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An idea worth at least 40 nanoKardashians of your attention

In my class today, celebrated science journalist Alister Doyle shared an insight that crystalized for me a line of thinking I’ve been exploring about media attention, celebrity and charity. Doyle shared an idea he’s developing with Paul Salopek (and let me just pause and mention how intimidating it is to have characters like Doyle and Salopek as “students” in a class I’m teaching), in which journalists develop new units of measure to explain complex and elusive concepts. The unit he shared, which he credits to Salopek, is the Jolie. A Jolie is unit that denotes the amount of international aid a country receives when it becomes the cause celebre of a prominent celebrity. He offers a working definition as the difference between aid per person to Darfur, which benefits from Jolie’s focus and advocacy, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has not. In 2005, International Rescue Committee calculated that Darfur received $300 per capita in aid, while DRC received $11 per capita. Hence, a Jolie can be thought of as a 27x increase in aid receipt. When international aid organizations campaign for increased aid, they’re seeking ceniJolies in increased aid, and would often settle for increases of mere miliJolies.

Jolie is able to attract aid to Darfur through her passion, her hard work, but ultimately through the fact that she’s the subject of a great deal of attention. While her recent films may not have attracted as much attention as her work as Lara Croft, she commands approximately 35 centiKardashians of attention.

The Kardashian is a unit I proposed a few classes back as a measure of attention. Conceptually, the Kardashian is the amount of global attention Kim Kardashian commands across all media over the space of a day. In an ideal, frictionless universe, we’d determine a Kardashian by measuring the percentage of all broadcast media, conversations and thoughts dedicated to Kim Kardashian. In practical terms, we can approximate a Kardashian by using a tool like Google Insights for Search – compare a given search term to Kim Kardashian and you can discover how small a fraction of a Kardashian any given issue or cause merits.

(I choose the Kardashian as a unit both because I like the mitteleuropean feel of the term – like the Ohm or the Roentgen – and because Kardashian is an exemplar of attention disconnected from merit, talent or reason. The Kardashian mentions how much attention is paid, not how much attention is deserved, so naming the unit after someone who is famous for being famous seems appropriate. Should the unit be adopted, I would hope that future scholars will calculate Kardashians using whatever public figure is appropriate at the time for being inappropriately famous.)

Calculating someone’s attention in Kardashians using GIS is an imperfect art – Google normalizes data so that the highest point on a graph becomes 100, and other points are scaled in relation to that high point. It’s unclear whether that scaling is linear or logarithmic – if linear, Angelina Jolie is running at approximately .35 Kardashians this past quarter; if logarithmic, she could be at a much lower level. I’m running some experiments with Google Ads to see if I can gain insights on a ratio between Jolie and Kardashian in absolute numbers of searches.

I think of the Kardashian as a unit of perspective. When I want to consider how much attention a worthy cause – preventing famine in the Horn of Africa – is attracting, I search on GIS with “Kim Kardashian” as a comparative term. The graph below is depressing, if not surprising.

It’s possible to receive far less attention than Somali famine receives in this analysis – enter your name into Google Trends alongside Kardashian, and you will likely generate a zero… or, at least, I do. I command microKardashians, perhaps nanoKardashians of attention, as do most of us.

To get a sense for the magnitude of attention Invisible Children was able to seize with their Kony campaign, it’s worth noting that they generated multiple Kardashians of attention, though for a short period of time. For a couple of days, Joseph Kony – promoted via a video that received 100 million YouTube views faster than any other in history – received more attention than Kim Kardashian, peaking at the extraordinary level of 7.7 Kardashians!

Fortunately, all returned to normal shortly, and Joseph Kony – more popular than before Invisible Children’s campaign – now registers about five centiKardashians. It’s worth remembering that the value of a Kardashian fluctuates over time. Consider Kim Kardashian, Angelia Jolie and Joseph Kony over the span of an entire year. At the peak of his infamy, Kony registers only 0.4 peak Kardashians, a level she achieved by filing for divorce after a 72 day marriage.

