Monday, August 6, 2012

The death of celebrity

This is one of my more serious sociological posts so those of you looking for either something religious, or something wacky, move along. I already got the credit of your viewing this page so I don't need you to read the text if you're going to be like that.

A long time ago, the means of communication were relatively tightly controlled and access to them was limited. It took money to start a newspaper, and only the select few got into the paper. Books publishing was limited to those who had run the gauntlet of the publishing game. Movies were made by studios and distributed to approved theaters, and music came from the big labels. When Andy Warhol made his "15 minutes of fame" statement, fame meant something. Sure, it was fleeting, but it meant being in the public eye for a quality 15 minutes. It was a function of supply and demand -- there was a limited supply of public renown and thus, the demand for access to that elite status of visibility was desired by many and achieved by few. Celebrity meant having access to that position as visible.

Over the last 30 years, a major aspect of technological innovation has been the decentralizing of the celebrity business. Sure, this wasn't the intention or goal of technology, but the democratization of access to technology has made the notion of celebrity obsolete. Music can be recorded with the same fidelity in the garage as in the studio, and distribution streams have multiplied -- the proliferation of channels, on TV and on computer which are available to any content creator and not just the "approved" one allows for more final product int he public sphere. Book publishing is now available to most anyone -- heck, even I have a couple of books out there, self published. By the way, buy my books. Books can be sold alongside "real" books and even the idea of the "real" is losing steam as the lines between the traditionally produced and the new-technology products have blurred. Most every type of communication media has been ripped from its safe haven among approved content producers and been cast about for all to see and share. Social media makes everything we do public so we can become the center of attention until the next guy posts on Facebook about whatever is on his mind. We all end up living in the public eye.

One end result has been the compromising of quality of those products and media which find their way into our collective face. There are fewer gate keepers selecting the "best" so we are hit with so many bits of content all vying for our attention. This has also caused an overload in the eyes and minds of the public -- with more songs, books, movies, and products available, and with no intervening agency vetting content to limit my choices to things that the culture creators think I would prefer, I get swamped with choices. My money can no longer go to one of a few choices and show that that particular option outstrips the rest. If 1 million Americans each have 1 dollar to spend, it will no longer be the case that one of 5 available products gets more than 1 fifth of the money and shows its superiority. Now there are ten thousand products so each one gets less of the pie (the revenue pool has remained the same) and each content creator gets less, and has less certainty that his product is demonstrably better than his competitors'.

And of course, with anyone and everyone being able to be thrust into the spotlight as the meme of the moment, the entire notion of the elitist celebrity is gone. When only 10 people starred in movies, they were the A list. Now, anyone can star in a video or a movie which sweeps the nation, and as there are more outlets, content creators have to generate more content. The "57 channels and nothing is on" problem becomes 300 channels and everything is on. Content becomes recursive (there is a reality show coming out where some of the new contestants are the "superfans" whose claim to fame is that they have enough social currency to cash in and be famous). Celebrity for being celebrity evens the playing field. It takes less to separate yourself from the field because there is more demand for personalities. Think of it as adding teams to the league -- more minor league pitchers get to the majors, true, but most of them would otherwise never make it because they simply aren't good enough. Every cook is on a cooking show and only the best becomes a star and then helps choose the next star while every other cook still gets on a show. The star production system becomes transparent and in the meanwhile, more of the runners-up also become famous.

So the upshot is that more people become "famous" but fame becomes less special. Too many roads leading to being the public eye mean that the public stops seeing it as anything out of the ordinary to be visible. Sure, there will still be a cachet to certain flavors of celebrity and the "official" famous people will strive to separate themselves from the nouveau rich-and-famous, but it will become harder and harder for the common man to keep track of all the people he is supposed to admire, and the people who achieve fame will be less and less deserving.

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