The Evolution of Fame

Fame is a rapidly evolving phenomena in society. The form it has taken and means it has been carried have changed drastically over the centuries, albeit slowly. However, in the last century, since the invention of the radio and television and now the internet, fame is evolving at an overwhelming pace.

In ancient times, few people were capable of writing histories, as literacy was not widespread. In many early societies such as Egypt and China, all that exists of history is a list of kings.

The first recorded “individual” in history is considered to be Akhenaten, a pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, who ruled from 1351/3 BC until 1334/6 BC. He attempted to shift the predominant religion at the time from polytheistic to monotheist–namely the solar deity, Aten. This was a major proposed shift, and he would go so far as to place a ban on images other than Aten and erase inscriptions of other gods and pluralities around the kingdom.[1] Akhenaten was the first person that you get a sense of. Not just a name and list of what they did, laws decreed, etc., but a sense of their minds and ideas and character as a person.

Individuality, its expression, and its preservation in recorded history has since proliferated.

The desire for recognition and universal praise is natural to humans and we have been seeking it out probably ever since humans developed the ability to give praise. In ancient times, however, fame was often reserved for royalty, leaders, and military heroes.

Fame is generally carried through the times in proportion to how much the individual changed and influenced society and its members. The most famous person who ever lived by far was Jesus, and he achieved this by influencing the majority of people’s belief systems, the way they view the world, and to this day he influences the behavior and thoughts of billions.

How we conceptualize present day fame is drastically different. Fame is now often earned from people’s ability to entertain us, and entertainment is just about the most fleeting type of experience there is. Sometimes entertainers cause movements, which are founded on deeper ideas rooted in individuality, freedom, creativity, and the normalization of previously underrepresented and oppressed groups within popular culture, such as what Ellen Degeneres did for the LGBT community and Kim Kardashian did for body positivity.

Another article written on this subject notes how differently actors used to be regarded:

Actors were once considered the lowest of the low in many parts of the world. While the ancient Greeks tended to hold some actors in fairly high esteem, the Romans were not overly fond of them. Many were slaves, or considered to be people without any morals, capable of performing any lewd act on stage if asked to do so. Actors were definitely not favorites with the philosopher, and Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate.

In Britain, a general anti-theatrical feeling pervaded the upper echelons of society for a very long time. The Tudors were particularly suspicious of actors, believing most to be up to no good. Acting was viewed as a “profession” of beggars and drifters. People who gave nothing back to society. The entertainment and happiness of the humble masses mustn’t have rated too high on the list of priorities for the Tudor Government. [2]

History used to be written and culture molded by the most educated, intelligent, and talented people alive. This has been turned upside down by globalization and the popularization of the internet. Now culture is being molded by the average: if people want a voice in the larger community, they must tailor their content to align with those of average intelligence [3].

In addition to this, the sheer number of influential voices is growing exponentially. People are fighting tooth and nail to gain recognition and prominence, and the younger generation is opting for more superficial means of acquiring this: via social media, Vine and other basic entertainment, and You Tube channels.

This social change is occurring in parallel with increasing levels of individualism:

P. M. Greenfield’s (2009) theory of social change and human development predicts that, as learning environments move toward more complex technology, as living environments become increasingly urbanized, as education levels increase, as commerce develops, and as people become wealthier, psychological development should move in the direction of increasing individualism. As a value system, individualism prioritizes the independent action of the individual as well as the development and expression of individual character and personality (Individualism, n.d.; Stein & Urdang, 1966). [4]

Studies show [5] that there is evidence for this: the use of individualistic words and phrases have steadily increased in music and literature since the 60’s. Individualistic words and phrases include but are not limited to “unique,” “personalize,” “self,” “all about me,” “I am special,” and “I’m the best”.

In a sense, the increasingly substance-less content output fixes itself in the long term: it’s influential only in the very short term. A vine that gets 10 million views because it made 1 million people laugh for a minute will fade into oblivion rather quickly. Even Kim Kardashian, one of the most famous people alive today, will be completely forgotten in a couple generations’ time, because what she doesn’t offer is substantial influence. Gossip, entertainment, and fashion/beauty obsessions are not enough to keep affecting people for centuries. Luckily, what effects people in the very long term will always be what is deeply important to the human condition: world views, values, belief systems, philosophies, and real knowledge.

Millennials should be striving for lasting fame, and since lasting fame is hard to come by, short term fame might just be a fad destined to fade away once the majority of people realize how unfulfilling the superficial rat race is.

What is interesting to note is that society is trending toward a limit of information processing, not that of the internet and technological data processing (as far as we know, that’s boundless), but of human information processing. We simply can’t direct our attention to everything at once, and this inevitably puts a limit on how many people are able to be known by us.

Before this limit is reached, it seems the sheer amount of people we know of continues to grow while the depth of our knowledge of them decreases. It’s the difference between deeply knowing the intricacies of Aristotle’s philosophy and historical context versus knowing nothing but the name, image, and genre of contribution of a particular celebrity.

There is now a lot of energy invested and money being made off of one of the newest and fasted growing categories of research: SEO and social media optimization and Youtube, blog, and general website promotion.

Many people are beginning to wake up to the dynamic and interactive, rather than static and limitedly informative Internet. A our lives become increasingly intertwined with information networks, our feeling of “presence” becomes increasingly dependent on our presence within the online world.

