God 800,000, Sewell 100: Net celebrity isn't
11 July 1997

In an April 1995 article published in the British magazine Internet and Comms Today, a young North Carolinian named Joel Furr mocked the pretentions of people he met who claimed to "surf cyberspace" but who had never heard of ... Joel Furr. For Joel, this was an unpardonable lapse: "I'm not the most famous guy on the Internet, but I do get the 'You're...' reaction fairly often."

Early 1995 may have been the last time in history when any one human being could say, without exhibiting clinical delusions of grandeur, "If you haven't heard of me, you don't know the Net very well." The Internet was a large village that had not quite exploded into Beijing, and Joel wandered about it like a would-be ubiquitous gadfly, getting into rancorous disputes with people like Time magazine technology editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt and marketing a series



Early 1995 may have been the last time in history when any one human being could say, without exhibiting clinical delusions of grandeur, "If you haven't heard of me, you don't know the Net very well."


of T-shirts based on in-group Internet jokes. To the extent that the Internet had celebrities, Joel was one.

And today? "Remember Joel Furr...?" is to grizzled Internet veterans what "Remember the flintlock?" is to ghosts of the Revolutionary War.

Naive soul that I was, I used to think that the net.legends and net.personalities of the early years would remain part of Internet lore forever, like the gods and heroes that Homer lifted out of a tiny corner of the Mediterranean world and bequeathed to the ages. I thought, too, that people whose wit and talents gained them celebrity on the Net would, as the Net became the primary medium of literacy and communication, perforce become celebrities in the outside world as well. When Time first ventured onto the Web two or three years ago, I was one of many people



Naive soul that I was, I used to think that the net.legends and net.personalities of the early years would remain part of Internet lore forever, like the gods and heroes that Homer lifted out of a tiny corner of the Mediterranean world.


who tried to stuff its online ballot box for "Man of the Year" by voting for Kibo1. And I sincerely meant it: In my nomination, I said something to the effect that Kibo "incarnated the dispersion and self-parodization of the digital postmodern Self better than anyone else in contemporary culture." (I used to write like that when I was still in recovery from addiction to Literary Theory.)

When Joel and Elmer-DeWitt had their spat (accusing each other of being incompetent writers on alt.internet.media-coverage), I posted a newsgroup query under the heading, "If Vidal called Buckley a fascist on the Net ... would anyone hear?" I was thinking about the notorious incident on network TV [advertisement]during the 1968 presidential campaign, in which Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr., provided liberal vs. conservative point-counterpoint and wound up at each others' throats2 in front of the entire nation. But what about the Furr-Elmer-DeWitt contretemps? "Will college students," I wrote, "[someday] learn about this in their History of the Net courses?"

In posing the question, I was taking issue with someone else's claim that Usenet discussion was "marginal, that is, conducted by marginal participants in The Real World." Maybe, just maybe, I said, the newsgroups would inaugurate a new type of fame, dependent more on talent than on the self-feeding property of traditional media notoriety:

... [Usenet may offer] in its bumbling but egalitarian way, a slow-but-sure reverse principle of celebrity that works in a bottom-up fashion, something like a bubble-sort algorithm. Words, concepts, personalities survive if enough people find them worthwhile to archive them, forward them, make links to them. The end result isn't too different from the way cultural history has always worked.

Eventually, I hoped, the Internet would be a vast hypertext whose links would reward true merit, where a brilliantly clever writer like James "Kibo" Parry



The Internet no longer creates celebrities; on the Web especially, self-made fame is dead. You're famous here if you're famous in the world of traditional media.


would be cited a zillion times more often than an appalling murderess of the English language like Anne Rice.

Nowadays I know better. The Internet no longer creates celebrities; on the Web especially, self-made fame is dead. You're famous here if you're famous in the world of traditional media, and increasingly the million-paged Web just magnifies and multiplies celebrity already created via TV, the movies or the music world, like some mad-scientist's invention yoking together a microscope and a kaleidoscope.

Empirical proof is easy to come by using a Web search engine like AltaVista, which gives you the approximate total number of documents (or Web pages) in which your search term occurs. I spent an idle hour the other day plugging in the names of people and entities who've gained fame both on and off the Net, and present some of the results here as an annotated table:

God800,000
Beatles90,000
Jesus Christ360,000
Bill Gates420,000
David Letterman10,000
William Gibson56,000
Pamela Anderson66,000
Tim Berners-Lee74,000
Anne Rice 4,000
Kibo83,000
Kurt Cobain93,000
Linus Torvalds102,000
Marc Andreessen112,000
Spice Girls2,000
Clifford Stoll121,000
Philip Elmer-DeWitt400
Joel Furr13400
Captain Kangaroo400
Cormac McCarthy14300
David Sewell15100

(It's not fair. I've been on the Net a lot longer than God. To improve my ratings, I'm considering either getting breast implants or inventing a crappy operating system.)

If these numbers show anything, it's that fame on the Net precisely mirrors the lamentable standards of fame in the world at large. (I was mildly encouraged to see Linus Torvalds holding his own against the Spice Girls, until I remembered that AltaVista's index always lags reality by a couple months;



Fame on the Net precisely mirrors the lamentable standards of fame in the world at large.


by now the jiggly lip-synchers have no doubt zoomed past the Finnish computer prodigy to smooch with Letterman and Gates.) Net celebrity is less like a "bubble-sort algorithm" on quality than it is like the bubble-up process by which methane gas burps out of a swamp.

It's enough to make an "old" fart like me nostalgic for the days when the pond was small enough that he could still raise a respectable stink in it.  *

-- David Sewell <dsewell@go2net.com> is a writer and editor who lives somewhere in the vicinity of Ed Abbey's secret gravesite in Arizona.

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