Cometh the medium, cometh the media star


Major analysis finds link between communications tech and the types of people who become famous. Andrew Masterson reports.


Tennis star Serena Williams is an incredible athlete, but sport star fame, researchers say, is the result of the ubiquity of television.

Tennis star Serena Williams is an incredible athlete, but sport star fame, researchers say, is the result of the ubiquity of television.

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Fame is critically tied to the type and density of media existing at any given point in time and space, research has shown. And different types of dominant media favour different types of stars.

Using two datasets comprising 40,000 Wikipedia biographies covering hundreds of years, researchers Cristian Jara-Figueroa, Amy Zu, and Cesar Hidalgo, all from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, found a statistically significant relationship between fame, location and predominant media, stretching back to the invention of the moveable type printing press in the fifteenth century.

That invention, of course, was made by Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (1400-1468), who lived in the German city of Mainz.

This provided a key set of variables for the researchers. By correlating the year and physical distance from Mainz, they found that “European cities that adopted printing earlier were more likely to become the birthplace of a famous scientist or artist during the years following the invention of printing”.

Jara-Figueroa, Zu, and Hidalgo then shifted their analysis to more recent times, and the effect of the next two ubiquitous communications technologies – radio and television. Here, they find the nature of the relationship between fame and the presence of the communications technology remains constant, but the recipients of that fame change markedly.

In contrast to printing, they note, radio and television favour the fast dissemination of material. With little time thus to focus on ideas, consumers are drawn to images and performances.

This is particularly the case with sports broadcasts – a form of content, the researchers argue (in line with other media theorists), that was fundamentally created by television.

Biographies of sports stars and other types of performers are more common in the context of radio and television exposure than biographies of scientists and artists – perhaps because the ideas of the latter two are generally less amenable to the short-and-sharp constraints of the dominant media.

Thus, there is a relationship between the availability of broadcast technology and well-known singers and football players.

“Our results show that even after controlling for population and GDP, the number of televisions and radios present in a country correlate with the number of performers and sports players born in each country,” the researchers write.

One of the positive results of the advent of any form of communications technology, they note, is that each iteration led to fame, or at least recognition, being bestowed on people in occupations which until that point had been unacknowledged by the public.

“The rise of printing, for instance, was followed by more composers recorded in our historical records, but not by more singers or musicians,” they write. “In the same way, film promoted the actor over the play-writer.”

Of course, the modern world is now deep in the midst of another communications technology revolution, and with it, yet again, the nature of fame is changing.

Quite how this will all shake out is beyond the scope of the evidence used by the researchers. However, they are not afraid to speculate.

“Now, we live in a world in which history is almost personalised, since billions of individuals now leave traces that could be used to reconstruct biographical data through personal acts of communication (emails, text messages, and social media posts),” they conclude.

“Of course, this does not mean that everyone will become memorable, but maybe that memorability will now have a chance to spread over a wider number of people who may now enjoy intermediate levels of memorability and fame.”

The new wealth of digitised historical records created by internet and social media users, they say, promises to be most revealing and to “maybe guide our speculation about the nature of the heroes of the future”.



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