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Fame to Fifteen: My talk for TED - Terri Senft

Terri Senft
Date: 2010-11-08 11:37
Subject: Fame to Fifteen: My talk for TED
Security: Public
Terri at TED

On Tuesday, November 2, I had the privilege of speaking at a TED Salon in London.  The theme of the evening was 're-framing,' and my speech was called "Famous to Fifteen People: Re-framing Celebrity."  Here is a nice blog post by Sam Martin that summarizes the evening and the speakers.  Personally, I can't believe Sam was fresh enough to even describe my talk: there were fourteen people in the lineup, and I was second-to-last to speak.  And there was a Tube strike that night. Amazingly, though, people stayed, they were deeply engaged, and then a bunch of us had a super-fun dinner afterwards. So in general:  thumbs up on the TED thing, in case you wondered.

The way TED works means 'only the best' talks are released to their main website, and it can be up to a year before that actually happens. And who is that patient? Not my friends, that's who.

So, as a work-around, I'm attaching the transcript of the talk below, with the slide images embedded.

Also, I'm going to record video of myself doing the talk to post up here.

If the talk later goes up on the TED site, I'll let you know, and if it doesn't (there were *many* great speakers that night, so I have no idea if I'll be considered in the 'best of' category), you'll have the home-made video to use for teaching or whatever purposes.

Sound good?

Theresa M. Senft

andy wharhol picture

In 1968, Andy Warhol pronounced that in the future, everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. Today, I want to give you a different pronouncement: right now, thanks to the Internet, each of us already is famous to at least fifteen people.

The term “fame to fifteen people” comes from the Scottish musician Momus, who one day woke up to realize more people were reading his blog than would probably ever hear his music. He also noticed that those people were behaving less like traditional fans than like conversants, gadflies, enemies…and friends. What kind of fame was this?

Fame is an old idea, and for the last two hundred years, it’s been linked to the press. For a very long time, to be famous, you needed press, and to get press, you needed to have accomplished something of note. Or so the story went.

In truth, there have always been individuals who are famous not so much for what they did, as who they were. We call these people celebrities. Media theorists argue celebrity marks the intersection of two contradictory belief systems. The first is democracy, or the notion that everyone matters. The second is capitalism: the belief that everyone deserves a chance, but that in the end, some of us will matter more than others.

Paris Hilton pic

People use celebrity to reconcile the contradiction between democracy and capitalism in a range of ways. Some turn celebrities into people we love to hate. Others look at how arbitrarily fame works and think: “Why not me?”

Enter micro-celebrity, the development of the self as a super-public entity over the internet; a sort of ‘brand me.’ When people ask me for examples of micro-celebrity, I ask them: Have you ever agonized over whether something belongs on a work on home web site? Worried about your privacy settings on Facebook? Deleted unflattering photos online? Micro-celebrity: you’re soaking in it.

Researchers tell us that people engage in micro-celebrity for a variety of reasons. For some, it is economic: they want to stand out in a tough marketplace. For some, it is creative. Right now, over 7% of the population of England creates content online, and many of them want to be credited for what they do, even if they never get paid.

For teens, micro-celebrity often works as a way to deal with surveillance from bosses, schools, government and family. The idea of going super-public to survive surveillance might seem counter-intuitive, but think about it: A teen celebrity like Justin Bieber has more legal control over his image than you or me, and it’s because he’s not just a person—he’s a product.

At this point, some of you will be thinking that none of what I have said applies to you. You are wrong. I’m going to show you why you are wrong by telling you about my youngest brother T.J. Now by all accounts TJ was a gregarious guy, but he hated social meda, thought it was completely stupid, and often said he wouldn’t be caught dead with a Facebook page.

Six weeks ago, though, T.J. fell down the stairs. And died. And his relationship to social media changed—or rather, it was changed for him.

TJ obituary in Buffalo Evening News

This is my brother's obituary in the online version of our hometown newspaper. Now, when I looked for this online, I knew what it would say—I wrote it, after all. What I didn’t know was that online obituaries now include a public ‘comments’ section, where anyone in the world can say anything they want about a person who isn't alive to respond.

Amigone funeral home

And there’s more. Here’s the online guest book on T.J.’s page at the Amigone Funeral Home. Now, funeral guest books have always been social affairs, but in the past, they were limited to the folks who were actually at the event. This online guest book allows people write comments, link to photos and even click to reach my brother’s preferred charity to make donations. And yes, there really is a funeral parlor named Am-I-Gone.

TJ Facebook page

T.J. was a young man when he died and he left a wife and two small children to support. His friends and co-workers have been arranging a benefit on his behalf, and—in what I’ve come to think of the ultimate revenge of social networks—they have put up a posthumous Facebook site to help with arrangements.  Again, nobody asked our family for permission to launch the site, but now we sort of like it. It’s become a place for testimonies, stories, and most interestingly to me, links to 333 others who cared for my brother.

I hope you are starting to see how  fame to fifteen (or 133, in his case case) is something that can happen without your consent, compliance or physical existence. Now, I've just shared a deeply personal story, but micro-celebrity is a phenomenon with deeply political undertones, and potentially global reach.

I want to spend the remainder of this talk telling you about  two women: both Iranian, both students, and both named Neda. The first woman is named Neda Agha Soltan. You may remember her name from June of 2009--she was the student gunned down by Iranian militia on her way to a protest in Tehran.

I am Neda poster

What the militia didn't know was that the events were being camera-phoned, and were later uploaded to YouTube, where they sparked international outrage. This was woman who sparked the "I am Neda campaign" you may remember from last year.

