Amy Alexander on Mon, 4 Aug 2008 14:39:49 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> In the Future, No One will be Famous or The Downsizing of Celebrity and its Possible Effects on the Future of the New York Times Online Edition


I started out wanting to forward the article linked below with a few
loose thoughts, and I ended up writing an informal essay.
So, here it is. I posted it as a PDF too, since the endnote references
don't work in ASCII.
The PDF is at:


In the future, no one will be famous.

Marc Frons, chief technology officer, digital operations at the New York
Times, answers reader questions about the technological direction of the
Times. It's an interesting read.  Throughout the column, Frons and the
readers seem to be trying to reconcile technological innovation with print
convention while attempting to avoid lapsing into cliches of "progress"
vs. "tradition." One passage in particular caught my attention. Frons

"We will be offering a way to personalize a small part of the home page
within the next few months so that you can see headlines from sections that
would not ordinarily appear there while leaving the rest of the page
intact. But a completely personalized version of the home page isn't
something we have seriously contemplated, at least not yet. There are a
couple of reasons for this.  First, such a page would probably be daunting
for most readers to set up and maintain. Second, and more important, I
think most readers who visit the home page go there because
they are interested in what the editors of the New York Times think is
newsworthy. There's great value in that."

This got me thinking - about the parallel evolutions of the web and
celebrity, and how it might affect the relative importance of the editors
of the New York Times. Back in 1996, when the web was in black-and-white
(OK, in static images and text), I made an online project called The
Multi-Cultural Recycler . The Recycler predicted, half tongue-in- cheek,
that the then-nascent webcam culture would ultimately produce web
celebrities - who would then be subject to cultural recycling. (Keep in
mind, the most popular web- celeb at the time was a coffeepot . So this
idea was actually a bit of a reach.) Anyway, I wrote at the time that
webcams would be the realization of Warhol's infamous fifteen minutes of
fame.  And with the onslaught of YouTube, they arguably have been. So now
my next half tongue-in-cheek prediction: in the future, no one will be

Predicting is a perilous endeavor. Often it's trendy to be among the first
to predict the "death" of a cultural phenomenon. I can assure you, I do not
aspire to be a cutting edge cynic. So let's not think of this as the Death
of Celebrity. Maybe the Downsizing of Celebrity would be a gentler, and
more realistic, way to put it.

Let's start with the current web-celeb landscape. YouTube has produced a
number of celebrities. Some - like Chris Crocker and Obama Girl - stay in
our consciousness for awhile. Others are quickly forgotten. So, my first

* Internet fame doesn't scale well.

Unlike film, television, and print media, the Internet effectively has
unlimited spectrum space - so it's easy for celebrities to proliferate. But
with so many web celebrities dividing up the public attention span, their
level of celebrity must at some point drop below the threshold of "fame."
We have, incidentally, already experienced this phenomenon in the
parallel universe of television reality programs.  Reality show stars have
become so plentiful, their fame has devolved to the point where it most
resembles that of quiz show champions of the 1970's and 80's. (A several
time returning champion on a popular quiz show could command a lukewarm
degree of celebrity in the US for a couple of weeks. After their run was
over, retired champions quietly departed to the backstage of our collective
psyche.) Today's YouTube stars, while often displaying more interesting
talents than either reality show contestants or quiz show champs, seem
destined to slip into a similar non-stardom. Fame has just become too

But is that necessarily a downer? Let's examine my second hypothesis:

* Fame is becoming a dubious distinction.

Celebrities whose fame turned to infamy - usually owing to some moral
indiscretion - have been with us since time immemorial. But it's not just a
matter of personal behavior.  John McCain's tragicomic "Celeb" campaign ad,
which juxtaposes Barack Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears,  begs
for pop psychological analysis.  It's surely no coincidence that the McCain
campaign chose to feature two celebrities known for imprudent behavior.
But the commercial's message - at least its overt one - is that celebrity
itself is necessarily anathema to substance. The implication is that the
public by and large already understands that to be true - and that if you
don't believe it, you're naive. Sure it's campaign hogwash - but like
most campaign hogwash, its ridiculous assumptions feed on actual public
fears. Who then, would risk their career by becoming a bona fide celebrity?

