The peak of the Spice Girls' popularity has long passed, but Victoria Beckham – aka Posh Spice – still has massive media exposure. And Paris Hilton, who is famous for her lifestyle alone, makes world headlines daily.
A new psychology study helps explain why some stars burn bright, long, long after their talent has faded – if it ever was there to begin with.
Simply put, says Nathanael Fast of Stanford University in California, people need something to talk about. The human desire to find common ground in conversation pushes us to discuss already popular people, he says.
Fast's team focused not on gossip column celebrities, but on professional baseball players in the US
"We realised that there's a ton of stats and performance data available for baseball, so if we can show that famous or well-known baseball players become more prominent than unknown baseball players who perform just as well or better, we're able to make a convincing case," he says.
Many economists have argued that in the market of popular culture, quality marks the difference between popularity and obscurity. For instance, a 1991 study by William Hamlen Jr of the University at Buffalo, New York,found that an objective measure of vocal harmony predicted album sales, with Barbara Streisand coming out on top in both measures.
To determine if conversation could drive fame, independent of quality, Fast's team gave a list of eight baseball players with statistics on their previous season's performance to 33 male and 56 female volunteers. Volunteers picked a name from the list and drafted a short email to another person in the group about the player. In some cases, the volunteer was told that the person receiving the email was an avid fan.
More often than not, they found, volunteers conversed about popular but under-performing players like Ken Griffey Jr and Roger Clemens, rather than more obscure players who put up amazing numbers, such as Miguel Cabrera.
Volunteers who were baseball fans themselves tended to pick an obscure player if they thought they were emailing an expert. Yet the same fans tended to converse about prominent players when they didn't know anything about their correspondent.
"The very experts who could kind of inform everyone else don't. They actually keep feeding them the information they already know because that helps establish a connection," Fast says.
To test their theory on a grander scale, Fast and his colleagues examined the relationships between fan chatter on internet message boards, media coverage, and an objective measure of a player's popularity – fan balloting for the annual "All-Star" game. This mid-season contest pits the most popular players from baseball's two divisions against one another.
Players who garnered the most All-Star votes also received the most media coverage and message-board attention, Fast's team found. A statistical analysis, however, suggested that internet conversations, particularly on message boards not devoted to baseball, drove media coverage and All-Star game votes.
The best players, of course, were the most likely to garner All-Star votes. But all things considered, internet mentions by non-experts had as much of an effect on voting as performance, Fast's team found.
If this whole argument seems circular, that's the point. Prominent people stay popular for longer than they ought to because they serve as conversational fodder, which in turn drives more media coverage.
"Take Paris Hilton, somehow or another she became well known and now people are more likely to talk about her," Fast says.
Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, agrees. "It does provide an answer to the question of why fame is self-perpetuating, even when the famous person isn't doing anything fame-worthy anymore."
What is less clear is how people, ideas and practices become prominent in the first place, Schaller says. In baseball, performance is likely to provide the initial inertia to stardom. But other aspects of culture come into prominence because of a quality that Schaller calls communicability.
"Catching an idea is not a whole lot different in some metaphorical way than catching a disease," he says.