I’m beginning to think that I should write a little theme song to accompany my guest-blogging “a spoonful of sleaze makes the theory go down/ the theory go down/ in the most delightful way!” And for all you UCLA undergrads, yes, my lectures are a lot like my posts. Register for SOC-M176/CS-M147 early kids because sociology classes tend to fill up on the first URSA pass. Anyway, continuing my ongoing effort to cheapen this august blog with pretentious exegesis of salacious trash, today’s post is why we care about celebrities. I was recently asked this question by a documentary filmmaker and while we never managed to schedule the interview, I did ruminate on it and I figured I’d share my notes with y’all. My reasoning won’t be terribly surprising if you’ve followed my previous posts, but I think there are basically three things explaining the pervasiveness of celebrity gossip: network externalities (demand), human nature (demand), and supply.

What Celebrity Is Not

Before talking about why I think we care about celebrities, I want to first dismiss the idea that it’s because they are actually special. The first really serious attempt to grapple with celebrity within an org theory framework was Rosen’s 1981 AER piece “The Economics of Superstars.” You can summarize Rosen as making three basic points:

  1. Technology makes celebrity possible by replacing the finite potential audience that can fit in a theater with the infinite potential audience that can buy mechanical reproductions or receive broadcasts.
  2. Given #1, audiences become intensely sensitive to minute differences in quality and uniformly prefer the best to the second-best.
  3. Given #1 and #2, culture markets are characterized by massive inequality described mathematically by a power-law.

In retrospect, Rosen was completely right about #1 and #3, but dead wrong about #2. Samuel Johnson kicked a stone and said of Berkeley’s immaterialist idealism “I refute it thus.” Well, I refute Rosen thus: “It’s, Britney bitch!” It is worth recalling that Britney Spears was extraordinarily popular in the late 1990s. (And lest you posit that Britney was in fact talented, then somehow lost it, I introduce into the evidence the pre-Federline karaoke scene in “Crossroads” where she sings “I Love Rock and Roll” without the benefit of an overproduced sound board.) In fact of all the blondes of the late 1990s, the only one with actual talent was Christina Aguilera and while she has had the most staying power, the fact that she was long eclipsed by Britney (and God forgive us as a nation, Jessica Simpson) should give one pause about our musical meritocracy. In fairness to Rosen, two out of three ain’t bad and there’s a reason the article is so widely cited. Still, we need a replacement mechanism if merit won’t cut it.

Demand: Network Externalities

As discussed in a recent post by Fabio, one of the really cool ideas out there is emergence. Network externalities are an important mechanism for emergence since they allow us to agree on how to interact. Commerce is a lot easier if we agree on conventions like what a kilogram is. (Yes, the French created metric by fiat, but the rest of the world adopted it voluntarily through network externalities). In Adler’s 1985 AER article “Stardom and Talent,” he argued that we benefit from coordinating to common foci in arts and culture too. Adler actually argued that conversation increases enjoyment of the arts, but you can easily reverse the argument to the arts increasing enjoyment of conversation. This should especially be the case with people with whom we have little in common and thus can’t rehash that time that our mutual friend so-and-so did such-and-such but have to stick to the small talk canon. In a 2006 ASR paper, our own Omar Lizardo empirically demonstrated that in fact people who are into pop culture tend to have a lot of acquaintances. Basically, the point is that being able to intelligently discuss the downward spiral of Lindsay Lohan is the kilogram of small talk, or as Putnam might put it (if he had more snark), who needs the bowling league when you’ve got TMZ!

As I discussed in an even sleazier context, the neat thing about network externalities is they imply a positive feedback cycle of cumulative advantage. Thus if a big part of the value of celebrity gossip is the opportunity it provides to discuss it with others, it makes sense for us to coordinate on which celebrities about whom we will gossip. Therefore once celebrity achieves a critical mass of awareness it becomes essentially irreversible and you have an explanation for why celebutards of no apparent talent like Nicole Ritchie are literally “famous for being famous.”

Demand: Human Nature

In a 2005 Current Biology paper, Deaner, Khera, and Platt found that male monkeys will give up fruit juice to look at pictures of high status monkeys (or of female monkey genitals). It’s not just that monkeys are interested in pictures of monkeys, since they refuse to forfeit the juice to see photos of low status monkeys. It actually makes a lot of sense why the monkeys would do this since scrutinizing high status males for signs of weakness or female genitals for signs of estrus provide opportunities for, respectively, increased status and mating. Likewise, you can easily imagine that among a stone age band of hunter gatherers, or even the kind of 19th century villagers described in Eugen Weber’s Peasants Into Frenchmen, that knowing how the local big shots are doing would be news you can use. Therefore you can imagine us evolving a taste for gossip. Lest us very serious professional social scientists scoff at this, we should recall that Ambrose Bierce defined a historian as “n. a broad gauge gossip” and this applies doubly to us. If it weren’t for this very deeply-rooted human (actually primate) drive to know about our neighbors, we would probably find ourselves out of work.

