Beyond celebrity obsession

Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people. — Eleanor Roosevelt Somebody

I wish to discuss an idea here. It’s an idea about celebrity, and it follows an event that has become a black hole in nearly all media: the death of Michael Jackson.

According to Don Norman, a black hole topic is one that is essentially undiscussable: “Drop the subject into the middle of a room and it sucks everybody into a useless place from which no light can escape.”

Michael Jackson was more than a celebrity. He was a first-rank contributor to pop music and pop culture. He was also far more weird than anybody else at the same rank, changing his face so radically that he no longer appeared to belong to his original race and gender. This fact alone made his death at 50 unsurprising yet very interesting.

Most of us can’t help falling into conversational black holes. But we can help getting sucked into celebrity obsession.

Unless, of course, we’re making money at it. This is the path down which People Magazine went when it morphed from a spun-off section of Time Magazine into a tabloid. More recently Huffington Post has done the same thing. But that’s the supply side. What about demand?

I submit that obsessing about celebrity is unhealthy for the single reason that it is also unproductive. Celebrity is to mentality as smoking is to food. (I originally wrote “chewing gum” there, but I think smoking is the better analogy.) It is an unhealthy waste of time. And time is a measure of life. We are born with an unknown sum of time, and have to spend all of it. “Saving” time is a rhetorical trick. So is “losing” it. Our lives are spent, one end to the other. What matters most is how we choose to spend it.

The Net maximizes the endlessness of choice about how we spend our time. It also maximizes many kinds of productiveness. Nearly all the code we are using, right now, to do stuff on the Net, was written by many collaborators across many distances. Some were obsessing about what they were producing. Others were just working away. Either way, they chose to be productive. To contribute. To work on what works.

The Net itself is an idea so protean and varied that there is little agreement about what it actually is. Yet it is endlessly improvable, as are the goods and services it supports.

This improvable millieu presents us with choices that become more stark as the millieu itself grows. We can make useful contributions — preferably in ways nobody else can. Or we can coast.

Obsessing about celebrity is a form of coasting. And I suggest that we’ll see a growing distance between coasting and producing.

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33 comments

  1. Liza’s avatar

    Agreed. “Watching a lot of tv” has also become synonymous in my mind with being unproductive. It’s used, without further clarification, to explain what someone does with their life. “Oh, what does so-and-so do? They watch a lot of tv.”

    Those who obsessively read those junk magazines or turn the tv on out of habit, seem to always be confused about how other people can be so much productive.

    I figure, those things might be fun, but I’ve got a life to live!

  2. Bill Barnett’s avatar

    Actually, all too frequently, the web maximizes endless choices for being *unproductive*. And provides a wonderful “accelerator” to our celebrity-worshipping (and other time-wasting) tendencies. Is it good for your mind to have access to anything it desires at any moment? I’m not so sure.

    I love working on the web. I love information at my fingertips. I’m entranced by the things I can find out, and the connections I can make, almost instantly.

    But I worry about its effects, too.

  3. Rogers Cadenhead’s avatar

    Point taken, but how is obsessing over celebrity any different than obsessing over the latest hype in tech, whether it’s Twitter, the latest iPhone or a slapfight between A-list bloggers? There aren’t many of us capable of spending all our time on important matters like the cure for cancer or the abolishment of the designated hitter.

  4. mary hodder’s avatar

    Doc,
    I’ve been talking about celebrity a lot since Thurs afternoon re: MJ, FF, EM, etc. But you and I discussed this a month ago in depth too, and I’ve been trying to figured out for the past year what the hyperdrive of microcelebrity is on Twitter that so many run after. And then the real celebrities hit twitter en masse and the hyperdrive of real celebrity is there as well. That drive diminishes at times one’s ability to have a real conversation because some of those diving into conversations have agendas like trying to get the attention of the perceived AList (whatever that is.. oh yes.. the high follower counts, goosed by the twitter suggested follower list, provide us with a definitive answer… thank the gods).

    But the triple-hit celebrity death match on Thursday drove me to my thought which is that most people need to follow, most people need something to worship, and most people have given up serious religion (of the type where you spend like 20 hours a week in church and the pope or the ayatollah or the supreme leader or whoever is your celebrity representative communicates with god for you and leads you and makes the decisions and you worship him too).

