My friend Doug Arellanes lives in Prague and is somewhat obsessed with what he calls “Blesk’s Iveta Bartošová thing.” Blesk is a popular newspaper. Iveta Bartošová is a vapid Czech celebrity. Blesk covers almost every step Iveta takes, down to her car, haircut, album, boyfriend, shopping in Vienna, and day of sailing.
After noting this trend, Doug started keeping count and blogging it. His Blesk/Iveta count just hit 104.
Doug is a former journalist and understands that tabloids feed on celebrities, and that there are not many newsworthy events on the Czech celebrity circuit. But he’s still puzzled: “Even though this is a small media market, there are still lots celebrities around. So what is it about Iveta that gets her in the papers more than others? Heck if I know. By blogging her appearances in Blesk I hope to understand this better.”
Maybe there’s some tie-in with the power law… that theory of popularity that says that one player gets 1 million Xs, 10 get 100,000 Xs, 100 get 10,000 Xs and 1000 get 1000 Xs, etc? To put it another way, perhaps you could plot the distribution of Czech press mentions of celebrities on a log graph and get a straight line. Maybe Iveta gets 10 times more mentions than 10 other celebs, who themselves get 10 times more mentions than 100 other celebs.
This doesn’t sound logical. But it definitely happens all the time. Power laws seem to apply to the distribution of wealth/marketshare/synapses among brain cells, browsers, blog traffic, high-school friendships, network hubs, and capillaries. To anthropromorphise a little, it seems that complex systems comprised of autonomous but interdependent units often end up creating “celebrities” (or hubs) among themselves, and eventually, celebrities among celebrities. The rich get richer and Iveta gets another mention in Blesk.
Basically, it seems there’s some natural efficiency in doing things this way. After studying people entering a building with multiple swinging doors, urbanologist William Whyte wrote, in his fantastic book City, that an open door “is enormously attracting.”
Given a choice, people will head for the door that is already open, or that is about to be opened by somebody else. Some people are natural door openers. But most are not; often they will queue up three and four deep behind an open door rather than strike out on their own.
Why? Maybe people are lazy. Or maybe evolution has taught us that the crowd often knows something we don’t — “certainly someone would use that door if it was any good. Maybe it’s jammed.” Is it worth betting 10 steps, 15 seconds and 20 watts of mental energy that the crowd is wrong? Easier to line up for the open door.
And easier to write another story about Iveta. So, to return to Doug in Prague watching Blesk watch Iveta. Maybe fetishizing Iveta means Blesk photographers don’t have to waste time paparazzing outside random nightclubs and so charge less for their work. Fact checkers sleep easier. The old ladies who read Blesk have to remember and discuss the facts about only one celebrity. People stranded at a bus stop know there’s one reliable thing to talk about other than the weather. And Doug gets something to blog about.
Doug, of course, insists he doesn’t read Blesk because it covers Iveta. It’s the stories, he says. “I learned a lot of my Czech by reading Blesk. The stories are short, and they’re written for ten-year-olds. Which is exactly my level.”
Laszlo Barabasi’s book Linked is a great overview of this weird power law world.