Attention economics: sub-prime celebrities

There’s sometimes deep truth in flippant analogies. Well, there is in my world, anyway… and here’s an example, as The Guardian‘s Aditya Chakrabortty compares celebrity to shonky mortgages: if you sell too many of the latter masquerading as the real thing, the whole system ends up collapsing in the wake of the (admittedly huge) short-term gains you make from it.

As for the assertion that fame is sought only by a desperate few wannabes, think again. Extrapolating from surveys, the developmental psychologist Orville Gilbert Brim estimates that 4 million American adults (out of a total of 200 million) describe fame as their most important life goal. The proportions are only slightly lower in Germany and urban China.


If you define fame as being known by strangers, then newspapers, cinema and especially TV have always driven the spread of celebrity. Yet, until very recently, that attention has customarily been at a gradient: the public used to look up to their stars; now they are minded to look down.


Think back to Wall Street’s sub-prime crisis. That was a story of lenders so desperate for market share and quick profit that they were chucking big sums at people who didn’t warrant it. The tale is very similar in the celebrity-media industry.

Your TV used to be the equivalent of a rating-agency, exposing you only to AAA-rated talent. Now however, it asks you to keep up with the Kardashians; watch a Hilton or an Osborne muddle through the real world, and, yes, be a guest at Katie Price’s latest wedding. The fundamentals of all these celebs are, frankly, ropey, and yet viewers are invited to invest time and emotional equity in them.

Resonances there with our ongoing discussion about gatekeepers and experts in the world of publishing; gatekeeper failure really can collapse a thriving market.

More pertinently, I think I’ve always viewed social currencies like fame (or its more localised little brother, popularity) in economic terms, even long before I knew what economics actually was*. Chakrabortty’s model would need to factor in some of fame’s more curious properties, though: the way it can in circumstances be gifted to another without any loss of personal worth, for instance, or the way one can collapse one’s own federal reserve completely without any help or interference from others, or any intended expense on your part.

Shorter version: anyone who wants to code a detailed version of Whuffie has a whole lot of work ahead of them. But the human brain, jacked into the cyborg extension of ourselves we call the media, can run those insanely complex calculations without knowing consciously how they work… score one up for the meat. 😉

[ * This is a not-too-subtly coded way of saying that I wasn’t hugely popular at school, and spent a lot of time trying to rationalise why that was. I’d have doubtless been better served by not thinking about it, hence appearing to have been less of a massive nerd, and hence becoming more popular. Ah, hindsight… 🙂 ]