Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Sociology Of Instant Fame

Before recent events in Arizona prompted me to reflect upon the way some tragedies become widely shared and deeply felt while others that seem quite similar or worse are ignored or quickly forgotten, I was reflecting upon the way some things on the Internet and/or TV go viral and become widely discussed while millions of other things do not.

This is something I've reflected upon repeatedly ever since my first days online and my encounter with Jeremy's Wallet and then the Dancing Baby. Wikipedia has a (hardly complete) list of some other examples that you can find here. I don't recognize most of them. Of those that I do recognize, I doubt that I would have recalled most without a prompt.

What inspired my latest bout of reflection was Ted Williams. I suppose everyone reading this is already only too well familiar with his story, but for those who aren't (and for those - including myself - who may have forgotten him when reading this in the future), Ted's the Columbus, Ohio homeless man who was noticed by a Columbus Dispatch reporter. Turns out that Ted has a wonderful radio voice and has fallen on hard times. The reporter posted a video of Ted on the Dispatch website, it got noticed and picked up by others, and now Ted is a huge media star, going from a quick gig with a local radio station to appearances on network newscasts and with Dr. Phil. Kraft Foods and MSNBC have hired him to do voiceovers. The Cleveland Cavaliers have offered him a job and a home. He's scheduled to be on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno soon.

Why? What exactly is going on here?

Yes, Ted has a beautiful voice - but so do lots of other people. And even the most beautiful voice in the world is hardly one of life's essentials. Most people have one, and even the harshest tends to be good enough to convey whatever information we need to convey. If Ted does, in fact, have one of the best voices in the world, is using it to sell Kraft macaroni and cheese really the best use to put it to? Should we be celebrating that turn of events or mourning it?

As is the case with so many things, I am left with far more questions than answers as each new detail of Ted's story emerges or unfolds. There are reasons why he ended up homeless despite his vocal talents - what exactly are they? There are reasons he didn't see his elderly mother for many years prior to their recent media-orchestrated reunion, too, and I'm betting that they aren't likely to be the sort of things appropriate to the sweet Hallmark version of events people might prefer. And what does it do to a person to go from the deep sea depths of obscurity to the mountaintop of national fame in a single day or two? How does one keep one's brain from exploding like an angler fish pulled up too quickly in a driftnet?

Ted's alleged altercation with his daughter last night in a Hollywood restaurant may be a hint of what's to come - I don't know. I hope not, but... as a general observation forged over several decades, it seems to me that fame can often be as much of a disaster for a person as homelessness.

All of which is rather beside the point for me right now as what fascinates me most isn't Ted's personal story or struggles (which in a very real sense will remain forever his alone) but the way we as a society have latched onto and elevated him above so many others.

The closest similar case I can think of is that of Susan Boyle, another anonymous ugly duckling who shocked the world with her hidden vocal talent. It seems clear that in both cases (as well as in the case of Jackie Evancho, the 10-year-old girl with the voice of a mature opera singer), the element of surprise derived from the wild incongruity between appearance and performance plays a large part in attracting attention and, ultimately, enormous fame. As I listen to Ted and Susan (and Jackie), I can't help but think about the many thousands of others who have gone to broadcasting school or Juilliard and spent many, many years honing their craft but have yet to draw much of a crowd (or made much money). Why should society so extravagantly bestow attention and wealth on the homeless or the frumpy or the child while denying those things to those who have the same talent but cultivated and developed it in a more traditional way?

It all reminds me of those old tales of angels hidden among us and Zeus disguised in human form and the king gone slumming as a peasant for a day.... There's the appeal of the unpredictable, of magic come down to earth, of the Wheel of Fortune landing on a positive number for a change - and of "Don't judge a book by it's cover" quickly morphing into "Don't judge ME by MY cover, because I, too, have unsuspected talents just waiting to be discovered!"

Perhaps that last is the key in this age of diminished expectations, of political gridlock, of wars without end, and of an economy that has stopped rewarding such traditional virtues as hard work, education, and seniority. Ted and Susan (among others) have, in effect, won the lottery, and it seems to me that Americans have a grossly exaggerated admiration for the lottery right now. Buying a ticket may give us a mere one chance in a billion of winning big, but those seem to be better odds than what a job with GM or investing with Goldman Sacks or regularly paying your mortgage are offering.

When someone like Ted or Susan wins big, *we* win big vicariously.

And they prove that you don't need to cure cancer or perfect cold fusion or stop global warming or get a sane gun control bill through Congress to win big - all you need is a voice.

A voice that others will actually stop and listen to.

In retrospect, Ted's story seems to be a new kind of Prozac for a new kind of depression.

Do you suppose the chemists at Eli Lilly are even now hard at work trying to squeeze it down into convenient tablet form?


  1. Kevin Kelly said it first, or maybe Sheriff McCluhan, that as our prosperity increases, the scarcest commodity becomes human attention.

    In the struggle to compete for attention, media are evolving to adapt to what the audiences focus on.

    And the answer is, a cat flushing a toilet is more interesting than a special about public health care in Scandinavia.

    The philosophical question of interest to me is whether the media are discovering America's Idle who are fascinated by Dunces with Stars or whether the media are domesticating those people's brains like farm animals so they can harvest their attention with less effort.

  2. I guess his name was Marshall McLuhan.