Despite more time for celebrity news, duration of fame remains the same

Andy Warhol’s much-touted quip that in the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame was surprisingly prescient, given that the year was 1968. The Internet was in its nascent stages and wouldn’t reach the masses until decades later. CNN, the original 24-hour news channel, didn’t exist. And the creators of YouTube weren’t even a twinkle in their respective parents’ eyes (members of the entrepreneurial trio were born in 1977, 1978 and 1979). But for all his foresight, Warhol got one thing wrong. According to a new study, the average duration of fame isn’t 15 minutes. It’s one week.

Researchers from Google, eBay and the University of California, Berkeley didn’t set out to study fame. They were interested in the 24-hour news cycle and its much-lamented impact on society. Among other sins, today’s frenzied onslaught of information is thought to nourish shorter and shorter attention spans. Not being old-school sociologists, the researchers didn’t gather people in a room and conduct experiments that might reveal a depth of knowledge, or lack thereof, about current events. Their laboratory, data and study participants were one: Google’s public news archive.

Even with help from very smart computers, measuring the public’s sustained interested in a topic by combing this archive proved too difficult (how do you tally interest in the economy, for example?). So the researchers turned to a common object of news: the individual. Perhaps the dwindling–attention span problem could be captured in the duration of an individual’s fame, which, they reasoned, would become shorter and shorter in the modern age.

To measure fame’s duration, the researchers instructed their very smart computers to scan the news archive for mentions of individuals, be they Marilyn Monroe or Albert Einstein. The team applied two metrics. One: after a person was mentioned, how long it took for a week to go by when the person was not mentioned. Two: moving forward and backward from the week where the person was mentioned the most, how long did it take until that person appeared less than one-tenth the amount that he or she appeared when most popular. To make things tidier, the researchers threw out names mentioned for two days or fewer. (If Warhol were alive, he might have objected to a methodology that eliminated the 15-minute fame time frame.)

To their surprise, the researchers found that the duration of fame hasn’t changed much. Whether looking at the 1940s, Warhol’s era or today, on average fame lasts for one week. The exception was the incredibly famous. Starting around 1940, the duration of fame for these 1-percenters becomes longer and longer.

So what gives? We do have a 24-hour news cycle today. And even if you assume that the proportion of news dedicated to individuals today is the same as it has always been (and it’s probably greater), then we still have more absolute minutes to dedicate to news about celebrities. If anything, you might think that would extend the duration of fame, making it longer as today’s news outlets fill those minutes with in-depth fluff.

One explanation for the consistency of the week-of-fame may lie in that 1 percent. Instead of dedicating those extra news minutes to Angela Merkel or Angela Normal, reporters spend them on Angelina Jolie. Most people get a week; the 1-percenters get a lifetime.

But another explanation may be the dataset itself. Today, a mention in a news story might not be a very good measure of celebrity. Consider Charlie, who bit his brother’s finger. Those boys are arguably famous: the YouTube video of the biting incident has been viewed more than 450 million times. News outlets didn’t start talking about the video until after it went viral and writers persuaded their editors that the video was worth covering because it fit into some larger narrative about society, making money off your children, or, ahem, Internet fame.

Every minute, 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. Of course, only a very tiny percentage endows fame. In a TedYouth talk on why videos go viral, Kevin Allocca, the trends manager at YouTube, points to three things: tastemakers, opportunities for participation and unexpectedness. For example, views of the Double Rainbow Dude video spiked after Jimmy Kimmel tweeted it. Rebecca Black singing “Friday” prompted numerous remixes and mockeries (including “Sunday,” “Monday,” “Tuesday,” “Wednesday,” and “Thursday”). And the antelope that charges the cyclist comes totally out of the blue.

Those three ingredients may be important to fame, but there’s no magic formula. And these scientists aren’t likely to achieve fame through studying it. In an analysis published last year, a different team of researchers found that top scientists never achieve the same fame as authors or political figures. As those researchers noted in Science, “Science is a poor route to fame.”

SN Prime May 21, 2012 | Vol. 2, No. 20

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