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Definitions, Assumptions, And Deeply Different Worlds

Sometimes, the definition of a word is pretty hard to dispute. For example, the meaning of “iron” is, unless it is used metaphorically, pretty straightforward. So is the definition of “ion”, or “book”, or “supper”.

Of course, very little of interest is said to do with this. People tend not to dispute whether some food is supper, whether something is made of iron, whether some ion is present in some compound, or whether so-and-so object is a “book”; they simply look at it, and then say, “Ah, yes, it is a book” or, “Oh, no, it’s not a book.”

What makes human conversation interesting is the meanings of words that are wholly subjective. Sometimes, I find that my own personal definitions of words are so wholly different from the definitions of others’, that I don’t even understand what they’re really saying to me until hours after they’ve said it. It’s not that I don’t understand the words themselves, it’s that some people’s assumptions of what those words mean, or ought to mean, differ from my own assumptions or understandings of those words.

An example from today is the phrase “internationally famous”. Now, what does that mean?

It may seem obvious at first, but if you look closely, there are a few possible meanings. One of my co-workers took it to mean, “internationally famous” among laypersons, meaning that someone is internationally famous if you can name them off the top of your head as an example of a famous person in whatever category you’re discussing. Let me reiterate that point: internationally famous people are internationally famous because any Tom, Dick, or Jane on the street can name them off the tops of their heads, or at the least recognize their name. This definition makes the claim that Yo-Yo Ma is “the only internationally famous cellist in the world” a possibly (though not necessarily) sensible supposition.

My thinking is pretty different from this.

I suppose it’s different mainly because I assume international fame is a niche thing; one can be internationally famous within a niche, and it’s only within that niche that one can really judge the value of one’s reputation. In other words, I judge the ignorance of the layperson in most areas as a handicap against the layperson, rather than against the fame of those who, within their niches, are famous but who are unknown to the unacquainted.

It’s probably a very geekish position to take, this idea of valuing reputation within the niche over reputation in the general populace. Then again, looking at the fact that there are plenty of niches that the general populace (including me) knows nothing about, I think it’s really worthless to take what they know as a standard for anything. Geekish, yes; elitist, perhaps—it’s an accusation I’ve heard before!—but it is also realistic, and comes from experience.

In fact, it comes directly from my own experience. I have been steeped in several fairly specialized niche-subjects in my own life, including SF (especially hard SF and new wave SF), free jazz (and jazz in general), and weblogs.

Name five famous bloggers. Now, if you’re reading this, you probably can do so. Off the top of my head, I’d name Sarah Hatter; Glenn Reynolds; Brad De Long; Corey Doctorow; and Joshua Marshall. Those are off the top of my head… okay, wait, I did have to look up Reynolds’ name, as I usually just refer to him using the name of his blog, “The Instapundit”.

Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you probably could mention the names of five famous bloggers, too. It’s not miraculous, though at some point I took it for a miracle that someone I met and I might both be reading Sarah Hatter. It’s not miraculous at all; blogs are a niche, and fame always occurs in such niches, and that attracts audiences. Specialized audiences will have their own ranking system—explicitly, in things like Technorati, or implicitly in audience turnout in response to advertising of gigs for a local band, and so on. But if you are into blogs, you probably also know that the world of blogging is still alien to the majority of people. Despite all the millions of blogs and bloggers out there, most people in the world couldn’t name five famous people in this peculiar huge niche if put to the test, on the spot. Plenty of people wouldn’t even know what the hell you were talking about, or what “blog” even means.

This is true in all kinds of niches: the fact that only SF readers have enough knowledge to actually mention five internationally famous hard-SF authors, or that only a limited number of people can name five famous scientists in the area of Quantum Electrodynamics, doesn’t mean that such “internationally famous” people don’t exist. They do, within their niche, of which you and I may be completely ignorant. your not knowing who China Miéville is, or who George Johnson is, or who Don Cherry (not the hockey coach, whom I consider to be “the other Don Cherry”) is, doesn’t mean that they aren’t very famous within their niches. It just means you don’t know their niches.

This is why the seemingly decisive fact that I personally cannot name five internationally famous cellists off the top of my head doesn’t, to me, suggest that there aren’t five (or more) of them in existence. All it suggests to me is that due to all my attention paid to the names and lives of composers, and very occasionally to conductors, I tend to pay very little attention, if any, to who happens to be performing a piece. It’s not to say performers aren’t important, but just that my attention focuses on the most crucially creative contributor to a work of art, which in my opinion in classical music is the composer.

[Having studied both composition and music performance, I feel entitled to this opinion though I acknowledge that performers are also pretty important. But where performers are relatively interchangeable, composers are not. That, combined with my interest in composition and my tendency to always look for new music instead of looking for new interpretations of familiar pieces, explains my focus.]

What was I going on about before that diversion? Ah, yes, I simply don’t take my niche-external ignorance as all that significant. I don’t know the names of five world-famous cellists, but this doesn’t preclude their existence. In fact, my understanding of niche reputation systems suggests that not only cannot there be only one such person, but that in all likelihood there are several such people competing for the top position, several groups of niche specialists who favour different contenders for it… and that a great deal of all of this will be unknown to the vast majority of the world.

