Secrets of digital celebrity: how to get famous the easy way

When Guy Kawasaki was asked how to get internet famous, he had discouraging news. There is no easy answer, he seemed to say.  You have to follow thousands of people. You have to reply to all your email and Twitter traffic.  Yes, he said, I’m “internet famous” but it took me 25 years to get here.

But some people came up easily. The 1990s was the internet’s Cambrian era, so there was an immense amount of noise and commotion. Now that everyone was in the game, it was hard for anyone to rise. But a few did. And some of those few did not appear to be working hard at all.  They were not scrupulous about their twitter traffic and email.  They got digital celebrity the easy way.

So what’s the easy way?  Let’s take three case studies. There are several more. But these are three that impressed me most. 

As the TV show Mad Men as a center piece, Bud began to tweet in the voice of Bud Melman (pictured) as if from the mailroom of Sterling Cooper.  He gave us an insider’s view of the agency.  The Melman character went from a slender proposition to deep plausibility in the 5 seconds it took us to figure out what the proposition was.  Bud (both of them) had insinuated himself into the storyline. He made himself necessary reading for fans of the show. This was fan fic that actually commandeered the original. It was transmedia that was in some ways more interesting and imaginative than the show.  (AMC thought so. They came at Caddell with lawyers blazing.)  Most of all, Bud showed what digital technology could do.  What, in effect, it was for.  For the price of a Twitter account (then as now $0), he was famous.

With “Bud,” Bud found had found a way to hack old media with new media. The message was clear.  Old media might continue to control a big piece of contemporary culture and it would always have more money, more institutional heft, and perhaps more eyeballs, but with tiny investments some people could help themselves to some of the proceeds. It felt like something out of Prohibition, when small bandits managed to liberate one truck from the 100 trucks big bandits were sending from Canada to NYC.  

Talk about ROI.  Bud won fame for the price of a good idea and a really cheap delivery device.  

Jonah Peretti won fame a different way.  He asked Nike to customize his shoes with the word “sweatshop.” Nike refused.  An exchange of emails ensued in which Nike insisted that “sweatshop” was slang and therefore forbidden.  Peretti replied it was standard English. And then he published the emails. And won himself a piece of immortality.  This is one of the characteristics of this fame, that it uses resources that don’t look like resources at all. An exchange of emails as the path to stardom. This was new.  And cheap.  And forget answering all your email.  Just publish the interesting ones.  

This begins with an act of brilliance. Peretti saw that he could use Nike’s customization for his own purposes, against Nike, and as a way to draw attention to a big issue and indeed a guilty secret that lay at the heart of the Nike proposition. It’s an opportunity right there in front of everyone. Most of us are incapable of anything more imaginative that “Grant’s sneakers” or “Left” and “Right.”  Peretti saw a way to hack the customization that Nike felt made them just so very you know current, “with it,” and “on the ball.” The conceit exposed them. Peretti made them pay.

Kevin Slavin won his stardom with a gaming idea. I never saw any of the games that came out of his company Area/Code. It was enough to hear him talk about his proposition at a PSFK conference. He talked about kids running through the streets of NYC pursued by monsters that were imaginary in one sense but entirely real in another. He called these “invisible characters moving through real-world spaces.”  

There is something so clever about these cases you instantaneously go, “Oh.”  Your heart and your head is glad.  Previous generations found fame in other ways, writing books, starting companies, distinguishing themselves in some arena or other.  (Think of Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog.) But all of these were effortful compared to what is happening here. What brought them Caddell, Peretti and Slavin fame was virtually all concept, not much more than a really brilliant idea stretched over a balsa wood frame. It was, and is, path to stardom because this was all it took to demonstrate that you were someone who grasped “it” (the intangible kinds of value and engagement now possible in the digital space) while the rest of us were struggling to get our blogging software to work.

Anthropologist like this sort of thing for the same reason that linguistic like puns.  We can see the cultural (linguistic) mechanics at work. But I think it’s clear that virtually everyone saw these events, these hacks, as clever as anything and they rewarded the creators with admiration that rose to the level of stardom. And remember how hard this was in the 1990s.  Now that everyone was more active and visible, it was hard to see anyone. We want to avoid a post hoc “oh, but that was obvious.”  There was nothing obvious about climbing out of the blizzard of invention going on in that cultural moment. Or this one.

Some will say, “Oh, but this really isn’t celebrity of anything like the kind we care about.  I mean these guys are not film star famous.” True enough.  I would argue this is a higher grade of celebrity.  If you want to be film star famous, you have to trade away your privacy. You will be followed around by the paparazzi.  People will make their living inventing falsehoods about you. This celebrity is costless.  Highly profitable but almost entirely costless. 

We can think of these as “ingenuity bombs” in the manner of a seed bomb.  You take a really great idea.  Coat it in just enough materials to get it started.  And then hurl it into the world.  And stand clear.  Actually, stand close.  You are about to be covered in glory.  

For more on this idea see my book Culturematic.

post script: apologies for the precious version of this post. I am working from Mexico City and my internet resources are constrained.

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