Two Nedas

The woman on the left in this slide is Neda Agha Soltan. The woman on the right is named Neda Soltani.  Who is she?

When the original murder video was first posted to YouTube, people were desperate to put a face and a story to the death they were seeing on their screens in the safety of their homes. An American woman did some research and turned up the face on the right, and an email address of a Neda Soltani, a student living in Tehran. The American wrote Soltani, who immediately responded that she was very much alive, and that this was a case of mistaken identity.

Soltani posted her response that she was alive to the American's Facebook page. As every Facebook response does, Soltani's  repsonse included her icon: the photo on the right. This, we think, was where the real trouble began.

(UPDATE: I have recently been speaking with reporter Kathy Riordan, who disagrees with the above assessment of how Neda Soltani's image came into public circulation. Please see the note marked "update" at the end of this transcript...)


Photos have a way of traveling.  Soltani's went through Facebook, Twitter, and finally wound up in mainstream press outlets. The entire time,  Soltani was working hard trying to convince her local media outlets that her image was the wrong one, but nobody seemed interested.

Well, that's not entirely true: the Iranian police were very interested in Soltani. Shortly after her picture appeared in the press, the came to Soltani's home and asked her to go on television and call the murder video a hoax. This, she refused to do (she knew someone had died, even if it was not her.) Understandably frightened for her own life now, Soltani fled to Germany. She remains there to this day, unable to speak the language, and getting by on the subsistence living of a migrant.

To this day, Neda Soltani’s image circulates in mass media, even though Salon broke the story of the mistake days after it first occurred. Why? For an answer, we could consider the staffs of mainstream news outlets (who has manpower to fact check, these days?) We could note the racism that makes Iranian women in scarves interchangeable to Western media. We could talk about the difficulty of Soltani waging so many lawsuits on so many levels in so many countries with so many different rules about privacy and publicity. Or we can acknowledge that what happened to Neda Soltani could happen to anyone in this room.

I hope by now you see that even if you don’t believe in micro-celebrity, it believes in you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because for most people in the world, obscurity is no picnic. I teach low-income college students in East London, and I routinely tell them that the Net is probably the only place their going to be able to connect with people outside their geographical boundaries. I’m not against micro-celebrity, but I am in favor of teaching people how to navigate it.

Fame to fifteen means that  the privacy we’ve been clinging to so tightly—it’s officially gone. And I understand why that is frightening, I really do. Still, it seems to me that if we want to call ourselves politically progressive citizens, the time has come to take a deep breath, calm that fear a bit, and instead put our energies into thinking through what it means to behave ethically toward others around the world in a time of micro-celebrity. 

Because if everyone is truly famous to fifteen people, no one gets to dismiss anyone as as obscure enough to be expendable. 

Thank you.


I have recently consulted Kathy Riordan, a remarkable writer and citizen journalist who fits into the Neda story in two ways.  First, she was critical in assisting the individual in the Netherlands who first received the video after it was sent out of Iran in getting it seen in the wider mainstream media.  Second, she was one of the first people to note that an incorrect image of "Neda" was being used online and in the press (quickly becoming iconic and misidentified as the Neda in the video) and campaign to have it corrected and removed.

Riordan's articles on Iran and Neda were initially posted to Open Salon (indexed here:  http://open.salon.com/blog/kathy_riordan/2010/06/10/tweeting_a_revolution_a_year_of_iran_and_neda )

Because of her involvement with various principals and her view of the events as the story was unfolding, Riordan has knowledge of the first time the name "Neda" appeared on Twitter and can trace the provenance of how the name came to be known online.  She believes the incorrect "Neda" image likely first came into use when someone did a search on the wrong name ("Neda Soltani" instead of "Neda Agha-Soltan") and grabbed an image from the search result, which turned out to be from the Facebook page of a living person and not the woman pictured in the now famous video). 

In discussing the inherent problems with circulating breaking news online through social media, Riordan argues that mainstream media needs to do a better job of vetting and including disclaimers.  Once a correction has been brought to the attention of the media, she believes they should be quick to respond.  Despite that, however, some continue to use the image of a living person, and not Neda Agha-Soltan, as "Neda."  "It's particularly disconcerting if it's brought to their attention as incorrect and they don't correct it," Riordan notes, citing as an example an article in Mashable which appeared in late June 2009 and has yet to be corrected.

Post A Comment | 10 Comments | Share | Link

User: ludimagist
Date: 2010-11-08 17:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for posting that.

And congrats on being a TED talker!
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Terri Senft
User: tsenft
Date: 2010-11-08 17:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks. It was a really nice experience. They are super gracious.
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User: firegrrl
Date: 2010-11-08 18:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for posting, this is really interesting food for thought.
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Terri Senft
User: tsenft
Date: 2010-11-08 18:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
my pleasure, and thanks for reading.
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User: jadedheart
Date: 2010-11-08 19:12 (UTC)
Subject: alright...
first sorry to hear about your brother...second...wow..this lecture..awesome..thanks for posting this..it certainly was educational...smiles

hugs :)
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Terri Senft
User: tsenft
Date: 2010-11-08 20:13 (UTC)
Subject: Re: alright...
hug back :)
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User: fivetonsflax
Date: 2010-11-08 20:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm really sorry about your brother, Terri.

(Long time no speak, btw. Congrats on the talk, etc.)
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Terri Senft
User: tsenft
Date: 2010-11-08 20:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ben! It has been a very long time. Hope all is well with you.
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User: dcart
Date: 2010-11-09 03:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This was really great. I hope to get to see video of it someday.
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Robin: rayban
User: solri
Date: 2010-11-09 23:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My thoughts exactly.
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April 2011