Celebrity Power: Information Overload Makes Our Attention the Next Hot Commodity, Writes David Robinson. an Endless Variety of Niche Sources Could Leave Us Absorbed-And Isolated-If Not for the Big-Name Celebrities Who Bring Us Back Together

By Robinson, David | The American (Washington, DC), January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Celebrity Power: Information Overload Makes Our Attention the Next Hot Commodity, Writes David Robinson. an Endless Variety of Niche Sources Could Leave Us Absorbed-And Isolated-If Not for the Big-Name Celebrities Who Bring Us Back Together


Robinson, David, The American (Washington, DC)


THE INTERNET IS often billed as a radical equalizer. Anyone with a keyboard can, we are told, compete for the readership of the largest magazines and newspapers. Anyone with a camera and a clever idea can, through YouTube, reach more viewers than MTV does.

There is a new meritocracy in the race for attention, and it seems to threaten the establishment. Dan Rather, who spent much of his career shaping the official versions of news events, was edged into early retirement after bloggers exposed the documents underpinning a major story as forgeries. Encyclopedia Britannica had to issue a defensive press release after a study in Nature suggested that Wikipedia, a user-created and free online encyclopedia, covers science just about as well as Britannica does. On rottentomatoes.com, movies are rated by the collective judgment of the large and anonymous viewing public, and famous reviewers sometimes find themselves in the back seat: how prominently a review is featured depends on how many people commend the review, not on who wrote it.

In each of these cases and many more like them, institutions that have traditionally derived their power from one-to-many communication are undermined by the new ease with which regular people, acting independently, can reach a large audience.

The traditionally dominant media are losing our attention. The total audience of the network TV news shows has dropped by half since 1980. Because of all the new competition, our attention is becoming a more important commodity than ever. Several astute observers, including Michael Goldhaber and Richard Lanham, have pointed out that the phrase "information economy" is a misnomer--information is not naturally scarce. Rather, we are drowning in it. The thing that is scarce, and that becomes more valuable the greater the deluge of information, is our capacity to absorb and process information--or, our intrinsically finite supply of attention. Attention is the crucial ingredient that allows information-driven goods such as music, writing, and expert advice to find their value in the marketplace.

Celebrities--people who are, as Daniel Boorstin put it, "well known for their well-knownness"--are more celebrated than ever. Once they rise to national or global renown, whatever the reason, their fame becomes a kind of capital that can be converted into money or political influence.

Bono's allegiance to the "Make Poverty History" campaign has influenced the public mood enough that Western governments are now pledging to shovel more money into aid programs that have been spectacular failures. The Dixie Chicks, Whoopi Goldberg, and a crowd of other entertainers raise funds and votes for Democrats, while Nashville turns out patriotic anthems that rustle up support for Republicans. Tom Cruise may have done more to spread skepticism about psychiatry than Thomas Szasz has. (Haven't heard of Szasz? He wrote The Myth of Mental Illness, the most widely read intellectual critique of the mental health establishment.) Madonna's efforts to adopt a Malawian child have brought Africa into America's public conversation, surpassing, at least for a time, the attention that actress Angelina Jolie has attracted as a special United Nations ambassador to refugees in Darfur.

The logic of the Internet was supposed to wash away celebrities in favor of what Yochai Benkler and others call "crowdsourcing," where we all collaborate to replace the experts or the divas. How is it that the star power of many big celebrities is still growing, and at the same time a stampede of new ones arrives--bloggers or musicians with cult followings, talking heads on new cable networks, and community leaders like Jim Wales of Wikipedia? If big celebrities aren't losing mindshare, and lots of new ones are gaining it, then what gives? What are all these celebs distracting us from?

The answer lies in what all celebrities have in common: they create a community of watchers who, by paying attention to the same subject, come to share knowledge and experiences with one another. …

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