    And Michael Jackson and other celebs are the replacement for that, because media and post-modernism make it easy (where premodern means god is above man, modern has everything equal: god, man, nature, and post-modern means nothing is more important than you). If nothing is more important than man, but man needs to follow something bigger than him/herself out of insecurity or whatever and there is very little ritual left post-old-style-religion to set people on their own course of confidence, productivity and humility in the world, and you have the media machine the past 100 years that now includes internet and self-publicity on things like twitter, well.. you have the perfect primordial soup to grow the MJ, etc worship replacing organized religion we see now.

    You are right it’s a tremendous form of distraction, but I would argue most don’t have the confidence, discipline, or for that matter the interest in spending their time on more constructive things. While most are capable of much more, there is safety in worship. That’s why the church/temple/mosque of old was so effective. It filled the rest of your time after work and set the order that god was first, then the supreme leader as the physical manifestation, then puny you, so you would worship up the hierarchy.

    In Post-Modernity, celebs fill the worship channel, where the celeb hierarchy is the order and the media connects you. Microcelebs are the long tail of this channel. Nothing going on with the top? Well.. there is always Guy Kawasaki or iJustine. And if you as the worshiper can get nearer to the celeb so much the better. People used to say: god is my savior. Now they say, “I remember exactly where I was when I heard MJ died.” It’s a way of placing yourself close to the worshiped thing.

    It’s utterly silly, and of course the internet and socialmedia send this tendency and need an order of magnitude higher than before. But I think it’s a rat-brain need for the masses to worship something, and celebrity is the post-modern fast-food solution.

    Opiates anyone?

    mary

  5. lurkerfan’s avatar

    Thanks for putting into words and sentences what I have intuitively felt for a long time. Although I am intensely interested in the ordinary people in my life that I interact with day to day, I’ve always had a very strong negative reaction to celebrity gossip. And for the last two days, hubby and I are hard put to find anything on TV or even the internet that is not consumed with Michaelmania. Thank God for PBS.

    I have nothing but compassion for his experience in life but do not need the endless recitals of how others feel about him. Unfortunately, I am too old and too tone deaf to pop music past the 1960’s to appreciate his genius, though I conclude from others’ reactions that his talent was enormous. And probably I hum along with some of his songs without knowing they’re his.

    The only up side to the public’s obsession is that perhaps they’ll buy enough of his old albums to help defray his enormous debt.

  6. Eric T. MacKnight’s avatar

    Hi Doc,

    Wikiquote says that the line you attribute to Eleanor Roosevelt is actually of unknown origin, which I was relieved to find, because it’s a bad way to express a worthwhile idea. Less pithy, but truer, would be something like this: At our best we discuss ideas. When we’re being lazy we discuss events. At our worst we discuss people.

    The ancient Greeks divided human nature into three parts—appetite, will, and reason—in a triangle diagram with reason the smallest and highest part. Consumer culture, less than 100 years old, appeals to our appetites and our laziness, encourages us to ignore our reason, and most radically succeeds in getting us to define ourselves not by what we make, but what we buy. Which suits the government, too.

    The Greeks would not be surprised to learn that 2500 years later most people, most of the time, are ruled by their appetites. Why are we?

  7. gregorylent’s avatar

    celebrity worship is self hatred and is an escape from looking into one’s own being

  8. lurkerfan’s avatar

    Mary makes interesting points — I’ve also been trying to figure out why almost all cultures have religion when it so often has such obviously bad effects on its adherents and populations as a whole. What the heck was its evolutionary advantage?

    Eric’s comments about our consumer culture are well taken, too. Capitalism and corporatism have transformed the world, but certainly not in altogether good ways.

  9. Will Emerson’s avatar

    Interesting discussion. I’ll point to a photo I took at the Maker Faire this year. It’s the last one in the post–a sign for a DIY sharing space in Oakland. The saying has been bugging me lately: “Refuse to live vicariously!” The Maker Faire was a great antidote to couch potato celebrity watching.

    http://blog.edgecenter.net/articles/2009/06/17/photos-from-maker-faire-2009/

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Arg! I wrote a response to several of you, but it appears not to have posted. :-( !!

    Now I’m at LAX, en route somewhere.

    More later. I hope.

