Is Fame Different On the Web?
( legally speaking )

In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes. — Andy Warhol

In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people. —  Momus

Public Identity Online

There are at least two aspects to human identity, the private aspect and the public aspect. The advent of the World Wide Web has profoundly affected both.  This is not a webpage about private identity, about keeping secrets, about social security numbers, your mother's maiden name, and your credit card numbers.  This is a page about PUBLIC IDENTITY, about the part of who you are that is made public, about what kind of control you and others have over it, and about what role the law does, can, or should play in it.

In our day-to-day lives, we have fairly intuitive senses of how much of one's identity is public and how much is private.  We expect people walking down the street to be able see our faces and determine certain things about us (our genders, our ages, whatever signals we give off by how we dress), but we do not expect them to know other things about us unless we're more or less famous (our names, our jobs, our addresses).  We expect certain groups of people (families, co-workers, friends) to know more about us and others to know less.  And, we expect to have some control over what people think of us.  The law has incorporated these intuitive understandings and has various mechanisms to ensure that our experiences live up to these expectations.

Online, those intuitive expectations do not serve us very well, and interestingly it seems that we do not want them to.

How is being famous online different from being famous offline? Here are some comparisons.

How Does the Law Treat Fame?

Right of Publicity

In the United States, there is no federal law protecting the rights of famous people to control the use of their images or identities, but some states (notably California and New York) have created a "right of publicity" that allows them to control how their identities are used for commercial purposes.  How do these apply to online celebrities?


Anti-defamation laws (libel and slander) protect people from damage being done to their identity and reputation by what other people say. Strictly speaking, despite the name, defamation law is not about fame.  Defamation law does, however, treat private citizens differently from "public figures."  What is a "public figure" online, though?


Related Interesting Links

Web Celebs Consider Their Role - an article on about the recent ROFLCON in Boston.

Famous to 15 People - blogpost on JOHO the Blog.

The Flip Side of Internet Fame - cautionary Newsweek article about Internet fame.

Internet Famous - a course at Parsons New School for Design on internet fame: "the first class in the history of academics where software will award each student a grade based on a quantitative measurement of their web fame."

Weezer's "Pork & Beans" Video - featuring loads of youtube-famous people and internet memes.