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An Index of Fame?

Critical Identifications of Fame in the 'Social Laboratory'

1This paper discusses the presentation of fame that can be identified through popular search terms. These terms reveal how the rapidly shifting interest in individual identities of ‘fame’ are cast against a continuous sequence of expected and unexpected events including movie releases, annual holidays, murders and terrorist attacks. The central claim of this paper is that fame is continuously reconstituted across a wide spectrum of cultural experiences and actions. Fame is attached to individuals as a personification of mainstream cultural fascination with specific events – whether manufactured or unexpected – and artefacts.

2This paper takes up the argument of Tyler (204) and Tomas (31) that promotes the potential of the Internet, and particularly the Web, as a ‘social laboratory’ that offers the means to rapidly and continuously identify the activities and interest of contemporary ‘everyday life’. This contrasts with positions that argue for the significance of the Internet in distinction and as a distinct space (Stone; Stallabrass; cf. Liff, Steward & Watts 97). However, this paper is not ‘another’ paper about the Internet or the Web. The data used in its discussion is admittedly gathered from this realm but is used as evidence into a wider framework of contemporary culture(s) that is media obsessed. This obsession both shapes and draws upon the transitory fame of individuals to frame and structure a form (or an illusion) of cultural continuity through a continuous presentation of events relating to ‘their’ fame. Fame is culturally achieved (Rojek 18) (manufactured) at various historical intersections of events and artefacts with their expression as a search term being just one indicator. Fame is not something that can be individually self-assumed as the (desperate) efforts in the UK of glamour model Jodie Marsh (Befuddle) (and others) often prove. Considered individually, the realisation of one’s fame can be seen as providence and the identification of ‘luck’ is an often cited basis for the possession of fame (Rojek 37). This is certainly a common explanation given by ‘famous people’ in ‘candid’ interviews. However, clear parallels can be seen in the analysis of invention (Boorstin 11). Inventions do not appear unexpectedly or in the absence of a need, they are a cultural response that occurs irrespective of the individual ‘genius’ of an inventor. The achievement of fame fulfills a similar cultural need at a particular historical moment. If Pamela Anderson had not achieved fame then – inevitably – another woman who could offer the contemporary idealised artefact of the female body would be available to be heavily represented through popular Web searches.

3The lists of search terms were gathered from wordtracker’s “Top 500 Search Terms” newsletter and represent the most popular search terms from September 2001 to February 2003. The terms that are found consistently at the top of the lists tend to be generic, for example ‘sex’, ‘autos’, ‘free music’ and ‘films’. Another predominant set of terms that repeatedly appear are the partial or full address of the most popular Web sites such as hotmail.com, yahoo.com and ebay.com. The lists of search terms also reveals the continuous importance of file sharing technologies, the commodification of women’s bodies through pornographic Web sites (MacKinnon in Mehta & Plaza 55) and the use of the Internet to gather copyrighted or even illicit goods for free such as music, software, warez and serialz.

4Fame – in the form that it can be identified through popular Web search terms – is heavily represented by individual media figures of either television or film. However, these people are not exclusively ‘mainstream’ actors. This is revealed through the public expression of ‘private’ cultural knowledges of ‘adult’ actors such as Tawny Kitaen or Tera Patrick. For the majority of these individuals who can be identified through popular search terms few receive a sustained level of interest beyond a few weeks blurring the observation of fleeting fame with that of momentary popularity. These brief expressions of interest are mechanical and even predictable forms of fame. Tera Patrick’s single appearance as a popular search terms occurred the day after she re-signed to host a Playboy Television program, “Nightcalls 411”. The surge of interest in Tawny Kitaen paralleled her arrest for spousal abuse and battery on her professional baseball playing husband. Interest in Natalie Portman and Orlando Bloom, two of the most popular ‘conventional’ actors observed in the lists of popular search terms (with Bloom as one of the few men regularly included in the lists) is more mundanely linked with the release of the films in which they appear. Outside of these specific events interest in these ‘younger’ actors does not rise to a significant level that is sufficient to appear within the lists of popular search terms.

