I really have no idea how or why this popped into my head, but a while back I started thinking about levels of fame — what’s the most famous and the least famous you can be, and what’s in between?
Of course in a strictly objective sense you could talk about the numerical quantity of people who have heard of a given person, for some definition of “heard of,” but that’s kinda boring. I’m thinking more about our everyday experiences and expectations.
I’m breaking it down into eight levels of fame. The number of levels is arbitrary, since you could divide it into more or fewer if you wanted to, but this is sorta how it is in my head.
Fame level 8: Incredulity
The highest level. Here, the person is so famous that if a coworker (let’s call him Bob) says he’s never heard of them, I literally will not believe him. I simply assume Bob is lying to me, because it’s unfathomable that anyone could get through life without hearing about this person.
Disclaimer: Obviously there are exceptions — I’m assuming Bob is an adult, is familiar with American culture, has not lost a big chunk of his memory, etc.
- Abraham Lincoln
- Albert Einstein
- William Shakespeare
- Jesus Christ
- Adolf Hitler
- Donald Trump (of course)
Fame level 7: Reassessment
Here, it’s just barely believable that Bob has never heard of the person, but finding this out will make me reassess my whole opinion of Bob. He’s no longer “Bob, the quirky guy who works in HR” — he is now “Bob, the guy who’s never heard of so-and-so.” Any future advice Bob gives me will be viewed with heightened skepticism on the basis of this datum alone.
- Joan of Arc
- Jimmy Carter
- Bill Gates
- Josef Stalin
- King Arthur
- Darth Vader
- Robin (Batman’s sidekick)
Fame level 6: Hiccup
In this case, the person is famous enough that, if Bob hasn’t heard of them, it causes a hiccup in the conversation:
“I was reading about X the other day …”
“… oh.” (Really? Wow.) “X is …”
There will probably be some reassessment too, but not as much as for level 7.
- Isaac Newton
- Steve Jobs
- John Lennon
- Vladimir Lenin
- John Adams
- St. Peter
- Sir Lancelot
- Jabba the Hutt
Fame level 5: Ambivalence
At this level, I have no strong expectation about whether Bob has heard of this person. I won’t be surprised either way.
- Elon Musk
- Carl Sagan
- H. P. Lovecraft
- Mark Hamill
- James Madison
- Aaron (brother of Moses)
- Boba Fett
(Making the list above was slightly depressing.)
Fame level 4: Hiccup
Just like fame level 6, only in this case, I’m surprised that Bob has heard of them.
“I was reading about X. That’s the person who …”
“Yeah, I know who X is.”
“… really? Oh, cool. So anyway …”
- Randall Munroe
- Shigeru Miyamoto
- Sylvia Plath
- John Tyler
- John Stuart Mill
- Ernest Shackleton
- Emperor Constantine I
- Miriam (sister of Moses)
- Mon Mothma
Fame level 3: Reassessment
Parallel to fame level 7, if Bob has heard of this person, I am quite impressed and immediately reassess him as a human being. Generally this means that Bob and I both belong to some little group or fandom, or have some shared interest we can talk about. A person at fame level 3 is still “famous,” but we’re approaching the bottom of that label.
- Douglas Hofstadter
- Michael Collins (astronaut)
- Carl Linnaeus
- Matthew Arnold
- Niels Bohr
- John Jay
- Cletus Kasady
- Ambassador Kosh
Fame level 2: Explanation
A level-2 person is notable in some regard, but no longer famous per se, except inside some very specific niche. If Bob knows of someone at this level, it’s no longer enough for me to say “Oh, cool,” and move on. I’m going to need an explanation of why he’s heard of them.
- Lu Xun
- Jane Espenson
- Patricia Tallman
- D. T. Suzuki
- Emperor Theodosius II
- Sim Aloo
Fame level 1: Storytime
A level-1 person is a regular person, not the least bit famous. If Bob and I both know this person, we apparently share a personal connection at some level, and I’ll need to uncover the story behind it.
- My aunt
- My high school English teacher
- My roommate freshman year — no, not that one, the other one
- The dude I used to talk to while I was waiting for the bus sometimes
Of course, these are all very subjective, and I’ve probably misjudged the fame of all sorts of people. But I’m going by what my own personal reaction would be.
I did pretty good up through level 5 but not so well after that. I do know your aunt though.
What?! Does this mean we share a personal connection? D:
I’m not sure I agree with your placement of John Adam’s over James Madison…
I also had everyone from 5-8… 4 I only now Mon Mothma, Miriam, and Emperor Constantine. After that… pretty much your roommates… 😛
Now that you say that, I’m not sure why John Adams ranked as more famous than James Madison in my brain. Probably a personal quirk. Madison is certainly more fame-worthy, IMO.
I take it back… obviously I know Bohr and Kosh!
I’m wondering about Einstein (well, my phone has heard of him — for whatever that’s worth). Comparing him to Shakespeare, for example, makes me think that people who’ve heard of Shakespeare would probably also be able to say why he was well known — they’d have some idea what he was famous for. For Einstein, for those who’ve heard of him at all, that would probably be less true. So, that’s two different types of “known.”
Michael Collins made me laugh. I remember the moon landing, and could name the other two astronauts, but it’s possible that the only reason I remember Collins is because Jethro Tull wrote a song about him. 🙂
Interesting … my guess would be that the number of Americans who have heard of Shakespeare, and the number who have heard of Einstein, are about equal. But probably more could identify Shakespeare at least as a “writer,” whereas probably fewer could identify Einstein as a “scientist” (as opposed to just “someone who was really smart”). But that’s all speculation. It’d be cool to see some real data on this stuff.
Believe it or not, I read an *entire book* written by Michael Collins, about his life and about Apollo 11 … and yet I still had to look up his name for this post. 😦
I’ve got a bit of a bias since I work in the tech industry, but after the past few years of incredible and increasing press coverage, I believe Elon Musk should be way higher, at least level 6. He is just as, if not more, influential in tech as Steve Jobs.
I don’t know … I like Elon Musk a lot more, but I think Jobs is a lot more famous. Partly because he died recently, and he’s been the subject of several bestselling books and two major films. But it’d be cool to see data on that question too.