It used to be that when you wanted to interact with someone even moderately famous (that you had no prior connection to), you had to write them a letter. It was a very formal and distant process. Your favourite author, actor, producer, designer, etc. were all far removed from you, even if you lived in a nearby community. Thus, for example, if you wanted to tell your favourite author how much you liked their latest novel, you either wrote them a letter or went to a public place that they were going to be (such as a book-signing). The latter usually would have (and still does) lots of access barriers. It was costly and time consuming.
As a result, there was a gulf between creator and audience. They were doing their thing in one place, while the audience (readers, viewers, etc.) consumed it elsewhere. It put creators on pedestals, but it also kept them a step removed from their audience. They did not hear every individual criticism or grievance, nor did they constantly hear how much people enjoyed their work. People could say they did not like something without everyone else telling them that they were wrong.
Social media has made it much easier to access anyone. Yes, accounts might be run by communications managers and not the actual creator in question, but in theory, one can interact with a celebrity or creator or any famous person just as easily as one can interact with friends, colleagues, and family. As far as the algorithms are concerned, these people are your friends and family. You follow your cousins and you follow your favourite writers or actors. They are all mixed up with a bunch of advertisements.
Because this is a new development over the past decade, there are conflicting rules and norms for interacting on social media. Some people see social media as a place to hide behind a screen name and treat everyone rudely or downright nastily. These people see someone being online as licence to attack them, and if their victims get upset, it’s their own fault for “not being able to take it”, not the instigators’ fault for uttering death threats and similar things. However, social media is as much a public place as a shopping mall. You can’t utter death threats in a shopping mall, so why on Twitter? Then again, there are probably a lot of people who would be fine with uttering death threats in a shopping mall. I must be naive.
Most people do not see social media as licence to be as nasty as possible, but they do see it as a place where people can speak freely, including subjective criticism and making controversial statements. It is very much like a shopping mall food court, where you can discuss something with your friends loudly enough that others can hear you, but said others aren’t expected to join in the conversation (no matter how much they might like to). However, while most people aren’t likely to have famous people in their mall food courts, they can easily have their conversation ‘overheard’ by these famous people on social media. Heck, it’s easy to tag them, even accidentally sometimes. It can be quite exciting to have a famous person — or at least their communications assistant — respond to you or like your post. You can comment on what they say just like you can your friends. You can easily delude yourself into thinking that you are actually their friend.
I’m not letting the famous people off the hook in this situation. What is the point of being on social media as a famous person (under your own name or brand), if not to interact with fans and colleagues? Don’t they want to know what their audience or readers think? Shouldn’t they want to invite some controversy about their work (not themselves) to generate conversation? If someone is critical, shouldn’t they want that addressed? If one person has a question or opinion, they are probably not alone. Answering the question or addressing the opinion is usually a good way to interact.
It is one thing to call someone out for being rude (or appearing rude, as this is harder to discern in written language) and to want people to be respectful in general. It is another thing to assume that everyone should be deferential, grateful, and sycophantic to famous people on social media simply because they are said famous people. Being the writer of a famous book doesn’t mean you’re immune to criticism of that book, let alone about other things like political views or life choices. Being the one who kept a TV show from getting cancelled doesn’t mean every choice made on the show should be taken without criticism.
Alas, what do I know? I’m a plucky provincial. Famous people move away from where I live. The only time we get celebrities is when politicians come to make big announcements.
But that also means that I see social media as a great equalizer. Yes, I can now interact with (even in one direction) anyone that I want to. I owe that person intrinsic respect, no different than anyone else. But I do not need to be deferential or keep my opinions to myself. Saying my piece on social media is no different than saying it in the mall food court. Perhaps that is a good norm: if you would not say it aloud for fear of being overheard in a food court, why are you saying it on social media? And conversely, if you wouldn’t respond to something in a food court, why respond online?
I say this as someone who doesn’t really like to be controversial. I like to use social media to entertain or brighten someone’s day. Hence my cute/funny cat photos, and no longer being on Twitter.