Is Fame Different On the Web?
comparing fame online and off

BEING FAMOUS OFFLINE is one thing. We all know what modern fame looks like. It's celebrities on TV and in magazines. It's artists and politicians. It's people whose faces and names we recognize. Mostly, it's people who put themselves into the spotlight on purpose or by dint of their accomplishments, people who have, for some reason, managed to stay in the public eye. Often, their fame is perpetuated, or even caused, by their coverage in the media. 



But it seems that BEING FAMOUS ONLINE is something different. Being famous online is not just for entertainers and politicians. We may recognize people when we "see" them or their creations online but not even know their real names or recognize their real faces. Many people have a degree of fame online but only among certain subgroups ("famous to fifteen people"). Some seek fame online and others have it thrust upon them. And without the centralizing effects of large media, the mechanism for becoming famous is different too; it's decentralized among the users and fans online.

It is probably IMPOSSIBLE TO DRAW A CLEAR LINE between online and offline fame.  For one thing, they are connected; everyone who is famous offline has some sort of online presence and fame as well (think of Stephen Colbert who created a television persona/character that has made him famous both on and offline largely by exploiting the connections between them both). Secondly, any characteristic that we assign to one (say the idea that fame online does not last) probably applies to the other as well, though maybe not as much.  So, the comparison between online and offline fame is largely one of degree rather than kind (with one possible exception).

Nonetheless, here is a provisional comparison between the two:

fleeting ?
anonymous / pseudonymous
many minor celebrities
specialized / particular
decentralized origin (online network)
longer lasting ?
connected to real identity
few major celebrities
generalized / pop cultural
centralized origin (broadcast media)

The DURATION of fame seems to differ online and offline.  Online memes and popular sites rise and fall with incredible rapidity thanks to the constantly updating and fickle nature of the internet public.  Traditional media cannot keep up consequently traditional popularity (however fleeting) lasts longer by necesity.  However, in another sense, online fame is much longer lasting than traditional fame, at least in terms of the accessibility of evidence of fame.  That is to say, a particular famous person or meme online may lose popularity, but the record of that fame never goes away; it's still there online, easily accessible in a way that an old newspaper article or television broadcast is not.

The CONNECTION TO REAL IDENTITY is probably the most obvious difference between online and offline fame.  While offline famous people can use pseudonyms or stage names, their public identity is almost always connected to their private identity at least by their physical bodies and appearance.  There are some notable exceptions (Banksy, Gorillaz), but generally one sacrifices anonymity for fame.  Online, of course, the default is the opposite.  One is initially anonymous (more or less) and reveals as much of one's private identity as one wants. 

The NUMBER OF FAMOUS PEOPLE is also different.  Arguably, more people (everybody?) are famous online than offline.  This is directly related to ...

     ... the NATURE OF THE AUDIENCE / APPEAL which also differs online from offline.  Being famous online does not mean being a household name and does not result in a high Q Rating; it may mean being very well-known to and respected by a far smaller number of people (fifteen?).  One might argue that this means that online fame is not fame at all; after all, how famous can you be if not that many people know who you are?  However this is not always the case since the real difference lies not in the size of the audience/fanbase but in its nature: fame online is much more likely to be specialized, fame within a specific subgroup.  The global reach of the Web means that, for example, a music critic who is well-known to everyone interested in jazz music online is actually much more well known that even a general music critic for a local newspaper.

However, there may be ONE MAJOR DIFFERENCE - THE ORIGIN OF FAME, the means by which people become famous online differs from traditional fame. Perhaps, fame online is a network effect, the result of how many other individuals online connect to you, rather than a broadcast effect, a result of how a centralized media presents you to the public.  This may be a profound difference in how fame works and it what it means.  Perhaps it means that online fame is more democratic, that the internet takes the power away from the elite/corporations/media/tastemakers (take your pick) and puts it in the hands of the people. Or perhaps it is putting fame into the hands of a mob, with all of the problems that accompany mob mentality, including thrusting people into the public spotlight who do not want to be there (or who never thought they would be).  What this does to the nature of fame has yet to be seen.  Will it mean that "real" fameworthiness (accomplishment, skill, attractiveness, etc.) is more or less likely to be recognized and rewarded?  This is still unclear, but it does mean that popular culture (and pop culture celebrities) will be more truly "popular," a product of the people, as opposed to mass culture (and mass culture celebrities) created by mass media.