Now note that while it may make sense for a monkey, a caveman, or even a peasant to pay attention to big shots, it’s not necessarily that relevant to those of us in a modern industrial societies with 300 million people in it. If I look at photos of the president in the newspaper and see signs of failing health, it’s not like I can beat him up and thereby replace him (whereas if I were an ape or a stone age human being I could do this to my local alpha male). Likewise if I see in People that a starlet is getting divorced, it’s not like this presents me with a realistic opportunity to mate with her myself. Nonetheless, gossip is not a purely vestigial practice since some of it can be quite practical. For instance, savvy academic department chairs are alert to gossip about top scholars since if they get divorced, or their kids finish high school, or they start a long distance relationship, any of these things imply that your department may have a serious chance at making a prized senior hire. Of the job searches that I’ve followed closely, at least half were driven more by personal considerations than things like salary or research opportunities. Likewise, World Bank staffers were able to use gossip about Paul Wolfowitz to demand his resignation. The reason that we don’t seek gossip only about people with whom we will have interactions (personal friends, family, colleagues) and ignore that about more distant folks (politicians, celebrities) is that there was no Pleistocene edition of People. If a caveman knew gossip about someone, it would be a person with whom he had regular personal interactions and that gossip was therefore valuable. It was only in the bronze age with the creation of statues, tablets, and coinage commemorating kings that we first got the opportunity to gossip at a distance. Romans might have been very interested to learn about how Mark Antony had been bewitched by Cleopatra into various decadent oriental practices, but unless you were a politician (or a merchant speculating in grain) there wasn’t much you could personally do with that knowledge. Nonetheless, Octavian (and later, Plutarch and Shakespeare) knew that the city of Rome would be very interested to hear all about how Antony had abandoned his Roman wife to go native and live it up with an inbred Greco-Egyptian skank.


The last reason gossip is so plentiful is because it is cheap to produce. Hang out around Robertson and 3rd or Melrose and Crescent Heights for a few hours and you’ll get some pictures of celebrities shopping for $6000 handbags, eating chevre frittatas, dating each other, or whatever it is they do to support the West LA service economy. Furthermore, unlike actually casting that celebrity in a film or on a record, you don’t have to pay them. A lot of bloggers like Perez Hilton and Gawker have leveraged a few photos and a lot of snark into ultra-low-overhead media fiefdoms.

Furthermore, celebrities often actively cooperate in their own exploitation. There are plenty of restaurants and boutiques in LA that are not north of Olympic, south of Sunset, east of Doheny and west of Fairfax. Celebrities who shop in this flashbulb free-fire zone are implicitly consenting to be photographed. At the lower-grades they will actually call paparazzi with an itinerary saying where and when they can be photographed. The most pathetic example I’ve seen is this D-lister who had her lawyer meet her at the Grove instead of his office to discuss a pending lawsuit. The most successful example of media-whoredom was the Mtv reality series “Newlyweds” which took Jessica Simpson from second-tier to first-tier and Nick Lachey from boy band has-been to a viable performer.

Even A-listers participate in this with press junkets and talk shows. Most stars are contractually obligated to promote films by doing interviews around the release date. Shows like the Tonight Show or Letterman could never afford to pay stars their usual rates to come on the program, but they don’t have to because the stars appear for free or for union scale to promote the $100 million films that they do get paid for.


Written by GR

September 14, 2007 at 4:12 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Gabriel:
    “Thus if a big part of the value of celebrity gossip is the opportunity it provides to discuss it with others, it makes sense for us to coordinate on which celebrities about whom we will gossip.”

    As there is displacement of anger onto the wrong target, talking about the whipping-boy-girl celebrity is a way to talk about the flaws and sins of our friends but displace it onto the icons we might wish to be. The dysfunctional icons are merely as untalented as we ourselves are and so given the right agent I could be a star except that I’m putting my first million in the bank and I’m living on the interest( I know I can’t sing but I’ll take the money).

    “Likewise, you can easily imagine that among a stone age band of hunter gatherers, or even the kind of 19th century villagers described in Eugen Weber’s Peasants Into Frenchmen, that knowing how the local big shots are doing would be news you can use.”

    Learning to be a better tyrant or Machiavellian can be useful for a coup, but it might be better in the long run to say “The emperor has no clothes” as the child in the story does. The music is crap. The gossip is vicious. The society collapses. The hunters have always killed the farmers … so let the compassionate soldier give the talented artists weapons or watch dullness grow like mold.


    Douglas Gilbert

    September 15, 2007 at 4:12 pm

  2. a P.S. to my previous comment
    GABRIEL on Celebrity! says:
    “Basically, the point is that being able to intelligently discuss the downward spiral of Lindsay Lohan is the kilogram of small talk, or as Putnam might put it (if he had more snark), who needs the bowling league when you’ve got TMZ!”

    So Brave, my son
    defends freedom of speech,
    diversity, but please
    kids of Hollywood
    be safe
    don’t crash into walls
    drunken on fame
    honored for minor repentance
    brave to not
    spend millions
    on drugs
    on public relations
    on improvisation lessons

    Your crash pad
    is more luxurious
    than my son’s digs
    surrounded by
    improvised explosive devices

    Make my son’s war movie
    if your talent will let you
    play a brave wife
    brave daughter
    with angst

    Dust is no small thing
    from a bomb
    from a Trade Center,
    a dictator no footnote to history
    for his victims
    in the big war
    in Cambodia,
    Bosnia, Kosovo
    the more to come
    from indifference
    crashing into walls
    because Saddam
    was an inconvenient foot
    his trample a necessity of
    balance of power politics
    they said.

    To drive a car drunk
    or a tank sober —
    does Lindsay Lohan know
    the difference between
    joy rides and valor?



    September 16, 2007 at 11:15 am

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