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How Has Celebrity Changed Since the 1700s? A Statistical Analysis.
How has fame transformed over the course of three centuries?
Intro: George Washington and the 24-Hour News Cycle
What does it mean to be famous? The answer likely depends upon the period of time in question.
Let's say the year is 1781, and news travels as fast as horses can sprint. George Washington is the most famous man in America, yet few have seen the distinguished general in person. Instead, citizens rely upon newspaper reports, oral histories, or painted representations of their national hero. Having never glimpsed George Washington, many Americans believe he has wooden teeth—an unfounded tidbit of gossip that has stood the test of time. Nevertheless, colonial Americans would read their paper or hear accounts of Washington's valor and think, "That guy sounds pretty swell, and he may also have wooden teeth."
Compare that world with our present-day media environment—a bottomless pit of scintillating content. You can absorb information about Joe Biden, Donald Trump, or Ron Desantis through Fox News, MSNBC, The New York Times, Reddit, 4chan, 8chan, and Twitter. You can watch Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, or Zendaya on Youtube, TikTok, or eight hundred different streaming services. And you can listen to every song recorded in human history for a tidy fee of $9.99, or pay nothing and listen to ads. There is little buffer between media consumers and the objects of their fascination.
These two snapshots, and the world of difference they represent, provoke a myriad of questions, like what changed in the intervening 240 years? How did sociopolitical and technological shifts transform media and alter the process of accumulating fame? What did it mean to be a celebrity in the 1700s, and what does it mean to be famous now?
A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Notable Figures
More people today know Eminem's lyrics than Karl Marx's theories of class warfare, yet numerous revolutions stemmed from Marx's work. So how do you compare the two?
Fortunately, a global team of six economists spent considerable time curating a database of every prominent individual in human history (in the name of science!). The result of their efforts is the not-so-concisely-named "A cross-verified database of notable people, 3500BC-2018AD."
To quantify fame and choose the most significant set of historical figures, the research team combined the following criteria to create a single notoriety variable:
The number of Wikipedia editions of each individual
The total word count in all Wikipedia biographies
The average number of Wikipedia views between 2015 and 2018 in all available language editions
The number of non-missing biographical facts on Wikipedia (birth date, profession, etc.)
The number of external links in all Wikipedia pages
And while the results aren't perfect—the researchers admit to biases that favor Western countries and contemporary figures—the end product is an unparalleled resource for data nerds everywhere (myself included).
Want to know which celebrities headline this exhaustive repository of renowned individuals? Here are the most notable figures by birth decade:
Want to know the "most notable" figures within a given professional domain? Here are the luminaries that define their trade (sorted by their initial career path):
As you can see, the scope of this dataset is mind-boggling. "A cross-verified database of notable people, 3500BC-2018AD" is an incredible feat of data collection and an ideal tool for tracking paradigmatic shifts in fame over time.
What Jobs Are More Likely to be Notable?
In 1665, The Great Plague of London ravaged the United Kingdom, killing a quarter of London's population and forcing Britain's royal court to flee for the safety of rural Oxford. To continue communication with its citizenry, the British government began publishing The Oxford Gazette, the world's first widely-distributed newspaper. A far cry from today's 24/7 media outlets, The Gazette avoided editorial commentary, feature stories, listicles, and advertisements. It was the birth of mass media, but it was also kinda boring.
Since then, our global media landscape has evolved at a furious pace. Advances in communication technology fostered a Cambrian explosion in information accessibility. Presidential debates became primetime television, sporting events became fodder for millions, and radio sets became the focal point of every automobile. The everyday consumer would never be short of content again.
Unsurprisingly, the rise of film and television significantly transformed what it meant to be widely known. The latter half of the 20th century saw an explosion of sports stardom and creative celebrity, paired with a decline in well-known religious, military, legal, and academic figures.
To be on a screen (big or little) is to dominate mindshare; you don't see lawyers, priests, colonels, or professors on The Tonight Show, Netflix, or ESPN. Plus, you only think of military generals when there are wars.
At the same time, vaguely named professional domains like "culture," "sports," and "academia" are decidedly broad. Which particular jobs disproportionately consume our collective attention, and which have faded from mainstream awareness?
The rapid growth of soccer stardom is unsurprising to everyone but Americans, many of whose soccer knowledge is confined to Ted Lasso. On the other hand, the recent decline in prominent politicians is somewhat unexpected given politics' elevated placement within the 24-hour news cycle. This reduction could be explained by the growing importance of a small set of national political figures (like fomer President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi), or the ever-increasing average age of politicians (and the fact that our graphic is organized by birth date).
Additionally, we see a decline in the prominence of painters and writers, with actors, athletes, and musicians replacing these professions in the pop culture zeitgeist. Many of these changes can be ascribed to the primacy of images and the rise of visual culture.
Apparently, humanity prefers passive consumption—TV, movies, music—as opposed to active consumption like books, comics, or paintings. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with passive media consumption (who doesn't love Succession or NFL Redzone?)—unless you're a painter, writer, or academic and crave renown for yourself and your work.
