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The new fame: Internet celebrity

  • Story Highlights
  • ROFLCon is called the biggest gathering of Internet micro-celebrities
  • What makes one meme succeed when others fail?
  • Mouse clicks determine what becomes famous, what withers away in obscurity
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By Anne Hammock
CNN
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CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (CNN) -- The Internet is setting a new standard for celebrity. Fame is no longer about getting "15 minutes"; it's about becoming famous to 15 people.

Leslie Hall shows off one of the sparkly tops that earned her notoriety on the Web.

The Internet allows the masses to wrest control of fame from traditional media, creating micro-celebrities with the click of a mouse, says David Weinberger of the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Weinberger focused on the Internet celebrity in his keynote address at ROFLCon (pronounced roffle-con), a conference on Internet culture held at MIT.

Some say ROFLCon is the biggest gathering of micro-celebrities ever: "the Internet, in person," as one organizer said.

Among the panelists: "gem sweater" fashionista Leslie Hall, "Tron Guy" Jay Maynard, Fark.com founder Drew Curtis, World of Warcraft character Leeroy Jenkins (born Ben Shultz) and Kyle MacDonald, who gained international attention for an online chronicle of his adventures starting with one red paper clip and trading, one item at a time, up to a home in Saskatchewan, Canada.

If you've never heard of these people, don't worry.

At least a few Internet users have, and that's all that matters. It is what makes Internet celebrity so different from the tabloid-fodder fame of folks like Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears.

Traditional celebrity lives and dies based on raw numbers: how many magazines mention them, how many television shows feature them, how many people talk about them around the water cooler.

Internet fame can be more intimate, Weinberger says, more of a personal connection between the one and the few.

Sometimes the content of a Web site becomes much more famous than the people behind it. Internet-circulated videos, photographs, catchphrases or other concepts are called memes, and creating or harnessing a successful one is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

A key question at ROFLCon is what makes one meme succeed when thousands of others fail.

Geoffrey Golden of Meteor Games says, "If we had the answer, we would be gazillionaires. It's what marketers, what everyone is trying to figure out."

The most successful meme today is LOLcats, pictures of cats captioned with a unique blend of text speak, fractured grammar and Internet in-jokes. The main repository can be found at a site called I Can Has Cheezburger, which gets millions of page views every day.

The site is so popular, it now needs a staff of eight to handle traffic and submissions. LOLcats have spawned dozens of copycats, including a LOLcat Bible, LOLpresidents, LOLbots and LOLtheorists.

The word-of-mouth spread of any given meme is another aspect of how Internet fame differs from traditional celebrity. Even the slickest PR effort can fail miserably if Internet users choose to ignore it. The general consensus of the content providers gathered at ROFLCon is that you have to just build it and see whether they will come.

Adam Lindsey, who created a computer language spinoff of LOLcats called LOLcode, said, "The idea is everything; you are nothing. If it is successful, all you are is sort of a midwife helping it into the world. If you try to control a meme, you just tend to squash it, so enjoy it without ego and let it take itself wherever it wants to go."

Mouse clicks determine what becomes famous and what withers away in obscurity. And the most certain way to get a huge bump in traffic is to be featured on Web news aggregators like Slashdot, Fark, Digg or Reddit, influential blogs such as Boing Boing and MetaFilter, or social bookmarking sites like de.licio.us.

These sites are the new "critics," but their power to create fame lies largely in their communities. Although a traditional critic talks as one to the many, visitors to these sites act, as Weinberger noted, "the many to the many."

Before, fame was about scarcity, with only a few people reaching the status of celebrity. But Weinberger points out that the fame of the Internet is about abundance.

As a community, we help bestow it, and as individuals, any of us can achieve it, given the right circumstances. Weinberger said, "Fame is becoming ours; we are making it ours, as we are doing so much else in our culture. Fame now reflects us." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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