. This is our blog. Subscribe

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