Are we celebrity obsessed?

I had an interesting email today: a writer emailed me about a technology story she was writing for her newsletter.  She had found a number of news stories about the most popular search items on the internet.  The various reports--one about Yahoo, another about AOL, and another about Google in Australia--indicated that Britney Spears was at or near the top of every list.  Other stars like Angelina Jolie were also in the top 10.  The writer's question was: what does this say about our culture?  Here's a slightly-edited version of what I wrote back:

First of all, you've got to take these reports with a little grain of salt. They're designed to grab headlines. I haven't looked at the actual data, but if you were to really mine the data carefully, I suspect that there are certain things that are less flashy but more substantial hidden in there. It may well be that health searches, when combined, account for more searching than celebrity searches--it's hard to tell how representative a top 10 list is until you see the whole data set. The other thing is that two of the three stories are not about Google, and Google has the lion's share of the search market. It could well be that users of AOL and Yahoo are not very representative.

That having been said, I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that many people in our culture are obsessed with celebrity. To be honest, that's nothing new. Every culture that I've studied has its celebrities--they're just different from culture to culture. Five hundred years ago, the celebrities were the nobility, today they're entertainers. Cultures seem to need individuals that represent their hopes, fears and dreams. In tabloid newspapers and now gossip news sites like Perez Hilton's, movie stars and singers play out a social drama that's a lot bigger than we usually think. They're the Greek gods and goddesses of our day, acting out mythological roles of passion and power. They're a utopian fantasy for a lot of people. If we didn't have entertainers, we'd have someone else.

I suppose it says something that our celebrities are primarily entertainers, rather than, say, the cowboys of the Old West, the generals of the Napoleonic Age, the dukes and countesses of the Middle Ages or the priests of ancient cultures. Several prominent commentators (like Neil Postman) have argued that we have a Las Vegas society--all about flash and glitz with little or no substance.

My personal feeling, however, is that this is just one trend in North American culture, rather than a reflection of all of it. Thus my comment at the beginning. New media culture is phenomenally fragmented and constantly shifting. There may be large groups of people interested in this thing or that thing, but it's not like in the broadcast era, when 90-some percent of households were tuning in each night to one of three shows.  In other words, even our largest groups are minorities.  There is a large portion of our society that is obsessed with celebrities. But I suspect there is an even larger number that are not. If the search reports indicated that a majority of all searches on the Internet were about Britney & co., then I would sit up and take notice....

Last updated Dec. 10th, 2008 at 7:46pm by Kevin Schut