Fame may not last 15 minutes after all

A new study reveals that famous people tend to stay famous for the rest of their lives

Published May 6, 2013 6:13PM (EDT)

This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific Standard According to artist Andy Warhol’s much-quoted prophecy, in the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.

In fact, it’s more likely that 0.15 percent of us will have fame for a lifetime.

Newly published research concludes that, contrary to Warhol’s prediction, genuine celebrity status does not disappear as quickly as it appeared. Once you become famous, you tend to stay famous.

“Fame exhibits strong continuity even in entertainment, on television, and on blogs, where it has been thought to be most ephemeral,” writes a research team led by Stony Brook University sociologist Arnout van de Rijt. Its analysis finds fleeting celebrity status occurs “only at the bottom of the public-attention hierarchy.”

The study, published in the American Sociological Review, utilizes data from more than 2,200 news sources collected since November 2004. Most were American, but some major foreign outlets such as London’s Guardian were included. The sources range “from reputable journals with nationwide circulation to college newspapers to fashion magazines to TV stations’ websites,” the researchers note. Archival data going as far back as the 1980s was also obtained from 13 newspapers, including The New York Times.

An analysis of which names pop up in the selected sources most often found that, contrary to the cliché, “fame has low turnover, except at minimal levels of public attention.”

“Even in areas of social life where occupational success is most determined by trends, hypes, and consumer taste, and less by formal positions of public prominence—that is, entertainment, arts, and fashion—there appears to exist a similar degree of annual stability in the ranks of the celebrated,” the researchers write.

Even on blogs and television station websites, they write, public attention “tends to be brief only when it is of small magnitude”—say, when an otherwise unremarkable person witnesses a tragedy and describes his or her experience. That sort of “ephemeral fame” is “passive and limited to the respective event,” according to the study.

But for the truly famous, celebrity status “is long-lasting and is not constrained by a limited public attention span,” the researchers add. “The events in which these people are involved are almost automatically of interest, and the attention they attract further increases interest, turning their name into a brand.”

The data suggests that people can move from the fleeting category of fame to the stable level, but not the other way.

“When a previously unknown individual is involved in an event that triggers a large and long enough public conversation, or reserves a place in a series of follow-up events, the name locks in,” the researchers write. “Enough people now recognize the name for an audience to desire it, or find it natural to hear more about the person.” The media feeds that desire, perpetuating the person’s fame.

To cite one of their examples, Mike Huckabee ran for president in 2008 and was briefly the subject of intense media coverage. But rather than ending with his unsuccessful campaign, his celebrity status solidified, to the point where people still know his name.

So, to truly understand the nature of celebrity status, perhaps a different Warholanalogy is in order. Fame, once established, is like a can of Campbell’s soup: It’s perpetually recognizable, and it remains on the shelf for a long, long time.

By Tom Jacobs

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American Sociological Review Andy Warhol Fame New York Times Pacific Standard