Friday, May 31, 2013

Time Magazine's Person of the Year

Each year since 1927, Time Magazine has selected an official Person of the Year.   This recognition usually goes to the individual who "has done the most to influence the events of the year."

Our historical significance rankings provide a way to see how well these selections have stood up over time.  Do the people of the year prove to historical figures of lasting stature, or are they merely of passing interest?  We analyzed the historical significance rankings of all of Time's Person of the Year selections to find out.

They generally are an elite bunch, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin[1014] and China's Deng Xiaoping[1163] representing median-level people of the years. Adolf Hilter [7] proves to be the most significant person of the year.  Albert Einstein [19] was the most significant modern individual never selected for the annual honor.  Time tried to make it up to him by naming him Person of the Century in 1999.  Elvis Presley [69] is the highest ranked figure who was completely dissed: no author or artist has ever so been honored.

The least significant Person of the Year proves to be Harlow Curtice [224326], the president of General Motors for five years during the 1950's.   He was recognized for his decision to increase capital spending in a time of recession, which helped spur a recovery of the American economy.   It seems funny to say so, but America really needs another Harlow Curtice, now!

The figure below plots the significance rank of People of the Year as a function of the year of their selection.   Lower rankings imply more significant figures, and the y-axis is plotted on a log scale, so the figures near the top are several orders of magnitude more significant than those on the bottom.  There is no obvious trend to suggest whether the selections are getting stronger or weaker with time.

Other obscure selections include Hugh Samuel "Iron Pants" Johnson [32927], who Franklin Roosevelt appointed to head the depression-era National Recovery Administration, and fired less than a year later.  John Sirica [47053] was the District Court Judge who ordered President Nixon to turn over tape recordings in the Watergate Scandal.   David Ho [66267] is credited with developing the combination therapy which provided the first effective treatment for AIDS.   His contributions to human health arguably deserve a better significance rank than our algorithms gave him here.

Friday, May 3, 2013

15 Minutes of Fame

Our work aims at a greater understanding of the forces of fame and historical recognition, by providing the right tools to measure these seemingly ill-defined quantities.  In particular, we like to work with scholars from the social sciences and humanities to employ our analysis for greater understanding of social and cultural phenomena.

Such efforts recently bore fruit with the publication of our paper Only 15 Minutes? The Social Stratification of Fame in Printed Media, in the American Sociological Review, the most prestigious journal in Sociology.   We received a fair amount of coverage in the popular press, including sensible articles in the Los Angeles Times, the Pacific Standard, and the Canadian Globe and Mail.  Our co-authors here are sociologists Arnout van de Rijt from Stony Brook and Eran Shor from McGill University.

Our study concerned the question of how enduring fame and celebrity really are.   Do we live in Andy Warhol's world, where everyone is briefly famous and then disappears without a trace, or might instead  a little fame tend to begat more fame, as the recognition leads to greater career opportunities and other self-reinforcing processes?

To address this question, we did a computational analysis of trends extracted from our multi-year, terabyte-scale corpora of news articles, and generated time series of how often 100,000 randomly selected people appeared in the news.   Statistical analysis shows that names exhibit fast turnover only at the bottom of the public attention hierarchy.   Among the those who have achieved substantial recognition, stable coverage persists around a fixed level and rank for decades.

That fame is generally persistent provides additional motivation for the Wikipedia-analysis we do in Who's Bigger?.   Although many figures have enjoyed surprising posthumous changes in historical recognition, by and large these forces are predictable.   In our book, we give a model of reputation decay with time that is validated by over two hundred years of data from scanned books.

Indeed, we would never have devoted two years to writing Who's Bigger? if the historical figures we feature were in any danger of losing their fascination.    They will remain Bigger than the rest long after Charles and I are history.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Welcome to the Who's Bigger Blog!

I'd like to welcome you to the Who's Bigger blog, dedicated to making the world a Bigger place. It is part of our effort to make available all the analysis underlying our book Who's Bigger: Where Historical Figures Really Rank on our website,

Our goal here is to summarize all things happening in the Who's Bigger universe: milestones concerning out book, updates to our website, and new discoveries we make that would otherwise have to wait for a next book (is anyone up for Who's Even Bigger? :-)).

Our publisher, Cambridge University Press, is currently copyediting our manuscript.  They tell us that things are on schedule to publish the book in October 2013.   Last week, I attended a meeting of the Cambridge sales representatives, who promise to try to move the thing.   You can help them: the book will make a wonderful Christmas gift to all those you love.  The website is rapidly getting into shape.  Indeed we encourage you to check out your favorite historical figures, like Barack Obama