Will Smith is the Angel of Death for Social Media Platforms
When the Fresh Prince hits your platform, you know you’ve made it — and jumped the shark
The 1977 episode of Happy Days “Hollywood: Part 3” is a cultural touchstone to most YouTube users (the episode alone is more than twice as old as YouTube itself), but the phrase it gave birth to may be better known among the young audience that logs onto the platform today.
In that episode, Henry Winkler’s character Fonzie jumped a jetski over a shark, and a meme was born. Shows that have become lackluster became known for “jumping the shark”; the phrase slipped into common parlance beyond TV.
We’re 42 years on from Fonzie jumping the shark. It’s a little jaded. We need a new phrase.
Can we suggest “something has been Will Smithed”?
Open up a social media platform these days and you can’t escape Will Smith. He’s there on TikTok, eight million people subscribed to his profile, most of the dozen or so videos he’s posted getting a minimum of a million views. He’s there on Instagram, with 40 million followers lapping up the behind-the-scenes snaps from film sets. And he’s there on YouTube, taking part in odd challenges and vlogging like he’s 1990s Fresh Prince Will Smith rather than 51-year-old father of three grown adults, multi-millionaire Will Smith.
He is omnipresent. He is omnipotent. He is impossible to avoid.
“The reasons are obvious” for Smith to embrace social media, reckons David Craig, a professor at USC Annenberg, the co-author of a series of books about social media entertainment, and a man who has previously spent time in Hollywood’s movie industry. “The social generation has no idea who Smith is, which is why they are not lining up for his movies any longer. However, Smith isn’t the first to attempt this. He is arguably the first to understand that joining a platform is not comparable to media PR.”
Looking at his social media presence, there’s a distinct difference between Will Smith, Hollywood star, and Will Smith the digital celebrity.
“This isn’t the Hollywood-packaged Smith. No more press junkets, pre-scripted routines, and pre-set performances,” says Craig. “This is Smith in the green room, the make-up trailer, on the street with his friends, at home with his family. He understands — or at least his social media team knows — that he has to be at least more ‘real’ than the Hollywood Smith we’ve know for the past 30 years. Turns out, he’s really good at it.”
There have been other mainstream celebrities who have slipped effortlessly onto social media — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is one example of a walking meme — but few carry the ‘begrudging admiration for your uncool uncle’ aesthetic that Smith does. Watching his content, your natural reaction is to cast it off with a sarcastic “Ok boomer”, before you realize that actually, it’s quite polished.
Smith — or someone in his retinue — gets how these platforms work. His TikTok has been chock-full of special effects that would grace his movies. His YouTube videos are more often than not interesting collabs that pass the time well enough, if you can wade through the incessant plugs for upcoming projects. His Instagram offers the occasional insight into family life at home, making him relatable in a way that Brad Pitt isn’t.
“There’s a need to express authenticity and to address this paradox of extraordinariness that celebrities face,” says Samita Nandy, director of the Center for Media and Celebrity Studies. “I think he’s just staying relevant. He’s sort of adapting to the needs of his younger audience, and that’s my only explanation to him joining something like TikTok.”
And yet it’s not okay. Smith is a lightning rod for criticism, a walking billboard that something has reached the mainstream and should immediately be abandoned. If Will Smith of all people is there, the platform is passe. And as the speed at which the platforms elbow their way into the collective consciousness increases, so does his eagerness to partake too.
It took Smith a little over seven years to join Instagram. Its founders set the app live in 2010, and he posted his first picture to the platform in December 2017. He took even longer — 13 years — to rock up to YouTube. He scuttled over to TikTok within 18 months of its launch into the stratosphere.
The platforms generally embrace his presence, because it gives them validation. Smith gets plenty out of it — the chance to bring a younger audience to see his movies, and recognition away from his core fanbase. But the presence of traditional Hollywood talent on platforms that are decidedly anti-establishment rankles with users.
Smith was front and center in the most disliked video in YouTube history, which has likely been disliked by more people (16 million) than saw his latest movie, Gemini Man. He took most of the stick for it too: critics saw Smith’s presence as the focus of the video as an example of the way YouTube is abandoning its original creators in favor of vetted Hollywood stars — fears born out by the sight of Smith near the top of Google Preferred’s P-Score rankings, the existence of which was broken by FFWD. (Smith’s P-Score was 1,007, more than PewDiePie, MrBeast and Jeffree Star.)
It’s nothing against Smith, who is the rare old person making an effort to understand and engage with the platforms that many younger generations use to obtain and consume media. It’s just that his family-friendly, Hollywood image is the polar opposite of what many of these platforms embody. And he can be the Christopher Columbus for other mainstream celebrities like Jennifer Aniston — who recently tried, and didn’t see the point of, Instagram — to invade these new media platforms.
Smith leads to Aniston, which leads to McConaughey. All are actors playing roles (Jennifer Aniston is “Jennifer Aniston”, rather than necessarily being themselves). “What Will Smith is doing is him, but it’s not totally him. He’s focusing on different persona traits,” says Nandy.
Others think he’s a useful counterpoint, a way to ground and contextualize what else we see on these new media platforms. “If some people think Will Smith is uncool, who cares,” says Harry Hugo of the Goat Agency, a London-based influencer firm. “I don’t think it’s such a bad thing: to have cool people on a platform you’ve got to have uncool people. People have to split opinion, otherwise content is boring.”
And perversely, the presence of Will Smith on these platforms is a major thing in their favour, reckons Hugo. “It shows why niche content communities are so much better than the broad channels of TV. People can pick and choose what they consume, and if they don’t like Will Smith, then they can watch something else.”