By Fergus Ryan.
Thirty something years ago in the primary school yard I would regularly have the same conversation with friends… ‘how cool it would be if you were on telly?’.
It seemed like a real achievement to get broadcast into people's homes. It was more than just being on the telly; you’d be famous.
There was a time when becoming famous was quite hard. Traditional broadcast media was a bottleneck. You had limited number of outlets, which were controlled by a small number of people. To gain approval from these people you had to be remarkable or have done remarkable things.
You couldn’t just decide… ‘Today I’d like to broadcast into peoples’ homes. To get your big break you needed to put in your 10,000 hours. You had to work hard to become famous; fame was earned.
Flash forward to 2016 and all you need to create a broadcast is a strong wifi connection and a smart-phone. More on that, later.
A Hard Day’s Night
The Beatles are a great example of putting in those 10,000 hours (as told in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers). The bedrock of their future success was their relentless stint in the clubs in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962. They played 6-8 hours a night, 7 days a week. It was during this period of the group's history that they not only improved their musicianship and performance skills but also widened their reputation as an entertaining and hardworking act.
Roll it forward to 2008 and Justin Bieber gets discovered on YouTube doing cover versions. Closer to home Irish band Keywest opted not to take the more travelled route of relentless gigging towards a crack at a studio album. Instead they opted to busk and use social media to promote their Triple Platinum debut album, The Message in 2012.
That’s not to say Justin and Keywest didn’t work hard at their craft. I’m sure they did but it was on their terms. Today if you are remarkable or have done remarkable things you have more control over how you get your story out there.
15 minutes of fame
An exchange between photographer Nat Finkelstein and Andy Warhol in 1966 is credited as being the inspiration for the phrase "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes". Warhol used the words in a program for his 1968 exhibition of his work in Stockholm, Sweden.
Finkelstein also claims credit for the expression. He was photographing Warhol for a proposed book. A crowd gathered with some individuals trying to photobomb (waaay before photobombing was a thing) some of the shots. Warhol supposedly remarked that everyone wants to be famous, to which Finkelstein replied, "Yeah, for about fifteen minutes, Andy."
Regardless of who said it, it was pretty prophetic.
The Reality Show Dawning
Ordinary people are willing to go to desperate measures in an attempt to get on the fast-track to fame. In 1991 the Dutch TV show Nummer 28 packaged this desperation and created a whole TV genre around ordinary people. Cameras followed 7 students around Amsterdam tracking their daily life. This may have been the genesis of 'reality TV' as we know it today.
MTV followed on a year later with the Real World show that ran from 1992 to 2013. Again it featured ordinary people living their ordinary lives.
The Big Brother show (which also began in the Netherlands) introduced the idea of confinement and an element of competition. Participants in these shows weren't picked for a particular ability or talent. Ordinary people didn’t need to be or do remarkable things anymore. They just needed to be on a reality TV show to become famous for 15 minutes.
It almost seems that being ordinary seemed remarkable all of a sudden.
Famous for being Famous
Some reality show ‘stars‘ capitalise on their fame, most don't.
The ones that did capitalise on their ’15 minutes’ spawned a new generation of celebrity, who were famous for being nothing other than being famous.
Paris Hilton turned it into a career and Kim Kardashian made it into an industry. Dan Bilzerian is another character who has emerged on social media. Nobody is quite sure what he is or does.
Sideline to what was happening in Reality TV the idea of ‘Personal Brand’ has become increasingly important.
This ‘famous for being famous’ movement takes this idea and develops it into something commercial. Paris, Kim and Dan don’t need the money but they have made a hell of a lot of loot from their fame. Yet they don’t contribute anything other than their brand.
And here is where it gets sketchy.
Reality TV for Masses
Up to this point Reality TV was still reliant on traditional media. We got our reality fix from TV.
The proliferation of social media has globalised the idea of a conversation and the ability to tell your story. Add in the latest craze of Live Stream Video and now you have a hack for Reality TV. You don’t need to be on the show anymore. You just need a strong wifi connection and a smart-phone… And you can broadcast your own Reality TV show, starring you.
Facebook Live, Periscope, YouTube Live, Vine (at least for another while) have allowed ordinary people broadcast around the globe. No audition, no director, no studio boss, no publicist, no 10,000 hours just the courage to put yourself out there.
I’m not suggesting for second that a strong wifi connection and a smart-phone will guarantee you fame. But it can certainly give the illusion of fame.
Your social, streaming or website analytics will tell you would have been seen all over the globe by hundreds, thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of people. That sounds like a level of famous... Right?
They don’t know what they don’t
Though it was written years before, a study done by Justin Kruger and David Dunning in 1999 summed up the current state of social media and content shock perfectly – “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”
The study was inspired by the case of McArthur Wheeler, a man who robbed two banks after covering his face with lemon juice. Wheeler believed that because lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, it would prevent his face from being recorded on surveillance cameras. The study reported that “when police later showed him the surveillance tapes Mr Wheeler stared with incredulity. ‘But I wore the juice’ he mumbled.”
The Dunning–Kruger Effect describes how over confidence is quite prevalent in the under skilled. For example, if you ask a room of 10 people whether they have above or below average driving ability compared to the other people in the room; of course more than 5 will say they are above average. In fact everyone might think they are an above average driver. In reality some are above average. But some aren’t. The ones that are below average don’t know they are and think of themselves as if they were above average leading to an inflated view of their skill set.
Equally, the research suggests high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others. They have a more modest self-assessment.
Numbers and Analytics are not Fans
If we apply this to our ‘famous for being famous’ celebrities it may explain their drive to continue when they don’t actually offer anything other than their fame. Maybe they don’t have the self-awareness to realise there is no substance to their fame.
You can, by very legitimate means, generate a sizeable following on social media. This can be helped by using automation tools. I’m not talking about buying followers. Rather using available technology to maximise your presence and reach. You rely on quantity rather than quality of output.
Blab – great platform but the content sucked
In July the live streaming ‘chat room’ platform Blab shut down over night. After approximately 1 year of phenomenal growth and countless broadcasts the creators pulled the plug without warning.
Blab took a hackathon project and built a live streaming platform in three weeks. It grew to 3.9 million users in less than 1 year. The average daily user spent over 65 minutes per day on Blab. Anyone who followed the Blab Twitter accounts will remember seeing a flood of tweets as new broadcasts were announced.
So what went wrong?
In the words of the creators, the majority of content on the platform sucked. Most of the live streams weren’t interesting enough to justify stopping what they are doing to watch the full broadcast.
And there’s the rub.
Just because you can broadcast across the internet doesn’t mean you should or that people will be interested.
Equally, despite what the numbers might suggest, just because you’ve have gathered some impressive analytics doesn’t mean you’re famous.
You can, as I’ve said earlier, pile up some impressive vanity metrics that give the illusion of fame.
Given the speed of some social media timelines, your fame could be fleeting.
Andy Warhol thought everyone could be famous for 15 minutes. Shaan Puri (creator of Blab) might pitch it somewhere closer to 15 seconds.
The internet and social media has made it easier to achieve fame but to be truly famous with lasting effect you still need to be remarkable or to have done remarkable things. But how much of your 15 minutes or 15 seconds will people remember. Will you just be left pointing to the metrics as the legacy of your fame?