ruminations

Democratization of Celebrity: Perez Hilton et al.

The world has changed a lot in ten years. Even five years ago there was no space in the world for a man like Perez Hilton. For the unenlightened, Mr. Hilton (not his real name) is a moderately-overweight nearly-thirty gay man with a Microsoft Paint fetish.

The fact that I can tell you all these things about a single member of the celebrity press is a testament to both my strong ability to waste time on the internet and to how much the world has changed. Five or ten years ago, the most attention Mr. Hilton would have gotten was a byline in People Magazine or the like. Today, the man is a celebrity press machine who gets attention from everywhere, including publications like People.

That phenomenon, simply put, is the democratization of influence, of celebrity, and if you like, of culture itself. Surely this does not represent a structural change in the worldwide balance of power, the rich and powerful are still a narrow class…

Mr. Hilton is not the only example of the democratization of the public sphere. Another off-the-cuff example is Justine Ezarik, who was featured just yesterday on Yahoo!’s front page. Ms. Ezarik earned her 15 minutes of fame with this little video, detailing how large AT&T’s first iPhone bills were, but because she has a consistent online presence, Yahoo! gave her a little more attention.

These are just two examples of a wildly pervasive phenomenon. That phenomenon, simply put, is the democratization of influence, of celebrity, and if you like, of culture itself. Surely this does not represent a structural change in the worldwide balance of power, the rich and powerful are still a narrow class that neither Hilton or Ezarik has become a part of.

It’s also likely that in earlier time, novel concepts with novel implementations–like those above–probably could have found an audience. I have no doubt that if tried earlier, Will It Blend? could have become a very popular segment on a comedy television show, or perhaps a very popular commercial. But today, a blender maker (Blendtec) can grab Tom Dickson, make him famous, and bring attention to their product, all at negligible cost.

The exact reasons for these new phenomena would be hard to pin down, but some of the most obvious causes are easy to see.

For one, the cost of creating a publicly consumable product has declined precipitously. This is true not only because the internet allows anyone to see anything produced anywhere, but also because the start-up and maintenance costs in this medium are so negligible. There’s no need to buy airtime, build a distribution network, or find retailers to hawk your wares.

And even content production has gotten a lot easier. Video can now be made and distributed at almost no cost to the producer. This leads both to a great deal more junk (go spend 20 minutes on YouTube, you’ll understand) and a great deal more content.

Perhaps what’s occurring is that more people can become famous in a narrower segment of the population. This is the argument Chris Anderson made in The Long Tail, but I don’t think it’s exactly right.

Where before a few with influence chose who was worthy of fifteen minutes, today it’s a much more democratic process, in which the public tells media who deserves attention.

More realistically, I think that Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” have simply become more malleable. Where before a few with influence chose who was worthy of fifteen minutes, today it’s a much more democratic process, in which the public tells media who deserves attention, not always the opposite.

That change is surely not complete. Major media still has enormous influence, but it’s undeniably declined from ten years ago. I do doubt their will be a day when they don’t matter at all, but the trend of their influence in undeniably downward.

These are changes that we can easily miss. It’s not hard to forget that there was a time before the internet was pervasive, cheap to use, and cheap to distribute on. And though I agree with the pessimist Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, that not all these phenomena merit the attention they may be getting, I think it’s truly incredible that they can get the attention at all.

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4 thoughts on “Democratization of Celebrity: Perez Hilton et al.

  1. Man, I’ve missed reading your posts. I’ve been the big blog slacker the past few weeks. I had forgotten how much I enjoy your clever and creative approach to things. Seriously, I’m not doing it justice here but I think you should have your own show or something.

    Regarding Perez Hilton, a friend and I were just speaking about him last night on the phone. We agreed he should lose some weight and stop dying his hair bizarre colors. I think Kathy Griffin really likes him though. Then again, she loves the gays, doesn’t she?

  2. How ironic? I just wrote a post about Kathy Griffin.

    With regards to Perez Hilton and all the 15 minuters, I’m not super familiar with him and at the same time I don’t give them as much attention, mainly because they’re not my cup of tea. But I do like the internet, if only for the fact that it widens the audience.

    American media, we have to admit, has been barreling down a tunnel of suckage. There is a large pool of creative people out there that couldn’t be heard beforehand, but who now have a voice. (And yes, there are going to be a ton of low grade internet entertainers as well.)

    My resolve: “Let the market decide.” That’s why NBC and all the other big networks are scrambling for the reigns. With the advent of YouTube and cheap Prosumer products (cameras, editing equipment), movie studios and network tv is going to have to fight to create better quality product.

    I’m a standup comedienne. And I am personally on a crusade to bring the entertainment value up and to compel people/an audience to come with me.

    By the way, this is my first time at your blog, and you have a lovely way with words–very cheeky and clever.
    Feel free to stop by my side of the blogosphere and leave a comment. I would love to get your opinion, firsthand.

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