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.

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