Saturday, June 18, 2005

Celebrity Power

As much as I despise BS artists (see my earlier posting entitled "How Much of EA is BS?"), I abhor the public's insatiable appetite for celebrity worship. What is it about human nature that causes people to obsess over the likes of Paris Hilton, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, O.J., Oprah, or the thousands of other famous personalities from the fields of entertainment, sports, politics, and jet-setters that grace the covers of People Magazine or appear endlessly on TV shows like Entertainment Tonight?

Why is it that with the advent of 24-hour news channels like CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, the quality of reporting has so plummeted? How I long for the days when we had trustworthy journalists like Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, or David Brinkley. Of course, I guess, they were just celebrities too!

I suspect there must be some type of strong relationship that links celebrity and brand. Both feed off of people's primal need to compare -- either people against people or product against product. It's as if the natural response when confronted with limitless choices is to establish bounds to restrict our options.

In the 80s and 90s, everyone hoped that the emergence of cable and satellite TV channels would greatly improve the quality of programming available to viewers. It hasn't. Instead, we're mostly fed endless streams of BS-laden infomercials together with BS-filled talking heads interspersed with never-ending reruns of old programs from yesteryear.

More recently, everyone wanted to believe that the Web might become the anti-TV -- built from the bottom up with power in the hands of the individual rather than being controlled by soul-less corporate broadcasters. Instead, once again, we find the power of fame limiting our choices.

According to Clay Shirky, writing in a Wired Magazine article that appeared back in August, 2004 ("Why Oprah Will Never Talk to You. Ever."), "fame is an extreme imbalance between inbound and outbound attention." Famous people receive lots of attention, but are unable to acknowledge all the attention they get.

Below are some edited excerpts from that article where Clay Shirky describes what he calls the Blogging Power Curve:
The outbound-only nature of TV makes reciprocal attention impossible. The Web makes it possible for anyone to communicate with anyone else, but it doesn't make it practical. Everyone has a limited amount of time. You can read only so many books or blogs, trade email with only so many people. At some point even a two-way medium like the Web reverts to the broadcast paradigm.

Egalitarianism works only in small systems. A world of a million bloggers is different from a world of a thousand bloggers, in much the same way that cities are not just large villages. Once things went urban -- with millions of bloggers and readers -- a small set of bloggers was tipped into the one-way topology of fame.
According to Clay Shirky, there's a Weblog Pecking Order:
  • Celebrity bloggers publish and rarely participate in the discourse that follows
  • Typical bloggers engage in open dialog in which nearly anyone can participate
  • Obscure bloggers only reach a small, closed community of readers
In Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality, published February 8, 2003, Clay Shirky explains further:
In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.
Power law distributions were originally observed by the linguist George Zipf who discovered that word frequency falls in a power law pattern, with a small number of high frequency words (I, of, the), a moderate number of common words (book, cat cup), and a huge number of low frequency words (peripatetic, hypognathous).

Jacob Nielsen, an Internet usability guru, writing about power law distributions in web site page views (see Zipf Curves and Website Popularity), explained how Zipf curves follow a straight line when plotted on a double-logarithmic diagram.


In the diagrams above, one plots linear scales on both axes while the other shows the same data plotted using logarithic scales on both axes. As you can see, power law distributions, like the above Zipf curve, have a tendency to hug the axes of the diagram when plotted on linear scales. This describes:
  • a few elements that score very high (the left tail in the diagram)
  • a medium number of elements with middle-of-the-road scores (the middle part of the diagram)
  • a huge number of elements that score very low (the right tail in the diagram)
It's no accident that when we encounter famous people, they come off as cliquish or shallow. Becoming famous means being able to spend less time with everyone. You must limit the number and depth of interactions.

As a noveau blogger, I sometimes dream of attracting huge throngs of readers. Yet, as the evidence suggests, one should be very careful what one wishes for. The technology that enables blogging does not overcome the human limits on attention that are the root cause of celebrity-dom. The accumulated weight of attention recreates the imbalances associated with traditional media. Sadly, fame is an inevitable byproduct of large social systems, and as those systems get larger, the imbalance of fame becomes more pronounced, not less. Personally, I'll be delighted if the ITscout Blog achieves middle-of-the-road success. I must admit, though, I do hope I'm not the only one reading what I write.


Blogger Paul said...

Jeff... I'm not sure what it is that Lois didn't like about the celebrity blog. I thought it was really interesting -- especially the notion of imbalance between incoming and outgoing. Makes sense.

As a side comment, there are countless examples of famous musicians (McCartney, Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young, Rolling Stones, etc.) who have tried to release material under a fake identity to test how their material would be received if not associated with their name recognition (i.e. fame). It's like a joke, because the material is almost invariably panned.

10:00 AM  

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