Joseph Nathan Cohen

Department of Sociology, CUNY Queens College, New York, NY

Becoming Famous

Part of a lecture that I gave on the topics of fame and celebrity.

Original Video Description

Theories about why some people become famous. This is an excerpt from a presentation by Professor Joseph Cohen at the City University of New York, Queens College at a joint presentation between Queens College’s Sociology Workshop and the Queens Podcast Lab’s Learning Series.

Transcription (Auto-Generated)

so let’s talk about becoming famous which is what a lot of young people want to know it’s and and it’s an interesting question how do people become famous now it’s easy to find surface explanations for specific cases right we could say oh this actor became famous after this breakthrough role or this singer became famous after this hit song but developing general explanations of how to become famous we requires us to have some sense of like the underlying mechanism and uh uh uh and a sense of what fame is uh you know beyond renown but like how it works where does human attention draw generically now the literature offers a lot of explanations as to why people acquire fame and each of them sensitizes us to a factor and suggests practical ideas of how a podcaster could acquire fame but they all have their limits so i i want to go through five uh five uh prevalent explanations in literature and then talk about the enterprise management view that came through in my work with ryan and is the it’s the uh the take that we’re i think we’re approaching with the first explanation of fame is probably the most common and it’s that famous people become famous for doing impressive things or for being special or outstanding so you know uh john sullenberger sully was famous for landing a plane in the hudson river and saving everybody’s life now you know that’s a that’s that’s a pretty great accomplishment uh and so he’s famous or wayne gretzky was a great hockey player or jeff bezos made a lot of money and these types of dynamics can occur at lower levels of aggregation too right like local celebrities who are stars in the local music scene or you know the anchor for local tv or the captain of the football team my daughters uh know the teenager who won the local singing contest and i remember they uh asked me to you know walk up and introduce myself as if they were real celebrities to my daughters they were celebrities um let’s just think about this okay i’ll get back to that now the idea that fame is acquired by achievement suggests that to become famous you’ve got to do something great you’ve got to attain excellence in some field and and that is often how people rise to faith that’s you know we know of michael phelps because he won the gold medals you know we know of jk wrongs either because we like the story we know she sold billions of dollars of books um usually the the main issue with this explanation is that achievement can exist in the eye of the beholder like for example charles manson is very famous you know ted bundy is famous there’s a whole genre of culture that celebrates mass murderers and i guess you could say well he killed a lot of people that’s an accomplishment in the field of murder but like it also speaks to the fact that you can just construe anything as an achievement or an impressive feat you know including anti-social things or even trivial things and so it’s hard to use achievement as a basis for explaining how fame works in general because you can always find something be like oh they’re great at that or they’re great at facial expressions you know Status the second view emphasizes status and sees our relationship intertwined with our social position so for non-sociologists uh the the concept of status as i use it here talks about people’s natural proclivity to uh fall into pecking orders or or deferential behavior whenever you have a sufficiently large group of people it’s sort of it’s an observed behavior of people that they will organize in authority structures informal ones everybody will start somebody will become the boss and everybody will start listening to the boss or two or three people will be loud and dominant and then everybody’s going to listen to them all right now that’s an informal status hierarchy and it develops naturally and then we have formal ones like who becomes the president of the the the country or the school now the implication here is that you can acquire fame by securing a position of power or status in a community and use that as a basis to acquire fame so for example we listen to frank wu he’s the president of our college he’s famous in our college he’s important in our college it makes sense that we would pay attention to what he says because he’s the boss you know he has a high status in the social system that we’re embedded in and so we pay attention to him just as we pay attention to whoever the president is now now when there’s turnover and somebody loses that status often we do stop paying attention to them we stop paying attention to the past presidents of our country of our school right we don’t listen we might not pay attention to uh people who are in former positions now there’s merit to this view fame can accrue to high status people that much we know when somebody becomes a ceo or a big shot we do pay attention to them and fame can confer status like we might respect somebody or defer to them because we know they’re famous or popular but it is not necessarily a great explanation or it doesn’t give us a great guide for how somebody low status can acquire fame and we know that happens right we know it happens all the time most people who are famous did not walk into that position it was built and so how so that’s the limit of it it’s interesting it synthesizes us to the idea that fame relationships can be in a status hierarchy but it does not give us a lot of explanation as to how Hype hype is a third path to fame the idea with hype is that uh you spread information about somebody tell everybody about something either through advertisements or public relations publicity uh the limit of this is hype promotion can be an important part of a strategy to acquire fame but there are many instances in which somebody is hyped and audiences don’t take to the person so and the person’s celebrity doesn’t exist beyond the hype beyond somebody paying for their exposure so hype can generate exposures but it can’t guarantee that someone will attach or engage with a person and become a celebrity follow them Charisma the fourth is charisma uh it’s rooted in the greek words