The Distribution of Fame

March 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Might Natasha Richardson’s fame have contributed to her death? That’s the question Steven Dubner at Freakonomics asks. It seems like a silly idea to me, and my first thought was, Gee, I didn’t realize that Freakonomics was so desperate for material. But they’re not, and apparently Dubner is serious.
if I were part of a famous family and was advised to go to the hospital after a minor mishap, the invasion of privacy might have appeared to outweigh the benefit of what was a seemingly precautionary measure. Do I really want to deal with the possibility of tabloid photos, career rumors, the sheer noise of it all?
The paparazzi certainly played in important part in the death of Princess Diana. And there are other celebs who must go to great lengths for some modicum of privacy. But how many?

The question is really this: what does the power law distribution of fame look like? The power law is about inequality. One example is Pareto’s 80/20 rule – 20% of the population controls 80% of the wealth. The actual distribution is more unequal than Pareto imagined. But what about other areas? Maybe twenty percent of the students in a class account for 80% of the discussion.

There are 13 million songs available for download. But the top 0.4% account for 80% of downloads. (Most of those 13 million are not downloaded at all. Of the songs actually downloaded, the top 1.7% account for that 80%. Source here.) The curve is even more skewed for CD sales.

What does the power law distribution of celebrity look like? Let’s assume there’s some finite quantity of celebrity in the world. Most of that fame goes to a relative handful. They are the ones who have to worry about stalkers, mobs of fans, paparazzi.

But how famous was Richardson? It turns out that she and her probably more famous husband Liam Neeson lived in my neighborhood, the Upper West Side, and I learned of that only recently. I imagine they walked the streets freely. Even if they were noticed, they weren’t harassed or bothered.

I’ve noted before that in most fields, even the performing arts, the top people can remain mostly invisible to the public and the press. The best classical pianist in the world would go unrecognized even in a sophisticated city like New York. One of the greatest violinists in the world stood for nearly an hour playing his Stradivarius in a Washington, DC metro station, and nobody recognized him.

Even among movie actors, the power law curve descends steeply. One morning a year or two ago, I was having coffee in an ordinary café. I looked up from my newspaper and there, directly across a narrow counter from me, was an actress who has been in dozens of movies (four Oscar nominations including one win for best actress). Nobody else in the café noticed.


brandsinger said...

Very good post, Jay. As for the famous not being recognized, I think sometimes they are but aren't that adored. Was it Joshua Bell in the subway unrecognized? Probably people thought he was overacting and not that strong a player. Now, if it had been Maxime Vengerov....!

Jay Livingston said...

Yep, it was Bell (click on the "nobody recognized him" for the full story). As for overacting, when you're busking in a subway station, subtlety and understatement probably don't work too well.

May said...

You write: "Nobody else in the café noticed." Perhaps they pretended not to notice and therefore respected the person's privacy.