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15 millennia of fame

…or what a former porn star and a world conqueror have – and don’t have – in common.

One of the great pleasures of reading the Weekend New York Times – apart from the opportunity it affords me to collapse with breakfast, lunch or a cup of coffee – is trolling for blog ideas. The March 16 edition of The New York Times magazine yielded a doozy – a map, as it were, of a new project from the Macro Connections group at M.I.T.’s Media Lab called Pantheon. The odd thing is that The Times’ article doesn’t give the website.  But here it is

This being from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pantheon has come up with a complex formula to measure historical cultural production. I won’t bore you with methodology – because I’m not smart enough to. But what’s fascinating to me is what piqued The Times’ interest: What does Pantheon say about fame and celebrity? Something I and others have long suspected and that should give our notice-me, selfie society pause: Fame and celebrity are not the same thing.

Of course, it’s all relative, big fish in a small pond and that sort of thing as I discovered anew when I went to Indonesia for Christmas in 2012. There an international sports star like tennis player Novak Djokovic is a big deal, in part because he’s won the Open in neighboring Australia several times. Watching him entertain the Hopman Cup crowd on New Year’s Eve, I got the feeling that ESPN was all Nole all the time. In America, he’s nowhere the star that Denver Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning is. But then few people in Asia would know who Peyton Manning is. The very real specificity of NFL fame – which seems so overwhelming here – is something that Indonesian-born quarterback Quinton Day Novak considers in “In This Place You Hold Me,” the upcoming second novel in my series, “The Games Men Play.”

 Really popular:  Jenna Jameson in 2008. Photograph by Glenn Francis of PacificProDigital.com.

Really popular:  Jenna Jameson in 2008. Photograph by Glenn Francis of PacificProDigital.com.

Now on to the relativity of Pantheon. If you look up former porn star Jenna Jameson – as Times’ writer Dwight Garner obviously did – she ranks 1 out of 11 porn stars in the data base, 2 out of 87 people born in 1974 and 98 out of 2,206 people born in the United States. She has a Historical Popularity Index (HPI) of 26.50, based in part on the fact that she has a Wikipedia page that has been translated into 48 languages. (You have to have a page that’s been translated into more than 25 languages for Pantheon to consider you famous.)

 Really famous: Alexander the Great, marble head, 2nd-1st century B.C., British Museum. Photograph by Andrew Dunn of andrewdunnphoto.com.

Really famous: Alexander the Great, marble head, 2nd-1st century B.C., British Museum. Photograph by Andrew Dunn of andrewdunnphoto.com.

But is she really famous? Well, not as famous, thank goodness, as Alexander the Great, whose been translated into 138 languages and has an HPI of 31.77. In conquering the Persian Empire, he changed the course of history. Whereas all Jameson changed was bed partners.

But here’s where it gets interesting: Jameson has had more than 30 million page views to Alexander’s 48 million. I’m no mathematical genius but it stands to reason that while more cultures are aware of the world conqueror, Jameson’s celebrity has, shall we say, a deeper thrust. Those who are aware of her are really aware of her. Alexander may be more famous by any measure that really counts, but I’m willing to bet that many Jameson fans wouldn’t know Alexander the Great from Alexander Graham Bell. And that’s unfortunate.

You may be heartened to know, however, that project director César Hidalgo told The Times that tangible achievements – writing books, for instance – are “better tickets” to immortality than accumulated wealth.

I’m keeping that in mind as I write The Games Men Play.