5It is Pamela Anderson, however, who solely achieves sustained long-term individual search engine popularity. Anderson’s life (rather than her career) provides a continuous stream of moments and events that sustain attention in her as a popular search term. In November 2001, Anderson had a miscarriage and received a surge of interest as a search term; in March 2002 she announced that she had contracted Hepatitis C after sharing a tattoo needle with her former husband this was followed by a surge of interest as a search term. One month later she announced her engagement to Kid Rock which provoked another spike of interest. By June 2002 Anderson’s V.I.P. television series had been dropped by her network while she simultaneously announced involvement with a animation project called Stripperella, a combination that again peaked interest in her as a search term. Fame, in this context of celebrity and drawing upon these examples, can be seen as being as much related to negative moments in these individual’s lives as it is to success in their chosen field. This suggests that one parameter of search engine interest in fame revolves around revelations of the ‘normality’ of individuals such as Anderson. Bloom and Portman, in contrast, do not attract this attention possibly through their lack of ‘history’ but more plausibly by their adherence to the script of events manufactured ‘for them’ regarding their careers rather than ‘by them’ and about their ‘real’ lives.

6Baudrillard (41) observed that “in earlier time an event was something that happened – now it is something that is designed to happen. It occurs, therefore as a virtual artefact, as a reflection of pre-existing media-defined forms.” This observation is a harbinger to bin Laden’s spectacular manipulation of western mainstream media by bringing an apparently spontaneous event to the public gaze.

7The terms gathered from the Web search engine offer an alternative parameter for fame – achieved through the spectacle of unexpected public events. Most prominently is the identity (and misspellings) of Osama bin Laden however others also obtain fame through equally unexpected events (unexpected at least for those who experience it and for the mainstream media who act as an accomplice). Unexpected events, and arguably infamy or notoriety (Rojek 12), do not, however, necessarily ensure any greater persistence of fame. Osama bin Laden, perhaps the exception, as a consequence of his general identification as the architect of the 11 September 2001 bombings, is evident in popular search terms for a period of months after the attacks. This fame is evident in a different form to that of television, film or musically oriented fame. Osama bin Laden became an instant and dominating search term immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks. After this, interest in this event, and arguably bin Laden’s individual fame, gradually dropped away over a number of weeks until disappearing completely – echoing what Rojek observes as the inevitable evanescence of fame The notoriety of bin Laden was eventually subsumed and extinguished by mainstream US politics which encouraged a shift towards its own hegemonic agendas including – most notably – the political regime of Iraq.

8Other unexpected forms of fame are also related to specific moments of conflict, tension or aggression. Daniel Pearl, the US journalist, experienced a brief posthumous form of fame in May 2002 when he was beheaded in Afghanistan after being accused of spying. However, it was not the execution or the death of Pearl that primarily contributed to this sudden and unexpected interest. More significantly – for a Web enabled culture – was the relatively ready availability online of a video recording of the beheading. The motivation for the video being placed online, despite being formally banned by the US government, was a political action that defended the American belief in the right to freedom of speech. However, popular interest in this video is arguably more closely related to the perverse and voyeuristic cultural traits of contemporary mainstream culture (that is proved so regularly through many of the most popular search terms). The discovery of Chandra Levy’s body in a Washington D.C. park in May 2002 also offered brief posthumous fame. However, the interest in ‘Klingle Mansion’ – one of the last things Levy searched for on the Web before she disappeared 13 months earlier – suggests a perverse interest in the details of the murder, its peculiarities and Levy’s relationship to a Democrat senator rather than an expression of sympathy or grief for the murdered woman or her family.

9DeBord (thesis 60) claims that “media stars are spectacular representations of living human beings, distilling the essence of the spectacle’s banality into images of possible roles. Stardom is a diversification in the semblance of life.”

10In many respects identifying the difference between unexpected, ‘lived’ or manufactured fame offers little for extending the critical understanding of fame itself. Regular and unexpected events are not the sole determinant of fame, however, the close association between ‘being’ a popular search term and moments in one’s life suggests that this articulation of fame is closely driven by an ever-changing pastiche of personal, local and global events. Increasingly, these events are articulated through popular search terms revealing the role of the Web as a guide to broader mainstream cultural attitudes. “Our” interest with fame is a product of contemporary event-driven culture in all its variations. “Our” construction of fame is also produced by this same culture. The popular identification of individual fame shifts to meet prevailing cultural “needs”. These needs are expressed as, among other things, tabloid articles, ‘candid’ television interviews and Web search terms.