15 minutes of fame may last a lifetime

STONY BROOK (US) — Celebrity status may seem like an unending revolving door, but a new study finds fame isn’t so fleeting after all.

Researchers studied the names mentioned in approximately 2,200 US daily newspapers, weeklies, and more infrequent periodicals over a period of several decades using Lydia, a research project in natural language processing (NLP) that reduces text streams to time-series data on the news volume associated with each news entity and their juxtapositions in sentences, articles, and newspapers with other news entities.

They discovered that, contrary to popular belief, most people who become truly famous in a given year, stay famous for decades—no matter what field they’re in, including sports, politics, and other domains.


This is even true of entertainment, where it might appear that fame is likely to be most ephemeral. For example, in a random sample of 100,000 names that appeared in the entertainment sections of more than 2,000 newspapers between 2004 and 2009, the 10 names that showed up most frequently were Jamie Foxx, Bill Murray, Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Naomi Watts, Howard Hughes, Phil Spector, John Malkovich, Adrien Brody, and Steve Buscemi. All have been famous for at least a decade and all are still much talked about today.

“The notion that fame is fleeting, particularly in this day and age of democratic newsmaking by everyone for everyone, appears to be a common perception,” says Arnout van de Rijt, assistant professor of sociology at Stony Brook University. “TV shows like American Idol and Jersey Shore, and people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are commonly used as examples of fleeting fame.

“This study suggests that in fact celebrities, even those whose fame may in the eyes of many, lack a basis of accomplishment, mostly maintain their celebrity status for many years.”

Published in the journal American Sociological Review, the study shows that the annual turnover in the group of famous names is very low. Ninety-six percent of those whose names were mentioned over 100 times in the newspapers in a given year were already in the news at least three years before.

Van de Rijt and co-author Steven Skiena, teaching professor of computer science, point out that this can be explained by the fact that both media and audiences are trapped in a self-reinforcing equilibrium where they must continue to devote attention, airtime, and newspaper space to the same old characters because everyone else does so as well.

Talent, resources, or chance events may propel an individual into the spotlight. But, once someone becomes truly famous, they tend to stay that way.

Temporary celebrity is highly unusual and is to be found primarily in the bottom tiers of the fame hierarchy, such as when people like whistleblowers become famous for a limited time for participating in particular events.

The researchers acknowledge that there is further work to be done with data from blogs, television, and video-sharing sites like YouTube to see whether the same patterns hold true. Eran Shor, assistant professor of sociology at McGill University is another co-author on the study.

Source: Stony Brook University