Science Discovers Celebrities Are Useful for Something

A lot of fame that deserves to be fleeting, isn't. Stanford brains figured out why.

By Shannon Rupp 3 Jul 2009 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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Social grease in regular applications.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth caused by Michael Jackson's death last week left me mystified, until I came across a study on the nature of fame that explains why people remain famous long past the time they're doing anything noteworthy.

Apparently, it's because they give us some common ground for discussion that we desperately need to bond with our fellow bipeds.

My first thought: How sad is this? My second: OMG, this is explains the decline of journalism.

Why we pretend to care

The study was designed to explain how faded (or non-) talents like Victoria Beckham and Paris Hilton continue to fuel water cooler conversation. (This in turn leads to clueless newspaper managers arguing that we should cover what everyone is already talking about cuz it will make readers like newspapers better.)

While some economists -- and pop culture writers -- have argued that there is a positive correlation between quality of work and fame, those of us not dazzled by the emperor's new clothes know better. (Wacko Jacko did indeed sell the most albums at the height of industry's sales, but he also delivered some of the worst examples of over-produced '80s shlock. That doesn't make him great: it makes him a guy with an eye for the lowest common denominator.)

To avoid discussions of just the sort that last observation is likely to trigger, researchers at Stanford University used baseball players as the focus of their study. There are endless stats kept on players, so the scientists can prove that some high-performing players remain obscure while lesser talents become household names. In other words, there's no correlation between talent and fame.

But if quality of work is no predictor of long-term fame, what is?

The study concluded that, in a way, one does become famous for being famous -- but it appears to have nothing to do with the celebs themselves. It has to do with our need to find pleasant things to chat about in order to grease the social wheels.

The skinny on 'phatic'

In the first study, 33 male and 56 female volunteers were handed a list of eight players and their stats, and told to contact another volunteer by email and discuss a player. They were told some recipients were baseball experts, and some volunteers considered themselves experts. What researchers looked at was which player they chose to initiate a discussion on.

Weird finding #1: Even the baseball fans (who ought to know better) chose to talk about underperforming celeb players like Ken Griffey Jr. if they knew they were chatting with an average reader. Only experts talking to experts chose the obscure but talented player for discussion.

Conclusion: The fame of those who ought to be obscure is driven by something we already know. People in conversation seek to form a connection, so they try to find common ground. You don't tell someone something she doesn't already know, you look for something the linguists label "phatic" -- conversation meant to indicate one is sociable, as opposed to conversation to convey information.

(The question "How are you?" is the classic phatic remark. By the way, for those of you prone to revealing too much information: under no circumstances do we actually want to hear any response other than "fine." We ask as a way of indicating we're nice, not to find out how you are. We're not THAT nice.)

Chit-chat nation

Researchers then examined Internet sites, media, and looked at the popularity of players in fan ballots for an annual "all-star" game.

Weird finding #2: Chit-chat on the websites drove media coverage. It also drove fan votes for the all-star game. That's right, no one cared about performance – not even reporters who are, allegedly, in the business of reporting and analyzing facts. (Yes, even the sports reporters are supposed to be doing this. Yes, I know it's hard to believe.)

Instead, people opted to find common ground and make themselves appear sociable by discussing low-quality players with accrued fame -- thereby prolonging their fame, but that's only a by-product.

This explains a number of things.

For example, how newspaper managers, desperate to increase circulation did exactly the wrong the thing in journalism terms. They chose to play the likeable card and engage in phatic communications -- tell everyone everything they already know -- as opposed to actually providing information or analysis.

The definition of a newsroom's job is right in the name: to provide the new. But many a North American managing editor, running scared, has given in to the emotional response and resorted to communications designed to indicate that the newspaper is sociable. In effect they're begging: Like me, please like me. (It also explains why, much to the horror of the editor of this fine journal, we must always have Paris. Yes, I've worked Hilton in again.)

It is also why my reading habits have long since led me to the British papers where wit, originality, and proper grammar aren't yet considered antisocial. And frankly, I'm not interested in socializing with my newspaper.

Given that reading is hard work, most of us expect to be rewarded with something valuable -- or at least new. Even in commentary. Personally, I expect to be amused by encountering some thinking that hasn’t already been thunk before.

Late to Jon and Kate

Interpersonal communication isn't journalism and vice versa. I knew that, of course, but the Stanford research has also given me a new appreciation for the social bonding value of celebrity culture -- and reality television, in particular.

Actually, I had been thinking about the community-building aspect of celebrity for the last month due to the Jon and Kate Plus 8 enthusiasm catching me off guard.

I was doing research...Oh, all right, I was at the grocery store on a Saturday afternoon standing in one of those long "express" lines, and perusing tab covers while waiting to pay obscene amounts for broccoli.

I stood slack-jawed gazing at cover-after-cover featuring some unattractive middle-aged woman whom I had never heard of and her dodgy-looking husband. I asked the cashier who they were? She didn't know, but in putting out the magazines, had managed to glean that the husband was having an affair! I looked askance at the well-groomed 60ish woman behind me: she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.

Intrepid reporter that I am, I pulled out a magazine, brandished it over my head, and addressed my fellow shoppers.

"Excuse me: Does anyone know who these people are?" I asked the assemblage. Much confused discussion followed, until a woman with a stroller transporting twins enlightened us all.

"Oh, of course. If we don't know who some supposed-celeb is, it must be reality TV...," we all concluded, and went back to business.

Probably more than we need to know

But it was undoubtedly a community-building moment. I'm certain of this, because I bumped into one of the assemblage last week.

"Hi, did you see Jon and Kate are getting a divorce?" she asked.

I replied that there was a rumour that the Other Woman (a grade school teacher!) would be on a future episode. We chortled -- neither of us watches the show -- and scooped up our bags of apples secure in the notion that, should Armageddon come, neither of would be voting the other off the raft or out of the shelter because we were both clear on our status as nice, social people.

With the importance of self-preservation in mind, I've also stopped yelling at all the people playing that wretched, self-indulgent Thriller everywhere I go. (No pop song should be five minutes long!) I now realize they probably don't like the music any better than I do. They just want to say what all the grey-haired Baby Boom is thinking: "He was just X years younger/older than ME."

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© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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