I could write everything there is to know about me–every memory, every thought, and every secret, and I could post it all onto the internet, to last there for all of eternity. But 500 years from now, who will search that information, how much will that information influence anything in the future? This is the general question of fame in this dawning age, and the answer for all of us, however well-known, is yet to be evident.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akhenaten#First_.E2.80.9Cindividual.E2.80.9D

[2] http://weeklygravy.com/lifestyle/the-evolution-of-fame/

[3] https://pjmedia.com/drhelen/2016/03/06/the-curse-of-the-high-iq/2/

[4] http://greenfieldlab.psych.ucla.edu/Media_studies_files/The%20value%20of%20fame-1(1).pdf

[5] http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0040181

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7 thoughts on “The Evolution of Fame

  1. Well said! Another interesting thing to note along with mention of Aristotle and Jesus here is the rise to fame of teachers as the world became literate. Along with the movement toward fame for entertainers we have not only seen a decrease in fame for true leaders (and Donald Trump is an example of someone who poses as entertainer first and a leader, uh…) but also a decrease in fame for great teachers. Sure, there are a few movies about teachers who did great work in their classroom, but the teacher in general is no longer a revered personage in our society.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very interesting point! Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment. I wonder if this shift can be at least partially to blame for the fanaticism of cult ‘teachers’ such as Lafayette Hubbard and Charles Manson. I believe that a significant portion of the population requires a powerful, meaningful narrative with which to base their lives, and now that such a narrative is less and less dictated and cultivated into practice by centralized powers, those people sometimes form little pockets of desperation. It’s speculative and a bit off the main topic, but it’s an interesting question whether the fame of teachers is actually a healthy and vital feature of society. I think the lower standard of intelligence for status is a huge factor, but it also seems like people are generally less trusting of individuals. I have noticed that much of the time, when famous actors try to say something about politics, society, or philosophy, they are ridiculed and “put in their place” by the public. Strange, isn’t it?

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      • I like the question you’re raising here whether or not making teachers famous is healthy. Oh, yeah, there are lots of unhealthy teachers, or wolves in sheep’s clothing. My first thought is that I’d rather have some teachers be famous than war generals. It’s about revering people who build society rather than bombing the society next door. I’m reflecting, too, on how people always love to have a go at debating the most popular teacher of the day, but when push comes to shove they aren’t always willing to do what the teacher says. As you mentioned Jesus as the most influential person of all time, there were a lot of people who came up to him with some burning question, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to walk away somehow dissatisfied with his reply. But then it could be argued that he was just as famous for other things he did as his teaching (which was primarily geared for twelve people). Then to your final point, ridiculing entertainers when they speak to politics, etc., well, it’s not really all that surprising somehow. We’ve given them value for one thing, but it doesn’t extend as far as they think. The truth is that they’re just, for the most part, people of relatively normal intelligence like you and I are. Sometimes they spend extra time digging into a certain issue (their money often gives them the freedom to do that) but it’s really hard to get your fame to cross over into a different sphere.

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      • I don’t agree with all of your points here, but I do especially like the last one, as it implies something interesting: fame solidifies perceived identity. It’s a phenomena that should make all people question their pursuits of fame. Do they want to become one thing and one thing only to the world? At least it should be something you’re proud to be identified with. I am strange about this. I would forgo being a billionaire if it meant I would be forever known as the founder of Spanx for example. I have a lot of respect for that woman; it was extremely difficult for her to get that patent and she made huge strikes for public regard of female entrepreneurship. I am simply selfish somehow for my own path. That’s why it’s important to not seek out fame for fame’s sake, but to remain true to who you are in your essence.

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      • Yes! One person I’ve enjoyed reading in this regard is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a very heavy book called Antifragile. Basically, the idea as it relates to this discussion is that certain professions are fragile (expose them to shock and they crumble) while others are not only resilient, they actually gain from shocks or attacks. Books are one of the most antifragile products there are, because the bigger the critique, the more copies you sell! So I’m working toward having even more books on the market. In contrast, in my work as a life coach I am pretty fragile, because if I screw something up and damage my reputation, I could be finished. So, the point here is really that fame is not only elusive but also only valuable insofar as your ability to leverage it goes. If you lose that ability, it’s pretty well worthless, and probably even more psychologically damaging to have it, once it runs amok, than not to have gained it at all. There’s also the issue of the “long tail” which is the concept that you only need 10,000 fans to earn a decent living and this is by no means putting you in the category of being a household name. Finally, I’m not sure chasing fame for its own sake has any value to me at all, precisely because if you get it for no reason, you can’t leverage it to influence the world in a positive way, and your own personal financial gain probably isn’t even enough value to compensate for the hassle it’s going to entail. Hey, this is a fun conversation!

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  2. “what effects people in the very long term will always be what is deeply important to the human condition: world views, values, belief systems, philosophies, and real knowledge”. This in a way gives me some relief to read, especially when one feels powerless at the flakiness of what this generation perceives as a way to be – i.e becoming famous whatever the costs, forgetting that this will die out sooner than they think. Which is why I agree that it’s important not to seek fame for the sake of it, but to remain true to who you are in your essence. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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    • Thank you for the feedback and I’m glad you enjoyed the read. I do have hope about this. People aren’t robots; they know subconsciously what is deep and meaningful, and eventually I would imagine that once people are driven to loneliness and existential emptiness, they’ll return to depth and appreciate it more than it was appreciated in the first place. At least, I have to believe this.

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