BILLY Boyd - the actor who famously played Pippin in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy - has just sung my friend Happy Birthday. He's beaming with kindness as he croons down his mobile phone camera in a video that appears to have been shot in his home.
"I hope you have a fantastic birthday," he says with palpable sincerity. "I hope you have a great, great day."
Boyd is one of thousands of celebrities on the website Cameo - a platform where people of almost every cut and variety of fame can be commissioned for short personalised videos - and I have paid him $150 to sing and celebrate my friend's birthday (a middling fee between more extravagant stars like Caitlyn Jenner, who prices her videos at $2500, and a dog called Barkley in New York City who speaks through his off-camera owner and costs $5).
Cameo exploded in popularity last year, grossing $100 million for around 1.3 million videos as more celebrities turned to it as a way of making money during the COVID-19 pandemic, and consumers hungered for more direct and responsive contact with stars online. Videos are created by request and, for a premium, many celebrities offer a 24-hour turnaround (the site notes requests are otherwise filled within seven days).
The friend for whom I commissioned Billy Boyd is one of my oldest and closest - she has been with me for nearly all of my most formative experiences. We met at university in the early 2010s and have, at different times, studied together, travelled together, lived in each other's apartments, cried, fought, made art, fallen out, reformed a more lasting friendship, and met each other's parents. She was with me the night my sister called in 2014 to tell me my grandfather had died. A few days later, she helped me write his eulogy.
These days, our friendship is almost entirely online. We live at different ends of two different states so, even before the pandemic, time spent in-person was infrequent and short. Our relationship now is a group message thread shared with my oldest friends where we post stories from our days with links and jokes and, occasionally, videos of ourselves and of each other. They exist in an archive that I revisit sometimes to remember us - an archive that now includes Billy Boyd.
The first draft of my request for Boyd was around 300 words. In many of his clips (including mine), he gushes about the "lovely note" he received from friends or family of the recipients of his videos. Applicants to the site fill out a short form listing the name of the recipient and are allowed some free space to specify what the clip should include, though celebrities are not necessarily obliged to follow the request exactly.
Boyd could have declined my commission if he chose, and, interestingly, there was also no obligation or guarantee on my part I would be strictly honest in what I told him. The space to add specifics is also tightly capped at 250 characters; only 10 more than is allowed in a single tweet.
In a video of a little more than two-and-a-half minutes, Boyd sings and congratulates my friend on publishing her first book (due out later this year). He is also ecstatic to learn that she just quit smoking (she has never smoked a cigarette in her life), and fawns over the tale that, as a very young child, she called her slippers "wallenbies" because she could not pronounce "wallaby down".
"I love that," he says, beaming innocently down the camera, "From now on, whenever I wear slippers I will call them 'wallenbies'." (Wallenby is the name of her pet rabbit).
The more I watch the video, the more uncanny it becomes. On one hand, Boyd fills space with a flood of genuine sincerity, holding eye contact and using my friend's name no less than six times. But ironically it's that same performative sincerity that makes the clip so awkwardly funny as he unwittingly riffs on my less-than-honest themes.
Some stars on the site, it must be said, are more convincing than others. In one majestically bizarre clip, the electronic music star deadmau5 ($269) sits in his home office to record a birthday request.
"What's up, it's Joel," he says, deadpan, "How you doing? Turning 30? You know, if you only live to be 60 that's, like, half."
Boyd's video, by comparison, is all the more astounding. With little more than a tweet to go on, he managed a remarkably convincing performance of authentic friendship. He has no idea what I or my friend looks like - he could not pick us out of a line-up - but the performance feels real and uncannily believable.
Such is the success of a site like Cameo. But it is a success that is in some ways neither surprising nor new.
The notion of paying to experience a connection or relationship with another person is not a new one, nor is our capitalist economic climate unaccustomed to identifying and exploiting gaps in a market.
The advent of social media in the early 2000s gave us both seemingly direct contact with celebrities, and also more celebrities. We could tweet and DM them as we would our friends and family, and in turn they invited us into more intimate parts of their lives, sharing their juice recipes and morning skin routines. But, for all that new connection, the famous were still under no obligation to tweet back.
Cameo, then, has done what Twitter and others could not, at once proving that there is a lucrative market for the undivided personal attention of famous people, as well as posing the question of whether sites like it - and others cropping up in the same space - could represent a new generation of social media; one that prioritises uniquely online, intimately platonic relationships built on performative empathy, notice and attention for those willing to pay for it.
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