  11. Matt Searles’s avatar

    Well you know the star quality of a celebrity is a projection of our own unrealized inward potential. The process of obsessing on a celebrity is a process by which you study the patterns by which that bit of our potential was realized.. so I believe there’s some value in that.

    So yeah.. this is religion.. I don’t think the problem is religion.. I think the problem is that we have spiritualities of varying levels of maturity. The more immature forms of spirituality have given God a very difficult PR problem… Nietzsche rightly ripped these folks a new one.. and of course there’s a difference between religion and idolatry!

    I tend to believe what you’re getting at is more the symptom then the problem. There’s something that predisposes someone to an unproductive celebrity obsession.. and I think the drama of Michael Jackson’s life seems to be the perfect magnet for such things…

    I mean whatever secret self loathing guilt you might have about your life, there’s always the Michaels of the world to help give you a little escape from your self for a moment.. and it does seem to be a part of the American character that we are a little scared of looking too far inward

    I’m not sure if I get the black hole topic idea.. I mean as near as I can tell it has more to do with the people talking then the topic?

  12. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Doc, You’ve done it again… writing what I was thinking… before I got there… 😉

    I’m building a list of big problems…. problems which CAN be solved, but not with the currently favored band-aid approaches. All of these problems have the “good enough” solutions on them which will continue to cause grief over time until everyone finally gets sick of it and does it right.

    I hope to foster discussion to help get the right solutions in place while the band-aids are still holding well, to make the transition quicker. I believe that it’s necessary to lay foundations in terms of use scenarios, problem descriptions, and in general firming up a concrete set of expressions that can give people some place to anchor their ideas and experiments.

    I started the list with 3 big problems:
    Secure OS – Making the end nodes actually secure
    Sync – Making sure content is always available on every platform
    Mesh Internet – The current vision of the internet is too fragile

    After taking some time at our computer club (APCU in Chicago) the list grew somewhat to include:

    DNS – Security
    SMTP
    Spoofing / Authentication / Context
    Freedom / Censorship
    HTML / Markup

    It was good to get feedback and know that I’m not the only one who sees some big problems that are currently just band-aided in place… it gives me hope that we can all start discussing and collaborating on solutions to these problems.

    –Mike–

  13. Paul’s avatar

    Thanks Dave, needed saying. BTW — We will miss you next month at both places of celebration. But we will discuss the idea above at one of them I know, (I will bring it up).

    Cousin Paul

  14. Nita’s avatar

    Your post has been copied here:
    http://watchingthewatchers.org/indepth/14132/beyond-celebrity-obsession
    I found out as one of mine has been copied too.

  15. len’s avatar

    A media drive to MournYouMust is conflicting with a HeWasTooWeirdToCare inner response in many. At the end of the day, almost anyone can hum “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” and almost no one can hum a single MJ hit. As Jon Taplin noted, the $50 million deals destroyed what disco didn’t and the music industry has never recovered.

    MJ’s demise is one of the best examples of the increasing cognitive dissonance between what media tells us to feel and what many actually do. It isn’t that is isn’t sad; it is that after so much strangeness in media and from Jackson, a lot of people can’t make themselves care and the media blitz only reinforces it. I’ve no doubt we’ll hear soon enough of ‘miracles’ attributed to some MJ paraphanalia or random kindness he did just as we did about Elvis. It won’t make a difference to those who hum.

  16. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Nita, you’re seeing a splog there: a spam blog. Creeps build parasitic blogs that copy original writing, fill fake blogs with it automatically, all to attract Google AdSense money. It works enough to encourage them. Still, sad.

  17. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Len, you’re right. Jon Taplin is right. Any ten original Motown hits exceed the sum worth of Michael Jackson’s whole oeuvre. Madonna’s too, for that matter. The ratio of personality/music was 1/99 with Motown (at least when it was still in Detroit) and 99/1 with Jackson. And I say that with absolute respect for Quincy Jones and even for Jackson’s own very real contributions to dance, performance and music video. His music was good in some cases and ordinary in many more. His Thriller album was, and deserved to be, a classic. “Billy Jean” is definitely hummable and may be the best-produced single ever. All that said, however, it’s his weirdness that made him the tabloid attention-suck that he was in life and epitomized in death.

