Fame, Web Fame, Web Mass Fame

It’s a great time to be famous, at least if you’re interested in innovating new types of fame. If you’re instead looking for old-fashioned fame, you’re out of luck. We’re in a third epoch of fame, and this one is messier than any of the others. (Sure, that’s an oversimplification, but what isn’t?)

Before the Web there was Mass Fame, the fame bestowed upon lucky (?) individuals by the mass media. The famous were not like you and me. They were glamorous, had an aura, were smiled upon by the gods.

Fame back then was something that was done to the audience. We could accept or reject those thrust upon us by the the mass media, but since fame was defined as mass awareness of someone, the mass media were ultimately in control.

With the dawn of the Web there was Internet Fame. We made people famous by passing along their artifacts, hand to hand, peer to peer. In so doing we aligned ourselves with the artist, and we put a little bit of our social selves on the line. People became famous because they were one of us.

Many of the early Web instances of fame were explicitly anti-Hollywood: We made famous a comic strip drawn with stick figures, Chuck Norris jokes that we wrote, and a blog that over-explained the Marmaduke comic strip. Fame was no longer alienated. It was ours, something we did for ourselves.

At the same time, the Internet Famous could communicate with their fans. They could blog, respond to comments, retweet the tweets of their followers, post and comment on Facebook. What had been one-way became multi-way, a carnival, a bazaar.

When we saw the people we made famous interacting us with us as if they were just people, they lost their celebrity sheen, that special glow that in the past we could imagine as they were driven past us with their tinted windows up. In the age of Internet Fame, we could see they were not only like us, they were of us — a fact visible in the proudly home-made quality of much of their work. From how they let us mashup their work to their ticket polices we could see they were for us. And they and we understood that their fame was by us.

This change in the nature of fame was directly due to the way in which our new medium isn’t really a medium. A medium is supposed to be a channel for messages going from sender to recipient. On the Web, we — the senders and recipients — are that through which the messages pass, and we only pass along the ones we find interesting. The Web, therefore, isn’t a medium. We are the medium.

Now the Internet is centralizing, bringing with it Mass Net Fame. The top 100 sites are almost entirely commercial, with many of the old media well-represented there. Much of Net culture is driven by the old forces of mass media shoveling the Same Old Crap down our waiting maws. Sites like Facebook filter our feeds, leading to the snowballing of works from commercial entities. (Note that this anti-democratizing of our culture is proportional not to the size of the site but to the degree of algorithmic filtering they do.)

Still, the top ten Youtubes this year are a mix of videos from commercial sites and from unknowns, a far cry from any imaginable list of top ten commercial movies or MTV videos. The most viewed Youtube ever is a professionally produced music video, although it certainly has (intentionally or not) elements of commercial parody, starting with Psy’s glamorous anti-glamor and his bar-mitzvah-party-level dance moves.

Now, the neat-n-clean story would be to present this as Fame 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. But it’s way messier than that, which is both appropriate and encouraging. The Net enables bottom-up, democratized culture that consists of many small fandoms. It also enables mass marketing of culture, resulting in old style fame being foisted on us, as well as the bieberization of talent that first emerges bottom-up and then gets absorbed and re-emitted by the mass media. The Net allows for both of these modalities simultaneously.

Works are crossing over in both directions. The mass media take over Web talents, and the Web takes over mass talents … except the Web’s way of appropriating mass culture is by making it the Web’s own, which is far too often viewed as a violation of mass media’s Precious.

But then we get truly fascinating walks back and forth between the two, with Amanda Palmer as one of the most prominent and innovative. She came up from the Web and now has masses of followers. She tweets up a storm. Of course she cannot respond to every tweet from every fan. But the fact that she responds frequently to some of them tells a follower that Amanda may actually be reading her/his tweets. More important it tells her fans that she is on Twitter the same way they are: engaging interactively with one another. Amanda is one of us…albeit a very special one of us.

This is an intimacy that the old autograph-culture can’t achieve. And it is a real but weird intimacy. No, Amanda Palmer probably didn’t read your tweet about her, but she may have. More important, she isn’t barricaded in her Beverly Hills mansion eating grapes peeled by Neil Gaiman. She is one of us out in the new networked public sphere, aware of her fame but not letting it get in her way.

The Gregory Brothers have likewise managed to remain webbily famous, embodying the best of Web values, not to mention being vastly talented musicians. (I am a fanboy.) Their music is polished, but they are of us and for us. BradSucks, of whom I am also a fanboy, too. Even Louis CK, who is mass media famous, manages to come across as being aware that he’s just another schmo, and as such he recognizes his obligation to treat his fans not just well but fairly.

The clash of these two types of fame — Net and Mass Net — is creating a time of great change and innovation in fame, and thus in our sense of ownership of our culture. The danger is that we will fall back into passively waiting for the mass media to tell us what’s important, rather than continuing to do the work of finding and creating cultural value and meaning for ourselves, together.

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Photo of Marilyn Monroe by John Irving CC-BY-NC at Flickr . Photo of Gollum snagged from the Net and edited by me.

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