for charm and beauty and what this is this is like the max weber concession hold on conception of uh you know uh having a a a a an undefinable draw an indefinable uh uh allure uh charisma can involve appearances you know like john hamm is a very very handsome man but it’s more than that a lot of charismatic people are able to transmit a magnetic quality a charisma is like a something that draws people to them and it can be in their character it can be in their manner their way of speaking it doesn’t have to be in their appearance now there’s a lot of research on what makes somebody charismatic in the field of leadership studies and there’s a general agreement that the literature hasn’t really gone far past laundry lists of things like you know aggressive attractive intelligent and so on there’s no the the literature that i’ve seen hasn’t developed like a real uh defined sense of what charisma is how it’s generated how it affects people but rather it’s treated like a residual category oh this person’s loved therefore they have charisma now let’s find out what the essence of that charisma is so sometimes it’s not a meaningful guide Celebrities as Symbols the last one is an interest or the the last one in the literature is an interesting one and it’s the view of celebrities as a symbol and it comes from jeff alexander and the idea here is that celebrities or famous people we use as stand-ins to represent institutions or organizations or ideals or movements or communities so for example the idea would be like when we celebrate marks we’re not actually celebrating marks uh we might be celebrating you know socialist ideals or anti-capitalist sentiment or we might you know identify with intellectualism you know there is the celebrities the people we follow as celebrities they they might be sort of uh personifications of abstract things that we interact with the people as if as if they’re who we’re communing with but we’re using them as a means of affirming our fidelity or you know our adherence to an identity or an ideal or something like that um and then finally this is the view that is coming through in our research i think and ryan maybe you’ll disagree PersonCentered Mass Communications Enterprise with me uh uh ryan’s looked at the empirical work he’s not really working on this paper he’s working on something else but i find that when we talk to the micro celebrities uh they look to us like person-centered mass communications enterprises by a mass communications enterprise i mean it’s like a project or an organization that’s focused on disseminating content or information it’s person-centered so the enterprise is branded by an individual identity as opposed to an abstract one so instead of vox media it says recline right instead of you know uh happy madison productions it’s adam sandler um there is often for larger celebrities and smaller ones there’s often multiple people who are working to create that single image it’s a full enterprise like for jennifer lopez for example she has a uh she has tons of employees all of whom play a role in creating jennifer lopez as we recognize her in popular culture there’s publicist personal trainers assistants and they’re working on things like physical appearance or her performance and things like that that’s a whole team that’s an organization like if you look at the flow of work and the people involved it looks like an organization uh and so one way that i’ve come to see celebrity is it’s like a person branded enterprise Personal Brand Enterprise and i get this sense you can get the sense when you talk to people in a lot of ways one is when we talk to respondents there’s a detachment from fame it’s not something like you expect to be i love fame but usually they have sort of a cynical view of it they’re like yeah it’s part of the job we need followers but i uh my sense was i is that i didn’t really i don’t recall meeting respondents who were like oh i love fame i love the love that i get they express a an appreciation for being followed an appreciation for people who consume their products and a desire to serve them and satisfy them as as any business would it’s customer base but the personal attachment at least struck me as not being there we talked about how there’s multiple people involved and that happens with micro celebrities you know they have subcontractors working on aspects of their communication like a website you know or or their social media some we’ve been in organizations that hire writers we’ve uh there’s one that i can think of that hired writers so what came out of the person’s mouth wasn’t their own speech they hired somebody fame is generally not a means but it’s often a means but not an end i think that’s self-explanatory and more importantly when we look at how fame is built it looks a lot like a business uh you know they have a target market in mind they’re aware of where they are they try to create products that satisfy them build a fidelity a loyal following and they’re always trying to sell and promote their franchise to audiences so the way that the micro celebrities that we’ve observed strike me is they they look like entrepreneurs and they seem to talk about their work as if they were entrepreneurs even when they’re the product like there’s some separation um ryan do you have anything to say you want to disagree or anything like that or uh no i i think you know i we’ve talked about this i agree with a lot of what you’re saying of course and Celebrity Relationships i think that one other thing i would add i think maybe you’re going to get to this i don’t know is that the the technology you know what’s different about the celebrity today is that a lot of the people we spoke to they were kind of cultivating relationships with their communities right which is very different than movie stars of the past that were just on the silver screen and you had no contact with these celebrities were able to communicate directly with them you know have them as patreons supporting them it’s a very more kind of relational experience as a celebrity and i think that that’s partly why they didn’t want to be grand celebrities for the whole world they really just wanted status within their uh communities there yeah let’s talk about that i’m going to talk about that in a second oh because that’s why you’re going to get to it it’s good all right let’s talk about uses of fame i’m going to be really quick cause i realize i’m running out of time and i want to have a lot of time Uses of Fame for discussion how do people use fame um there are four types of discussions