Plus an expert weighs in on the stresses of going viral.
Vanessa Chen was returning to her apartment in Mass when she realized that one of her many fashion inspiration videos on Instagram had gone viral.
Just as the elevator doors closed behind her, the burgeoning style influencer saw a notification light up on her phone screen. Her video had been receiving views in the thousands; then, right when Chen began to think its popularity may be dying off, Instagram shared the clip on its featured reel.
Checking the notification, Chen said her stomach dropped, but not with the excitement of going viral. Looking back on that big moment several months later, she said, “When a video gets really big all of a sudden, it’s really stressful.”
Chen knows that more views mean more negative comments, more pressure to top the view count, and more eyes on her. More than ever before, social media stars are thrust into the spotlight like traditional celebrities. As a result, internet celebrities often face a difficult rise to fame, trademarked by stress and a number of mental health difficulties. For Chen, her sudden boom in online popularity is no different.
Away from the camera, Chen studies computer science at UMass Lowell with plans to graduate in December 2021. But with the recent growth of her social media accounts, she has had to adjust her already busy schedule to accommodate up to six hours per day of video preparation, filming, editing, posting, and responding to both comments and brand deal proposals. Chen’s typical content online ranges from modeling tips and “fashion hacks” to clothing reviews for brands that sponsor her.
“I still catch myself not believing it or being hesitant to jump for joy because I don’t want to jinx it,” Chen said.
Chen’s social media celebrity began last August, after she posted her first video on TikTok. Since then, she has accumulated more than 182,000 followers on that platform, and more than 100,000 on Instagram. Between brand deals and follower interactions, Chen makes between $750 and $1,100 per post. But though initially thrilled with that success, Chen quickly realized that her rise to internet fame came with strings attached.
“When I first started to get big, I struggled a lot with separating my own self esteem from my social media,” Chen said. “When I had a good day where a post racked up a lot of likes, I would feel ecstatic and confident. But when I had a bad day with less engagement, my self esteem would plummet.”
Dr. Donna Rockwell is a licensed clinical psychologist in New York and Michigan whose research and scholarly works focus on the concept of “mindfulness” and celebrity psychology. In 2009, she conducted a study of 15 well-known American celebrities, and found that being famous leads to a number of psychological difficulties. According to Rockwell, there are four stages of an individual’s relationship with celebrity: love/hate, addiction, acceptance, and adaptation.
“I think it’s scary to even think about putting oneself out there, because of the level of snark today and the lack of dignity in communication styles,” Rockwell said. “People feel like they have carte blanche to speak so harshly to one another.”
Rockwell’s study asserts that someone new to fame would be experiencing a complicated relationship with their newfound celebrity where they love their platform but also are able to identify a number of reasons that they dislike the experience of being famous. For Chen, a major factor in the love/hate relationship with internet fame is the effect of public response on her mental health and self-worth.
“I think it’s overwhelmingly painful,” Rockwell said about the constant influx of negativity online. “A famous person who is getting a lot of negative feedback from social media would have to create a defense mechanism against feeling all of that hurt and pain.”
Rockwell suggests rising celebrities create a “circle of counsel” to help them mitigate feelings of isolation and other negative emotions. According to Rockwell, it is especially important for famous people to have individuals that they can trust and lean on. For Chen, one of those people is her boyfriend Jason Moynihan.
“I think my biggest support system is my boyfriend. He keeps me level headed at all times,” Chen said. “He has to remind me that social media is not my life; it’s what I do, and I like connecting with people, but it doesn’t define me.”
Chen and Moynihan met in August 2019 and have been inseparable since.
“At the beginning, I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to handle it,” Moynihan said about Chen’s internet fame. “But she’s pretty good about it now, so I don’t have to worry about it, but I still keep tabs on it.”
“He’s like my manager and my therapist,” Chen added.
The pair makes it a point to occasionally unwind and step away from the stresses of Chen’s internet career. Taking time for introspection is a large part of Rockwell’s “mindfulness” method of adapting to fame.
“To me, mindfulness means to be present in the moment… so that you have an inner, grounded sense of self,” Rockwell said. “It’s not about the external world reflecting back on you; it’s what you feel inside yourself and what you can give back to the world.”
Rockwell encourages Chen and others to ask, “If TikTok fame is a currency, how can I use all this wealth to make the world a better place?”
In the past, Chen’s followers have voiced their concerns about the negativity circulating online. So Chen intends to follow Rockwell’s advice by cultivating kindness on her social media pages.
“Society will always have something to judge or nitpick about,” said one of Chen’s followers, Kassandra Lopez. “Everyone has something going on, and it takes too much energy to be negative.”
“I genuinely believe that as a decent human being, it is your responsibility to act like one, both online and in-person,” Chen said. “I am actively trying to make my online platform a more positive and supportive community.”