August 3, 2010 — Last night over dinner we had an interesting conversation about why we care about celebrities. Here's my thinking on the matter.
If you look at some stats about the attributes of celebrities, you'll realize something interesting: they're not that special. By any physical measure--height, weight, facial symmetry, body shape, voice quality, personality, intelligence--celebrities are not much different from the people around you. Conan O'Brien might be a bit funnier than your funniest friend, but he wouldn't make you laugh 10x more; it'd be more like 5% more. Angelina Jolie might be 10% more attractive than your most attractive friend, but for some groups she could even be less attractive.
If these people aren't so special, why do they interest us so much? One explanation is that we see these people over and over again on television and as a result we are conditioned to care about them.
I concede this may be part of it, but I actually don't think celebrities are forced upon us. Instead, I think we need celebrities. We need them to function in a global society.
It's all because of the Do You Know Game.
The Do You Know Game is a popular party game. People often play it every time they meet a stranger. It goes something like this:
That's the basic premise. You ask me where I am from. You think of everyone you know from that place and ask me one by one if I know that person. Then we switch roles and play again.
People play this game at work, at parties, at networking events, at college--especially at college. This game has a benefit.
People play this game for many reasons, but certainly one incentive to play is that if two strangers can identify a mutual friend, they can instantly trust each other a bit more. If we have a mutual friend, I'm more likely to do you a favor, and less likely to screw you over, because word gets around. Back in the day when people carried swords, this was even more important.
A mutual friend also gives two strangers a shared interest. It's something that they can continually talk about.
And having a mutual friend can reveal a lot about a person:
As you can see, having mutual friends serves many purposes.
Throughout the 20th century, the proportion of people that have traveled far from their hometowns for school or career has steadily increased. The further you travel from your home, the less likely you are to have a successful round of "do you know" with a stranger. You might share common interests or values with the new people you meet, but you'll know none of the same people and thus it will be harder to build and grow relationships. This is a big problem for a globalized society that depends on strong ties between people from different places to keep the economy running smoothly.
Celebrities have naturally arisen to fill a need for strangers in a globalized world to have mutual friends. We all interact with strangers more frequently nowadays, and if we didn't have celebrities, there would be a gaping hole in our arsenal of shortcuts to establishing trust with new people. There are a thousand ways to build repoire with a stranger, but the technique of talking about a shared acquaintance is one of the easiest and most effective. We travel farther than we ever have, but thanks to celebrities, we still have dozens of "mutual friends" wherever we go.
Of course, just because two people know who Tom Hanks is doesn't mean they should trust each other more. Tom Hanks doesn't know them and so none of the "word gets around" stuff I mentioned earlier applies. I'm not arguing that celebrities are an equal substitute for a mutual friend by any means. A mutual friend is a much more powerful bond than knowing about the same celebrity.
But celebrities are better than nothing.