But - back to web celebs. Let's look at bloggers. What makes a blogger
famous? As Nick Douglas points out, it's a complicated question. Is it
readership? Is it links from other blogs? Is it being featured in the
mainstream media? Douglas's position on the latter:
"So is it worth schmoozing reporters to get in Forbes? Please. These
lists drive traffic to themselves, not back to the subjects. Some magazines
don't even link to blogs from their online pages. What a waste of
attention. But hey, if you'd rather feel famous than be famous, go ahead
and suck up."

Douglas hits upon an important point here: old school vs. new school
notions of fame.  Traditional ideas of celebrity and importance tell us
that famous, important people are anointed by famous, important
publications. That's why Marc Frons assigns "great value" to a homepage
assembled by New York Times editors.  But to a blogger commanding a million
sets of eyeballs, that kind of fame is akin to hereditary succession.  But
- eyeballs or no eyeballs, the famous blogger is not really accepted as a
  celebrity by the old guard. While he may have a million readers, he's
vying for an increasingly small share of the public attention span. And,
maybe he doesn't even *want* to be famous.  He's a new breed of celebrity -
the lay-celeb.

But, as Douglas's comments remind us, the lay-celeb has all the validation
she needs - and she and her counterparts are becoming increasingly
influential. As the balance of power continually shifts from the mainstream
media to bloggers, will online publications like the New York Times cease
to exist - or at least diminish in importance - *as units*?  Will they
instead become primarily producers of individual articles, to be assembled
like components into a myriad of online publications? Will we all assemble
our own New York Times home pages - or perhaps home pages comprised of
articles from a number of sources? Or, more likely, will we select
customized home pages assembled by our favorite lay-celeb editors - much
like we read blogs by our favorite bloggers today? In other words, will
today's decentralization of content production become tomorrow's
decentralization of editing? TimesPeople,  the New York Times's own social
networking application, is moving toward that scenario already. Other
sites, such as Newsvine, allow the user community to vote their favorite
story onto the front page, further decentralizing the editing process.

Although my discussion of the decentralization of editing will likely be
recognized by many readers as a manifestation of remix culture, it's also
about the downsizing of celebrity. The New York Times and The Drudge Report
are celebrity publications - in other words, the publications are
celebrities. Despite old school/new school divides, to be featured in the
Times is still seen by many as an anointment of "importance."  Will that
same level of importance be perceived if a New York Times story resembles a
cross between an Associated Press wire story and an RSS feed - freestanding
content that will appear in some publications but not others?   By the same
token, what value will awarded to the appearance of an article on the front
page of a site like Newsvine,  where the placement decision is made by an
anonymous group of readers with unknown qualifications? The public may not
be ready to give up on editors completely. The shift, then, could be away
from the most famous content and toward the most famous compilations -
those compiled by the most famous compilers, for lack of a better term.
Famous compilers may not command the celebrity of Matt Drudge - but we're
looking at a downsized fame anyway.

The New York Times's move toward customizable home pages brings to mind
concerns that have been around for several years that mainstream online
media could send us individualized content based on publications'
surveillance of what we read online. Could we miss the opportunity to read
news outside our personal blindersphere - thus being dangerously deprived
of a breadth of information?  Given the proliferation of media skewed to
specific viewpoints, Big Brother technology isn't necessary.  People seek
out customized media themselves. Americans, at least, seem to be gearing
their blog reading toward those blogs with whose political viewpoints they
already agree.  No surprise there.

So, soon, instead of favorite bloggers we may have favorite compilers
- who agree with our points of view - for both mainstream and independent
content. The two may grow increasingly difficult to distinguish from one
another. But if this all comes to pass, mainstream online media will likely
need to produce more content to meet the demands of increasingly narrowcast
compilations - making each piece of content less important.  Independent
compilers and compilations, on the other hand, will become more important.

And celebrities? They'll be as rare as Elvis in Las Vegas.

-Amy Alexander
08/08   While The Multi-Cultural Recycler
is still online, it is currently in disrepair.
Since it relies on external webcams, it was necessary for me to weed
out dead webcams from its database
and replace them with new ones periodically. I kept that up for
several years, but stopped doing so by about
2002. Among other things, it had become difficult by then to find
continuously updating webcams that
displayed static images. Recently, I found the Recycler, with its
mid-90's formatting and stated
optimization for Netscape 2.0, included on a website devoted to
abandoned websites.
  Some readers may wonder why I don't mention personalized web
portals. The reason is that they involve
editorial control only at the macro level, not the micro. In other
words, portal builders can choose content
from particular sources, but not the content itself.
  One could also refer to them as "editors." I just didn't want to
create confusion with those editors who
edit articles.

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