So here we are with two very different definitions of “famous”. Which one makes sense?

I suppose each one does, to the person that holds it. However, I think mine allows for the fact that I may be ignorant of a whole vast set of classes of fame. I don’t find this preposterous, though: plenty of people are ridiculously famous, but I’ve never heard of them. And plenty of things are world-famous, but most people from specific areas have never heard of them.

One example that has amused me for a long time is Asterix & Obelix. The Asterix comics, which date back four and a half decades now, are famous all over the world. French kids everywhere read them, even now. British schoolboys read them. They’re read in the Maghrib. They’re read in South Africa—in English and in Afrikaans. They’re read in German, in Spanish… hell, look at the official website: it’s in five languages! Read in Arabic, European, Canadian, hell, even in Korean—though it’s not so famous here, from my inquiries—Asterix has been one of the more significantly popular pieces of kid-culture the world has ever seen. And what’s more, the comics are smart, funny, anti-establishment, anti-stupidity, all for resistance to authority, and so on. They’re great, great comics, and I don’t just think so because I grew up on my local library’s collection.

Yet most Americans—and, to be fair, Anglo-Canadians—I’ve asked have never heard of Asterix and Obelix. Bearing in mind that most people have read comics as children, and consider themselves to at least know something about the subject—it’s not an obscure subject like, say, late-20th century Neoclassical composers, or experts on string theory—I ask, does this mean Asterix comics aren’t “really” internationally famous?

No, it means that personal knowledge simply isn’t sufficient for determining what constitutes “internationally famous”. Personal knowledge in fact cannot suffice.

This seems like a long rambling note on a pretty insignificant point of discussion that came up earlier in the day, but the difference, I think, is reflected in the changing notions of how media can and should be served up to consumers. Subscribing to the older notions of “fame” as simply whatever is known to all people—by which standards Britney Spears is famous, but, say, Lambchop is not—entertainment outlets demonstrably limit the amount of available media accessible to people. Shelves full of Britney Spears, Metallica, and Wynton Marsalis turn over faster (they sell and get replaced) faster than shelves full of more niche music, things like Don Pullen/George Adams quartet albums, different versions of Steve Reich’s early tape pieces, and Mischa Maisky’s rendition of the Bach cello suites (I had to search to remember his last name). As a result, outside of rare speciality shops (unknown outside of the big city), people mainly had access only to a narrow band of highly-promoted, predictably saleable, formulaic, and always somewhat-familiar pop and rock music, plus a small sample of “safe” works in other “approved” genres like “jazz” and “classical” and “new age” music. While it’s a detestable thing to have to live with, it’s an understandable business decision in a world before the advent of electronic (ie. non-physical) media being sold per unit at a physical outlet. That is to say, our notion of “real fame” as a function of lowest-common denominator knowledge is definitely a reflection of the way in which popular media have been sold up to the present.

There have always been little niche specialty shops scraping by somehow, foraging an existence in the midst of this, by catering to people who were interested in one or another special genre, and who purchased music (or books, or other media) according to reputation systems and evaluations of quality quite alien to those underlying the big chains and the mainstream. The insight they depended upon was that just enough people are interested in each niche—even just locally—for there to be a living in it, for one or two or more careful, similarly interested businesspeople.

The application of this idea to the Internet (it’s been done already to some degree in the biggest internet businesses, and talk of which is already all over the place: see this Wikipedia article for some discussion, plus plenty of references) will transform business, transform the idea of fame, by transforming the way we rank, sample, and consume media. In a world where talk of The Long Tail of the Internet makes sense, the notion of “lowest common denominator” fame is somewhat alien, somewhat otherworldly, or just somehow irrelevant. Doubtless, the notion of “fame” in the old sense will endure; people will still look at you funny if you don’t know who some hyperpromoted pop singer is, as people recently did when I confessed to not never having heard of Beyoncé… but at the same time, as people begin to invest more time and interest into whatever niches they get into—something I think more and more people will do as they spend more time online—this “common denominator” sense of fame will eventually just lose a lot of its relevance to many of us. Yes, it will exist, but it will increasingly mean less and less. What we’ll be living in, culturally, will be a deeply different world, one that it’s increasingly apparent many of us have already been living in for a very long time, but without the tech support to do it on a transformative scale.

Which suggests some very interesting things about online community, about social fragmentation that could be brought on as people invest more into online life… and suggests some other possibly interesting things, but for now, I’m done with the idea.

(And no, I’m not suggesting I’m ahead of the curve in already having internalized such an attitude; in fact, I’m behind it in only having heard the term at the end of 1994, though when I did hear of it, I just sat there nodding my head, knowing someone had hit the nail on the head.

I do, in any case, foresee it becoming more and more common because, as I see it, online communities—something that people gravitate towards—do seem to powerfully affect media consumption, and niches arise in part as a result of this gregarious reputation-system’s effect on aesthetic values and perceptions that drive our media-consumption.)

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