about how fame is deployed that we’ve come across or that have come up in our discussions um the first are psychic rewards so i i think a lot of aspiring celebrities uh think about uh these they’re young people they think about esteem impressing their friends getting the love of strangers feeling wanted and things like that and the micro celebrities who we interviewed they they appreciate they do feel esteem they are flattered that people follow them they are very grateful but like i said it that i don’t know it it it feels very much like they are that the investment is lower than you might expect uh they do enjoy fame if it’s part of an activity that they enjoy or that’s a creative outlet uh and for some people fame can be a mixed blessing i had a discussion first of all i’m going to talk about it earlier this week i did a podcast with carrie ferris who’s one of sociology’s leading sociologists of fame and she said in her work you know a lot of female news anchors for example they get harassed they don’t like it they have people come up to them at dinner you know when they’re at a restaurant to interrupt and it’s unpleasant or it makes you feel unsafe and so renown can be a mixed blessing and for some people it’s just like it’s a fact of life that they have to deal with given the type of work they do they’re in a communication centric line of work and this is like the price you have to pay it’s not unlike for example what a professor might feel like if somebody interrupts their dinner you know in the cafeteria while they’re having friends if they were to get a steady stream of that you’re grateful you’re accessible you know but it can be too much there there are instances where it can be too much and even threatening the second reason is money and my sense is that fame is not easy to monetize monetizes the word that they use converting fame into money and it’s really quite difficult and even people who are uh quite famous they generally they’ve reported you know modest modest incomes a lot of them have a lot of people who i thought were quite famous had date jobs um or they add other sources of income fame in and of itself even when you’re well known uh you might not uh lend itself to making much money unless you’re extremely famous and often it’s a subordinate uh motive anyways like we i i think there are many creators they know how they could become more popular uh there are ways that you could easily create an enterprise that is more popular by doing something controversial or taking up topics that are you know taboo or whatever but like people don’t want to uh because fame is often not the main goal what is valuable to a lot of our respondents is status and group membership uh there are some creators who are a lot like academics you know how academics they love sociology they want to build sociology they want to meet other sociologists they want to become respected in the field of sociology so that those type of dynamics occur in a lot of areas of interest from comic books to like vacation theme park you know timeshare whatnot like there’s all sorts and we’ve run into creators who look a lot like professors on you know esoteric subjects that don’t fit neatly into uh into uh you know an academic discipline but they’re still very serious about it and a lot of those dynamics exist the last thing that celebrity is uh thought to be useful for is influence and um celebrity can give you the power of exposure it gives you the power to deliver a message to someone but research into celebrity endorsers shows that it’s more complicated than that audiences evaluate celebrities as if they were like they do other people in their lives they evaluate how much they trust a celebrity how competent they think a celebrity is to comment or make an appraisal of an object that they’re speaking about and they’ll listen to them as they would any other person in their life so for example if tom hanks says you know go get your covet vaccine there are people who might reject you know not everybody will listen to tom hanks even if they like him they might say well tom hanks has different politics from me or tom hanks is not a medical professional so people are thoughtful in how they evaluate uh uh how they evaluate uh the influence of celebrities see uh all right finally last topic and then we’ll open it up to discussions gonna be a good time let’s take a moment to talk about the death of celebrity and cancellation now Fame Decays george patton famously said all glory is fleeting and it is because fame decays as soon as it’s secured uh you will find that or i i think my sense of our interactions with our respondents and my experience in running podcasts is that keeping the attention of somebody keeping access to people’s informational diets is a constant job you uh people lose interest in you as soon as they stop getting rewards for following you for engaging with you and so staying relevant is a task that somebody is always having to do or else fame will naturally decay why does fame decay there’s a lot of views on that first is it is believed that uh human attention draws to novelty and so the first time you see something you pay attention to it it’s noteworthy but the more you see something the less you pay attention to it and that can work with people as well sometimes contextual changes affect the relevance of the field so fauci is famous during kovid at the end of kovid will as many people be interested in fetching probably not because the relevance of the field has declined right and often when somebody breaks through and becomes famous it’s because the salience of their field is peaking and there’s somebody important in it like it’s sort of at a local maximum of public interest in what they do is when you’ll break out but as soon as you do it’s already declining news cycles turn new you know new topics come up and even though audiences might like someone they become less relevant they spend less time and they forget celebrities can also lose influence or impact in a field like an aging athlete somebody who loses their position and there’s also just interference of new data so cognitive researchers say that we forget because every new piece of information that we receive uh interferes with the recall of old stuff and so just by going through your day and seeing things it’s going to push the per what you watched last night on tv and the person was featured in it out of your cognition from your you know the forefront of your mind to the deep recesses of your memory now how can you slow the fade how can people stay relevant