2010 The Rise of the Cyber Celebrity?

At this time of the year, those of us in futures work are often asked to provide predictions or suggestions for the coming year. At the same time it is a period of reflection to gauge what insights past suggestions may have yielded or what we missed or just got plain wrong. It’s a valuable exercise.

One of the key laws in thinking futures is that a trend is a trend until it bends. When the consensus trend stops working it is useful to see if it’s hit a brick wall and will break, or whether some subtle changes are going on. A year ago I got really fed up with the number of prognostications that, once digital, all information would be free. The idea that Hollywood would spend $200m on a blockbuster and give it away for free, supported by advertising or the like seemed farfetched. The decisions by Murdoch about charging for news and Google’s response are evidence of shifts from the “information wants to be free” story that was going the rounds. It’ll be interesting to see where this heads next year.

Back in 2000 I wrote a set of cameos, one for each year up to 2010. The subject was digital media.

My story for 2010 was borrowed from Warhol:  “everyone will be famous on 15 channels”. What I had observed was that the media explosion was far faster than the capacity to “fill it” with content- any content, let alone content of intrinsic worth!

In this situation there had been a huge growth in minor celebrity and cross referencing between old and new media.

Now, throughout human history we have always had “A-list” celebrities. Whether by wealth, beauty, power , talent (or some unique attribute that could be wonderful, weird or even wicked) some people have become iconic, for good or ill. What was clear by 2000 was that celebrity was a “transferrable asset” and a “D list” was rapidly emerging. These were people who had become famous for some reason and were now famous for being famous and often had no time to do or be what it was that had elevated them to public notoriety or fame in the first place. For Douglas Adams fans, my model was the time travelling poet.

If anything it’s got a whole lot worse in the years since. We now have a Z-list of people who appear to have a public persona despite a complete lack of any talent or redeeming feature (growing signs of Victor Meldrew  you may wonder). I got a Jedward joke on email before I’d even heard of them. I count myself fortunate that I still have not seen or heard them. It doesn’t matter. For the last few weeks whichever paper, tabloid or quality, they have been there. Numerous sites to which I subscribe have pointed me at them for no apparent reason.  

Now with minor celebrity status has come wealth, endorsing lingerie, perfume, reality TV and of course the 4 biographies by the age of 24.

When the major topic of conversation around the water-cooler is whether an actress’s 3 year old daughter should wear high-heeled shoes, we might wonder whether the obsession with celebrity has gone too far. As dynastic inheritance comes in most decent states to be seen as an odd way to decide who rules the people, it is interesting that ‘celebrity status’ does seem to be inherited in the Z list as well as in the perhaps more understandable A and B lists. What tabloid worth its salt could resist an interview with the neighbour of a cousin of a glamour model who once went out with Jordan’s ex?

Now, if this trend were to continue ad infinitum we would end up with “I’m an embryo, get me out of here” and a ghost written autobiography “My first 9 months” by a new born celebrity ( Shades of the Truman show?). It must end (please!!!!!).

Well, the recession seems to have some benefits, if you share my views at all. The celeb biography is in rapid decline and unemployment looms for the army of ghost writers who churn out these ‘as told to’ pot-boilers. There are other signs of us not caring about these minor folk. The ability to cash in is on the decline.  Whether it is solely a reaction to hardened times we will have to see, but the bandwagon has slowed right down and may have come off the rails.

But wait! One of the great successes of 2009 has been Aleksandr Orlov, a Meerkat of Compare the Market fame. Consider the following:

At the time of writing he has 485,000 hits on Google. The top two are his Wikipedia entry and the soft toy available on Amazon. He has 614,969 fans on Facebook. On Twitter he is following 33,947 Twitterers and has 31,220 followers and has spawned 4 imitators. There are 152 entries on YouTube. He even appears to be on Plaxo. I haven’t checked friends reunited or linked in or many others.

Now if I’d said in 2000 that an animated Meerkat would be famous on 15 channels I’d have been carted off to the funny farm. IT HAS HAPPENED!.

Now this phenomenon has a history.  Hector the Inspector, Tony the Tiger, BT’s Busby and Guinesses’s Toucan are some examples of earlier generations. But these characters did not live in a multi channel, social media world.

Now these “silicon celebrities” may have advantages over the carbon –based ones. They are not likely to be arrested, take drugs, have affairs, split up from their WAG or fall legless out of some night club in front of the paparazzi. They are less likely to spout sexist rubbish or join the BNP.

From a brand managers viewpoint they take away a lot of worries about celebrity endorsement.

My own belief is that over human history, when A-list celebrities “transgress” we tend in time to overlook their frailties. I suspect that that is because they have a genuine reason for being a public figure.  Indeed it’s sometimes a comfort to know that despite all that they may have, they are “just like us”. We may be less forgiving of the rest.

What great film makers have known for a hundred years is how to engage us with life on a screen. They know how to tell a story, with sound, film and music to make us care about Bambi’s mother, or fear an alien popping out of someone’s stomach. They can make us laugh, or even think.

Today, many of us spend 30 or more hours a week in front of a screen. Do we know how to make that engaging? The devotion of Apple’s followers to their hardware, software and service experience sometimes feels like the reverence many have for say Casablanca.

Now, comparing prices on a website is a worthy but frankly very dull activity. What the Meerkat has done is show how to engage with an audience, through humour, to stand out in a media saturated world.

One of my disappointments is that there is too big a gulf between those who see themselves as geeks and those who define themselves as creatives. I think that we have a lot to learn from each other.

There have been many avatar technologies around for years. They have largely been at the fringes of systems thinking.

If we are to make IT available to all and to reduce the fear of those who are currently digitally excluded and find IT daunting then Aleksandr may have lessons for a wider audience on how to make the digital world more friendly, welcoming, fun and emotional.

May I wish you a merry Christmas and hope that 2010 is a good year for you?

For any Scrooges or Victor Meldrew’s among you, Bah humbug.

Comments (1)

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  • 1
    Peter Parslow wrote on 8th Jan 2010

    Thanks for pointing out the celebrity meerkat!

    But regarding water cooler talk, I wonder where your water coolers are: media outlets?
    My experience this past year is that people remain interested in the weather, the economy & football (or cricket for a few weeks). I can't remember one conversation about 'celebrities'.

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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