  18. thom m’s avatar

    MJ had TONS of hits. You can’t have a wedding or a dance club without spinning MJ…Just trying to write him off as mere celebrity fascination doesn’t take into account why people cared in the first place. Sure, he wound up making choices that most (or none) of us would make, but he also made music that touched people’s hearts. There’s truth at the core of the mourning, it’s the industry of mourning that exaggerates it all.

  19. Doc Searls’s avatar

    thom, I’m not writing MJ off as a “mere celebrity.” Nor am I saying that his music didn’t touch people’s hearts (and much more.) I also agree with the rest of what you said. If you go back to what I wrote in the first place (about celebrity obsession), and at what Jon Taplin wrote (referring to Pew report that “Fully 93% of cable coverage studied on the Thursday and Friday following his death was about the King of Pop”), you’ll see an attempt to pry apart real grief at the death of a celebrity and an unhealthy obsession with celebrity itself. The “industry of mourning that exaggerates it all” is at high ebb right now. This says something not just about that industry, but about those whose base interests it feeds. For what it’s worth, the cultivation of celebrity is much of what drove Berry Gordy’s Motown machine in the ’60s and ’70s. Read about The Funk Brothers, or watch Standing in the Shadows of Motown. The Funk Brothers had approximately zero celebrity and were paid $10 per session for more number one hits than the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Elvis and the Rolling Stones combined. In their case the ratio of music/celebrity was 100/0 — at least until that movie came out.

    By the way, I happen to be at a wedding gathering right now (a big family retreat at a hilltop manor house in eastern Maryland), and I just checked the iPod on which music for the wedding is compiled. Of the 250 songs listed, I see one Michael Jackson (“Rock with you”) and seventeen Motown (Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, Supremes, Temptations…) Oddly, no Jackson 5s, another Motown group.

  20. Jon Miles’s avatar

    Hi Doc,

    I’m sorry to hear about your car accident – http://doc.searls.mediafetcher.com/news/top_stories/actor_traffic_altercation.php

    Seriously though, the Black Hole topic of MJ is also like a tree. What I’ve found interesting were some of the branches, most notably the preponderance of celeb deaths that turned out to be hoaxes. I did some digging as to where some of these came from, one for Rick Astley was a fake AP wire in paper form, but by far, the weirdest branch on this black hole topic comes from the Kauri Cliffs in New Zealand that seem to consume famous people at a blistering pace.

    Turns out you don’t have to be Nataline Portman to get in on the fun.

    http://twodragons.com/pages/blog/219/natalie-portman-has-died-(and-you-can-too)

  21. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Jon,

    The “story” is bullshit. I suspect that mediafetcher.com and “Global Associated News” are bullshit as well.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not an actor, don’t drive a BMW, have never been in Fullerton, and have been for most of the last week in rural Maryland.

    Strange and sad when fake stories scrape the bottom of the non-celebrity barrel (where I am glad to be).

    All to game Google AdSense, I’m sure. “SEO” at its shittiest.

  22. Shubs’s avatar

    Hello Doc,
    Interesting writing that you have put up there. I wanted to share this thing with someone, somehow and I guess replying to your blog is a good place for it.

    I am in my 20s and from an Asian country. At the moment, I live in LA. I had heard of MJ, had seen him on TV a few times during my teens and had read about the controversies on news papers when he made headlines. But he was nothing more than a famous western singer to me.

    But the day he died, I witnessed with my eyes his fans gathered around UCLA medical centre, some in disbelief, some in shock and some in pain. The whole thing got into me. I ended up reading about MJ, heard a lot of his music, watched him dance like no one else can ever do and read/saw his interviews on youtube.

    He was a man with special talents and someone who was beyond the norms of “society”- He was a free spirit and that’s what I saw again and again in his music, interviews and his spectacular stage performances. His death feels very much a personal loss to me. I feel gutted to think that he is no more as I write this.

    I wonder what’s your take on what I am going through.

    My heart went out for the man and I literally cried a few times.

  23. Shubs’s avatar

    Hello Doc,
    Interesting writing that you have put up there. I wanted to share this thing with someone, somehow and I guess replying to your blog is a good place for it.

    I am in my 20s and from an Asian country. At the moment, I live in LA. I had heard of MJ, had seen him on TV a few times during my teens and had read about the controversies on news papers when he made headlines. But he was nothing more than a famous western singer to me.