Cultural Encoding well often people try to refresh their fame by doing something new or different but if you’re not doing something new and if you’re not moving to a new field then one way that the fate can be slowed is by something that candy and colleagues uh uh call uh a cultural encoding so what happens is there are two uh two stages in a per a celebrity’s descent into obscurity there is first the fall from active engagement so right now we actively engage with fauci because he’s an important figure in government and has expertise on an important issue that is concerning us now and so we will pay attention to fouchy now that’s active engagement as kovit becomes less relevant politically or to you personally you’re just going to stop paying attention and that’s the first fault but you will still remember fauci there’ll still be talk of fouchy you’ll watch you know cnn’s uh remember covid’s special and it’ll have fouchy in it but over time everything related to fouchy falls from memory the people who remember fauci die off and people fall into obscurity unless you have like an institution that’s constantly bringing you back you know like like the church brings back jesus right or like you know uh the federal government brings back memories of all of our old presidents so one way to culturally encode what happens is while you’re popular if you can be inserted into other pieces of information or cultural objects then those objects persistence might carry you might might keep your celebrity alive for a little longer so for example uh john sullenberger landed the plane in the hudson and he was very very famous for a few weeks a few news cycles but then tom hanks made a movie about him he encoded the story of sullenberger into a hollywood film and that pulls out sullenberger’s notability for several more years right we don’t forget about him in part because there’s a movie that movies in on a netflix catalog some you know it’s available uh you know in a at a rental well there’s no more rental stores but you can buy it on itunes or whatever so the existence of the movie encodes sullenberger’s presence in the culture and the more somebody’s encoded the more stuff that’s made about them the longer they stay but eventually everybody gets forgotten one thing that uh we found in in and our work also is uh that isn’t mentioned in in the um in the literature but something that i’ve thought about is high involvement followers now there are certain members of your audience who can develop a very very deep bond with a franchise and i would say a lot of our podcasters are very very aware of them they call like my core audience or you know my fans or things like that but what they are talking about are they are talking about audience members who have a high degree of interest and attachment to the person they follow them they interact with them whatever those people are can act in the same way that cultural and coding does they will stick around with a franchise longer they will try new things that the franchise offers and sometimes they’ll even create derivative content right like if if i like your show and i tweet about it or i tweet about every episode then like i’m encoding your content on my twitter feed i’m reminding people and in a sense i’m working as a cultural encoding agent for you and high involvement audiences are very very important to a lot of producers they talk about them they cater to them they’re at the forefront of their mind um this is well whatever i’ll get it and then one last one last thing uh the topic of cancellation uh uh uh uh comes up once in a while Cancellation and cancellation is interesting um so what cancellation is it’s uh it is uh it’s often a a it’s a social movement that is trying to encourage people to stop following or boycotting content that features a particular celebrity who is perceived to have transgressed a you know uh some type of moral uh red line right so uh for example uh so if you take a look on the left these are conservative people who uh you know in conservative circles are said to have been canceled for their uh opposition to liberal views and on the right there’s uh a cartoon about the 1619 project and a question about critical race theory becoming banned these are two examples of cancellation where somebody is engaged in some method to try to prevent people from consuming products trying to get people’s shows de-listed trying to decode them from the cultural memory get try to get as easy and sorry shows off in netflix unfollow his whatever you know um a lot of this is a political discourse uh a lot of people who are being canceled appear to be using it as part of a campaign to hype a new cultural or a new production outlet and uh i don’t know it’s hard to differentiate the act of being cancelled from like the act of hyping a new enterprise because it’s a great line to do it true cancellation though is far more difficult today than in the past it used to be that you could blackball somebody but now that makes no sense uh i mean in a world where nazis can run tv and radio stations uh because they can effectively on youtube or by running a podcast or running a blog anybody can run anything uh there’s far less regulation than there ever was and i i just i just don’t believe in this cancellation but what is interesting is it shows that they’re attacking the basis the economic basis or the influence base of a person by encouraging people to unfollow them and decode them from the culture so that is the end of sort of our look at fame how do you get it how do you use it how do you keep it if you enjoyed this talk check out an episode from this monday of my podcast the annex sociology podcast it features kerry o ferris and we talk about celebrity she’s a very accomplished researcher and an expert she’s a very funny woman uh you can get it on itunes or spotify or you can just ask your smart speaker to play the latest episode of the annex sociology podcast if you do this this week or next week you’ll get that episode and then one more uh sort of message before we go to q and a this is just for the queen’s podcast lab series uh thank you for joining us on the queen’s podcast lab uh learning series these are free educational products or resources rather brought to you by the state and city of new york these are your tax dollars at work we create free public resources and non-commercial scholarly media content and if you’d like to support the work we do uh visit our website and click donate your tax deductible donation to our 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