What Countries Produce Notable Figures?
The French often refer to the 17th century as the "Grand Siècle," or "Great Century." This period saw French culture, particularly French literature and philosophy, grow its influence worldwide. The French language became the lingua franca of European elites, Paris was widely regarded as the world's ultimate cultural hub, and French cuisine dazzled tourists far and wide.
During this same period, the United Kingdom’s empire spanned every continent—with territories in India, Australia, Canada, large parts of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. British industry, trade, and finance were unrivaled, with London as a global hub for commerce and banking.
But the strain of two world wars and widespread decolonization led to a relative decline in France and Britain's hegemonic power. Moreover, this same period coincided with the rise of the United States and the establishment of a new global order, one where America became an international hub for popular culture.
The 1900s saw the United States successively production-ize a durable culture industry capable of commodifying and exporting entertainment. Hollywood, the NFL, the NBA, Silicon Valley, and the music industry became the world's performers and tastemakers. To win an American sports league was to be crowned "world champion"—a testament to American global dominance and patriotic hubris.
Looking at the graph above, you may wonder about the rise of "Rest of World." Spurred by globalization, this catch-all bucket of 185 nations markedly grew its footprint to close the 20th century. Many of these countries, which were not previously active in global media or politics, benefitted from an expansion in international trade, increased financial deregulation, advances in transportation technology, and the introduction of digital media—a convergence of macroeconomic events that shaped a more globalized world.
As a result, business and media production were no longer confined to a handful of wealthy Western nations, and cultural consumption was no longer restricted by geography. If you want proof of our increasingly connected world, look no further than South Korea, a now-dominant global superpower that produced mega-popular K-pop act BTS, Netflix smash-hit Squid Game, and 2020 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Parasite.
The Rise of Female Celebrities
In July 1848, 300 men and women spurred ground-breaking societal change when they gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss the adoption of The Declaration of Sentiments, a document modeled after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. And what did this declaration stipulate, you ask? Well, it declared that men and women are created equal and outlined a series of grievances against the suppression of women's rights, including the right to vote, limited access to education and employment, and subjugation in marriage.
Out of the eleven resolutions put forward during the conference, the demand for women's suffrage was the only one not passed unanimously, as many participants believed the idea was too radical. This was but a mere 170 years ago.
The Seneca Falls Convention marked the birth of first-wave feminism and the women's suffrage movement. We can glimpse the legacy of Seneca Falls when we look at a breakout of notable persons by gender. Prior to the suffrage crusade, the database features a small share of notable female individuals. Following modest gains in the 1800s, we see a meaningful acceleration of noteworthy female figures in the early and mid-1900s.
After World War II, societal attitudes concerning gender norms began shifting, leading to increased acceptance of women working outside the home. At the same time, improvements in access to education and birth control gave women more agency over their reproductive lives and careers, and America's transition from manufacturing to service-oriented industries created more jobs for women.
When we look at the most prominent jobs for famous females, we see increased penetration of the most visible professions, such as politics, music, and sports.
One particularly striking trend is the rise of female tennis, swimming and soccer stars born in the late 1900s, likely influenced by the passage of Title IX. Enacted in 1972, Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in any education program that receives federal money, such as sports. The legislation requires equal opportunities for females and males in school-sponsored athletics, leading to a significant increase in the number of women and girls participating in competitive sports.
Final Thoughts: The Lost Painters of France
Reviewing changes in celebrity over the past three hundred years, one can't help but think of Marshal McLuhan's prophetic vision of technological determinism. In his oft-cited essay, "The Medium is the Message," the famed cultural theorist posits that the way we send and receive information is just as, if not more, important than the information itself. For instance, the introduction of television may have more significant societal influence than any content consumed through that medium.
Consider a painter in early 1800s France. This painter is not Monet, Matisse, or any sort of prodigy we're likely to remember today — we're talking about a tier-two painter. Nevertheless, this painter is accomplished for his time and reasonably expects an excellent legacy for himself and his work. Seeking fame and an artistic outlet, this man responded to market incentives and becomes a painter.
Today, we place little societal value on this second-tier painter's talents. His art is long-forgotten, hanging in a museum indistinct from other works. And if this man were alive today, he would be a starving painter, a graphic designer at a tech firm, or an NFT creator. Or maybe he'd abandon art altogether. Instead, his quest for fame might take him to Hollywood or the English Premier League — he'd go to the places where he's likely to be seen.
How would you explain to this painter that his work is no longer valued because humans invented iPhones, TikTok, and Netflix, and the content they relay outshines his greatest masterpiece?
Fame is a reflection of society's attention. There was once a time when French and British paintings were among the world’s most valuable cultural artifacts. Today, American media products like Stranger Things, Avengers: End Game, and The Super Bowl reign supreme.
But are these institutions infallible? We could be one technological advance or sociopolitical shift away from these products being forgotten, just like our painter.
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