    But the day he died, I witnessed with my eyes his fans gathered around UCLA medical centre, some in disbelief, some in shock and some in pain. The whole thing got into me. I ended up reading about MJ, heard a lot of his music, watched him dance like no one else can ever do and read/saw his interviews on youtube. My heart went out for the man and I literally cried a few times.

    He was a man with special talents and someone who was beyond the norms of “society”- He was a free spirit and that’s what I saw again and again in his music, interviews and his spectacular stage performances. His death feels very much a personal loss to me. I feel gutted to think that he is no more as I write this.

    I wonder what’s your take on what I am going through.

  24. jenny toomey’s avatar

    Interesting thread that said…there is chocolaty ripple of morality that is running through this vanilla in a way that worries me.

    Starting with the idea that an individual has x number of years on this planet, (true) and a responsibility to use them wisely (also true-ish)…thus we need to avoid celebrity black hole (enormous leap). Because the “what” and “how” of the hole are extremely different per person.

    I’m wondering in some way if this is generational… Kids that grew up pre “A Current Affair” and those that grew up post.

    Pre…see this as celebrity culture as a dangerous aberration, Post see it as part of the soup of experience. (When I saw the Frontline on Digital Natives, I saw a similar thing…where information that confused and frightened adults on the web was clear as a bell to kids who grew up in the space and they would no more likely follow a creep into a chat room than they would take his hand and walk out of the playground.)

    David Foster Wallace had a great article dealing with this type of a subject …though it wasn’t so much celebrity and internet as it was TV and high art vs. low.

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb3544/is_n2_v13/ai_n28624826/

  25. Bill Seitz’s avatar

    The obsession isn’t terribly surprising.

    http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/z2005-01-31-MonkeyStatusPorn

    But it would be nice to move past it…

  26. @hfromspace’s avatar

    Agreed: obsessing over celebrity is a colossal waste of time. You’re spot on there. To say that the act itself is unhealthy because it’s unproductive, sure, I can agree to that too.
    But this thing about how we’ll see a growing distance between coasting and producing? I don’t think I know what you’re talking about here. Firstly, not sure what you mean by distance. Are you saying there will be a greater distinction between coasting (i.e. celeb suck) and producing (ie actual quantifiable productivity)? Because I’m pretty sure there’s a huge distinction already. Or are you saying something more along the lines of: one or the other will develop into the larger happening?
    If the latter then I don’t understand how: “This improvable millieu presents us with choices that become more stark as the millieu itself grows” [sic] equates to seeing “a growing distance between coasting and producing”.
    How does the increasing starkness between choices cause a growth of distance between obsessing about celebrity and actual productivity?

  27. jon’s avatar

    Doc

    You’re right, the story is false. That was the point.

    As I mentioned in my link in the post, it’s a site that generates the bullshit automatically when you put in someones name. It’s called http://www.fakeawish.com.

  28. Ann’s avatar

    I wonder if this event will increase awareness of mindless celebrity obsession. Most people have never met this man. They saw him only by electronic means – TV, radio, newspapers, and later in his life, websites. And most of what they know was carefully crafted by PR people.

    Gen Y Americans were raised in this environment, but I imagine some have higher immunity because of it.

  29. Ben’s avatar

    Yep, I totally agree. Talking about celebrities is probably one of the biggest wastes of time known to man. It was quite shocking about Michael Jackson though. I think that one hit everybody by surprise.

  30. Carpe Diem’s avatar

    It seems to me some here are jumping onto a bandwagon. So what if someone else likes celebrities or wants to discuss them? So what if the individual appears to be “wasting their time” as you judge them to be. Who are those people really hurting? Seriously? It’s unfair to put down others for having a hobby or interest simply because yo don’t approve. Just because someone has a favorite star doesn’t mean they don’t have other interests or a “life” outside of their specific fanship. It could be argued that there are far worse habits out there: overeating, alcohol, indiscriminate sex or gossipping about the people you know in real life. Sure, I think some people do need to stop “worshipping” celebrities but maybe people should stop “demonizing” celebrities if you honestly think they are people like anyone else.

  31. Darin’s avatar

    Very interesting article, well worth the read. Thanks for some good points that really get me thinking about what we almost think is normal: celebritie worship. Why are we so fascinated about someone else, and why does our media so promote it!

    They are people, talented, interesting, but just people all the same. Maybe real issues shoulod take more media space that celebritie worship!

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