Barack Obama is the President of the United States of America, while Kim Kardashian is a reality TV show star that has relentlessly proved her case as an irrelevant one to human race.
Yet, when it comes to media coverage, she has been surely getting more attention than the President. Is it something wrong with our generation, with the media in general, or is it something else?
Fame is a complex social phenomenon. Fame seekers often yearn for self-assurance and confidence boost. But fame is not merely about the celebrity herself; it is equally about their audience to whom they market themselves, and who, by discussing them and acclaiming their public acts, is responsible of making them famous as such. So if anyone is to blame for Kim Kardashian’s intensive coverage, it is our desire as a society to listen to her stories, and follow her news.
In his book, ‘Celebrity’, Chris Rojek, a professor of sociology at City University London, talks about three types of fame: inherited, achieved, and ascribed.
One graph probably sums up these types best, and it most importantly highlights how large and fast is the fame that gets ascribed to people with less merit, compared to the fame that should naturally go to people of achievements and efforts.
Just for the sake of giving all careers their rights, it is important to note the difference in achieved fame, for example among actors compared to scientists, is simply because of the work nature of the formers being already under the spotlights and not in a lab. But still after accounting for this fact, it remains a general trend that people like scientists are less covered in the media than people from other industries that may require less skills and knowledge.
So what are these elements that contribute to non-logical, ascribed fame:
1- Risk: If we look at this graph above, there is an obvious trend of a decreasing level of skills required when it comes to the task in question as we go higher on the fame level. But if we scrutinize these tasks further, we notice there is also an increasing trend of an element inherent to these ‘low-effort tasks’. This element relates to the willingness of people to pursue such tasks and lead an unconventional career. This element as such relates to the level of deviation from common social norms and traditional life tracks. It is an element of risk.
The higher the risk celebrities put in deviating their lifestyles from average society’s lifestyle, the higher the pleasure that we get from following them. They make people addicted to how high they can go in revealing undaring aspects of human nature that an average person cannot reveal. In a way or another celebrities are outliers, whether on the right or wrong end.
2- Social Voyeurism: Over the last few years, a lot of attention has been given to the rise of digital narcissism, marked by the selfie year and the ability of almost everyone to broadcast their life and turn into the star of their own reality show.
But as much as it is believed that ascribed fame and social media are the cause of why we are becoming narcissists, it is in fact the complete opposite. Aggressive adoption of social media and the followships of rising social media stars are merely symptoms of a narcissistic nature of society, and an equal love of ‘voyeurism’ and comparison to others. People are easily driven into the close details of someone else’s life, and the more intimate these details are the higher the addiction. It is the same reason why we enjoy watching a series or a movie or reading a novel; all these stories create a parallel universe that can otherwise not be lived except through this experiment.
Instagram’s success particularly highlights this social voyeurism nature. Compared to other social platforms, Instagram eliminated all noise of content-rich statuses, articles, and pages, and focused on a visual media feed that hits right into your visual cortex through its colorful picture aspect, and closely links you to people’s everyday minute details. Their food, their house corners, their bathroom mirrors, their intimate moments with their partners, all the way to nudity.
Kim Kardashian dared to break the internet, over and over, every time by her narcissism and how self-absorbed she could get. She offered a substance of judgement; the populace could discuss her ‘risky’ behavior; she somehow made people addicted to her news and guilty of finding themselves compelled to keep up with her.
An even more extreme example of a recently ascribed fame is Lebanese born pornstar Mia Khalifa who broke the internet for how far off she went from her middle eastern society ‘norms’. Has Mia Khalifa been a non-arab ‘star’, little her fame would have been.
3- Entertainment: We all know their fame is not earned because of their real added value in our world, we all know they are not the right cultural models of new generations, or for our history to be written through their names, but they entertain us and somehow it is pleasurable, and where their value lies.
Think of it as a coca-cola bottle. All marketing efforts put aside, people know very well that soft drinks are not valuable products for our physical health, yet we love the taste experience of the product. We get addicted to it because of a taste we enjoy and hence because of how it makes us feel. Same applies for celebrities; we are drifted to the experience that they create in our minds. In that sense, there are two types of products that we love: products we know are valuable and those we know aren’t but still love them. For the latter type, their value is not inherent to their nature, but one that comes from the experience they create in our minds and which is a pleasurable, addictive one.
Somehow we have all turned guinea pigs of social network experiments which, on a positive note, are adding a lot of value by helping anthropologists run scalable human studies and document their outcomes to unveil more of our complex human nature.