Andy Warhol said everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame. Now, a quarter of a century later, everyone gets to be famous to fifteen people. And that can be far more useful and satisfying.

I first saw the line in David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, and I’ve used it often since, when trying to explain how the web works and why people find weblogging useful when each weblog has tens or maybe hundreds of thousands fewer readers than a newspaper does. The line seems to work. People laugh, and then they make that little sigh of beginning-to-understand, their faces turn inwards for a moment, their eyes look away as they think. They seem to get it, finally.

Today Joi Ito points to an earlier place the famous to fifteen people line was used: in Pop Stars? Nein Danke!, an essay written by Momus in 1991, arguing that there is no mainstream anymore.

Wired’s article The Long Tail, also linked to by Joi, is even more interesting. It discusses how the need for physical distribution and display of media (books, CDs, DVDs, films in movie theatres) has forced us into thinking that there is a mainstream. If you make all the non-hits available, sure you’ll still find the power law for the top section, showing that far more people want the most popular items, but if you follow the “long tail” of things that are rarely stocked by conventional shops, you’ll see that the power law evens out. You can go almost as far as you like and still people will want niche items, if they can only find them. Look at this, for instance:

The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. (p 3)

Now that’s a nice figure to quote at those people who think weblogs aren’t important because their readers aren’t calculated in six digits.

2 thoughts on “the end of fame

  1. nick

    Clay Shirky has an excellent explanation of what the “long tail” (or “heavy tail” as it’s often called) of the power-law distribution of links to weblogs is and what it means, by the way: Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality.

  2. Francois Lachance

    Interesting that remark about 6 figure numbers. Had me thinking that the ages of 15 people might quickly add up to a six figure number. And if the set of 15 is very young then the populations of the cities or countries (gotta count the rural and remote factor) gets up there fast. or 15 people pooling storage capacity or parrallel processing powe. That’s the one I really like :: the number of neurons a group of 15 possess or simply consider the number of connections available to a network of 15 nodes…

    now then if one considered the ways of distributing 15 minutes over 15 people… one minute with one person every fifteen or so years over the course of a lifetime — the frugality of fame and the consequences of consecutiveness — nice.

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