Seeking success via celebrity

The American culture has become ever noticeably celebrity-centric. Ever since California elected itself a Republican Governor it’s become very obvious to me: no matter how bad the last guy did, how does the most liberal state in the union do that? For one, Schwarzenegger is recognizable and, through his acting and body-building days, a celebrity.

Celebrities are now the focus of our media coverage. Sarah Palin, though previously a politician (and hopefully will remain that way), will always be more qualified to be labeled a celebrity: someone famously recognized in society or culture. It’s even more clear that she’s a celebrity first and foremost as she just joined Fox News as a contributor. People suspect it’s a good move as she can easily reach her target audience (Republican voters) and, thus, use it towards a next political move.

American Idol captured more votes in 2008 than the presidential election.

Celebrities and politicians will always be a gray zone (which is which), but we’ve also seen a tremendous uptick in the number of celebrity-based reality TV shows (not to mention reality TV shows, in general). People are competing to get onto television. Whether it be to demonstrate how terribly overweight they are, how well they can sing and perform, or how beautiful they can look while eating bark, these people are looking to ultimately achieve success (money, influence) through celebrity (attention, recognizability).

For many, achieving a certain level of social status and recognizability has become the definition of success (remember the balloon boy hoax). I was growing up in middle school, one of the most popularity-driven times in a school-goer’s life, as Survivor and Big Brother paved the way for reality television. Success purely meant fame in school, not grades; you were teased for doing well. So, it was justified, not refuted, by the media and adults in our society: popularity is what matters. We follow Brad and Angelina, our kids will follow Miley and Tisdale.

The internet is the same way

Taking a big leap, Charlie Hoehn and I were talking about how the metaphor is obviously applied to the internet, social media, and many startups. Take Twitter, for example, the popular online service where individuals provide banal personal responses and updates to answer “Whats happening?” Ashton Kutcher and a slew of celebrities caught on quickly: Twitter is a great, light-weight, medium for one-way communication to many people that are already interested in what you’re doing:

“The most popular guy on Twitter is a move star. New media smells a lot like old media.” -Dave Wiskus

Celebrities and already-established brands have done very well on Twitter, which in turn, has done very well for Twitter. It’s popularity has sky-rocketed in the last year and attracted international attention. So, why does every person, brand, and upstart feel compelled to get on Twitter? They equate celebrity (follower count) with success (money, influence). Unfortunately this is entirely flawed and Ramit Sethi can explain why much better than I.

“A lot of businesses focus on Twitter followers because it’s a simple number that makes you feel good. Unfortunately it’s also largely meaningless for $” -Ramit Sethi

Follow Ramit on Twitter, I’m sure he or Charlie would love to tell you more about why celebrity (followers) and success (money, influence) on Twitter are rarely related.

Startups need to be celebrities

The traditional internet startup is typically consumer-oriented and sexy. They have to be in order to attract attention: clients, users, mentors, investors, partners, vendors, etc. This country (Silicon Valley, Boulder, New York) is full of startups and they’re all competing for celebrity (attention, recognizability) in order to achieve success (money, influence).

Internet startups can certainly be compelling and useful, but many aren’t. Instead, they’re interesting and fun to watch: thus, TechCrunch and TechMeme. Digg is the perfect example of a celebrity-driven “success”. A lot of money has been thrown at popular startups in anticipation for future success. But rarely do we see it. Instead, we just see more “celebrity” (rise in popularity, more users, more media coverage, etc.) and eventually equate that to “success.” Does digg make money? Does twitter? Heck, does Facebook? Arguably… not justifiably enough. They have a ton of users, attention, goodwill, and other people’s (investors’) money, but I don’t yet see the business behind them (hint: prove me wrong).

Which means, that anyone who wants to gain attention and influence in this arena (internet, startups) has to work to be equally as popular and just as much a celebrity as the companies themselves. No offense, but look at Andrew Hyde and Robert Scoble. Both are smart guys, well achieved, great to chat with, and fairly down-to-earth. But, I’ve already forgotten why they’re a “household” name, what propelled them to where they are now, and frankly, if they are or are not “successful.” All I know is their name, their twitter handle, and that I should pay attention to them. If I’m struggling to understand this (and I’ve talked to both of them personally), then can you imagine what this ecosystem looks like from an outsider or newcomer’s perspective? Frankly, it looks like yet another celebrity-driven culture.

I don’t fully understand the reasoning, but it seems people want to become a “success” (money, influence). When, in reality, I think they mean to achieve that via “celebrity” (attention, recognizability). I’m not suggesting the two concepts are mutually exclusive. Though, I am suggesting that it’s not as simple nor long-lasting to try and achieve one via the other.

Update: Mike Davidson has posted a great article in which he poses that celebrity bloggers and pundits are little more than know-it-alls who generate a lot of noise (and not much signal).