Fascinated by celebrities? You just need more friendsBen Parr
This article was published in the June 2015 issue of WIRED magazine.
By: Ben Parr
Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai and President Vladimir Putin were the top two global Google searches for individuals in 2014. Sorry! That's a lie. It'd be nice if that were true, but of course it isn't. The top two most searched-for living individuals last year in the UK were Ariana Grande and Pharrell Williams (both Americans, oddly). Yousafzai and Putin didn't even make the top ten.
Our fascination with celebrity has intrigued and puzzled me for years. Thomas de Zengotita, anthropologist and author of Mediated, believes we care about celebrities because we idolise (or vilify) those who reflect our personality or values in some way. Being a fan of One Direction, Richard Branson or Benedict Cumberbatch (the second-most searched male celeb in 2014) says something about who you are and your personality.
The research says there's another layer to our fascination with celebrities, though. One study in Germany and China found that around 30 per cent of adults regularly daydream about being famous, and that fame is the number-one thing children between the ages of ten and 12 list as their top goal. But the reason for our high level of interest in fame isn't because we want power or money, according to a Vassar College study that analysed the responses of 178 students to questions about fame and famous figures. Instead, the main reason is "belongingness" — our need to belong, to have friends and to be liked. The more a person wants to belong, the more likely they are to care about fame.
Nowadays, we see this need for belongingness in stark light through social media, which is simply an extension of this desire for acknowledgement and validation from our peers. Last year, my friend Jenna Wortham of The New York Times wrote about this phenomenon, concluding that Twitter especially has moved away from its roots as an information network and has become a place where its users try to one-up each other to garner more "favourites" and retweets. This is the internet's version of social validation.
I call this phenomenon the validation society, and it isn't just limited to Twitter. Never in the history of humankind has validation from others been so accessible and easy to achieve. Likes on Facebook and Instagram, views on Tumblr, page views on your personal blog — all of these things are metrics of validation that suggest that our ideas are worthy of attention.
Social media is just one example of our quest for belongingness and validation from others. Our idolisation of celebrities is simply another way we express our desire for acceptance. When girls become fans of Zoe Sugg (Zoella to her millions of YouTube fans), they aren't just building a relationship with her — they are also building a relationship with the entire community around her. When Sugg talks about cosmetics or her anxiety issues on YouTube, it feels like a two-way conversation, rather than a mass broadcast. Her fans feel a deep connection with the best-selling novelist, despite the fact that most of them will never even have the chance to talk to her. There's a scientific term for this phenomenon: a parasocial relationship.
Fandom creates a common connection between others. Celebrities are the most prominent example, but the same is true for those who love certain video games (League of Legends or Minecraft, anyone?) or love certain sports. For millions, being a fan of Liverpool or Manchester City football clubs is an important piece of their identity.
Belongingness and validation are fundamental human needs. And although many people don't seek fame or the famous to fulfil these needs (introverts especially), almost everyone is seeking the validation or empathy that shows they are loved. Without it, it's easy for people to fall into a dangerous path.
So the next time you see a celebrity's antics bump a politician's speech off the news, don't despair. It's just an extension of our innate and irrepressible need to belong.