It’s possible to consider the Kardashian as a unit of exposure, not just a unit of attention, as in “most normal humans have their lives irrevocably altered if they experience even 1 centiKardashian of exposure”, or “LD50 for rats and most mammals is calculated at 1 deciKardashian”. While it’s unclear that multi-Kardashian exposure has harmed Joseph Kony, a deciKardashian level exposure for Invisible Children founder Jason Russell has proved dangerous and damaging.

If we discount the difficulties in accurately estimating the current value of the Jolie or the Kardashian, we find ourselves with a helpful new calculus to understand attention and aid. If Somalia is receiving $72 per capita in aid, but needs much more to prevent famine, how much aid could we expect if Kim Kardashian testified about hunger in the Horn of Africa?

Assume that the relationship between attention and aid is linear. If Angelina Jolie registers at 0.35 Kardashians of attention, and can command a 27x increase in aid, we can expect Kim Kardashian to generate 2.85 times as much, or $5554 per capita. Obviously, spending Kim Kardashian’s attention on such a cause would be overkill – we might be able to solve Somali hunger with a mere Jimmy Kimmel (roughly 4 centiKardashians.) Once we refine this methodology, I hope we can calculate exactly which celebrity needs to be deployed to address which global crisis – I will keep you posted as our research in this space progresses.

Thanks for paying an estimated 27 nanoKardashians of attention to this post.


I’m grateful for the reactions from the scholarly community this post has generated. Via twitter, Professor Barry Wellman was kind enough to point out that the Kardashian is already in use as a unit of time, representing the 72 days of Kardashian’s 2011 marriage. While I defer to Professor Wellman’s deep resevoirs of Kardashian knowledge, I question whether we really need a new unit of time to represent “seven weeks”. My use of the Kardashian gives definition to a concept that’s increasingly germane, though not linguistically compact.

Gilad Lotan, leading attention theorist for Social Flow, notes with some dismay that the Kardashian is not a constant. (I believe Kris Humphries had concerns about Kardashian’s constancy as well, though I defer to Professor Wellman on these matters.) While it is true that the value of the Kardashian fluctuates, I see this as a feature, not as a bug. At a moment of great newsworthiness – an election, a natural disaster – we would expect attention paid to Kim Kardashian to be more scarce as more attention is focused on breaking events. We might then think of the Kardashian as a unit of surplus attention, attention not demanded by the leading news story of the day which could theoretically be directed towards Somali famine or conflict in Sudan. A low Kn represents a moment where surplus attention is scarce, a high Kn a moment when it is plentiful. One war or another, it is likely that your cause or issue is measurable in miliKn, microKn or smaller units.

Andrés Monroy Hernández of MIT and Microsoft Research suggests the “nanoBieber” as a comparable unit. While I think that’s a reasonable alternative to the Kardashian, to me, it suggests attention from a youth audience, whereas I was seeking a general unit for surplus attention. It might be worth further
study of the magnitude and power of the Bieber versus the Kardashian, perhaps as a comparison between cultural power and youth cultural power.

I look forward to additional academic and non-academic feedback.

26 Responses to “An idea worth at least 40 nanoKardashians of your attention”

  1. Genevieve says:

    I wrote a paper for Contemporary Arab Affairs on social media and the Egyptian revolution last year and in my research did just this, only I used Justin Bieber as my unit of comparison and I focused exclusively on Twitter. It was fascinating if somewhat depressing. Sadly, my rather conservative professor was not amenable so the Bieber thing didn’t get included in my final paper.

    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17550912.2012.645669

  2. In an ideal, frictionless universe, we’d determine a Kardashian by measuring the percentage of all broadcast media, conversations and thoughts dedicated to Kim Kardashian.

    You are the awesomest.

  3. alister doyle says:

    Wow, many thanks Ethan for the most flattering write-up: your class is great and you’ve done our final paper for us!

  4. Arlene says:

    Maybe Yahoo’s “trending now” or something similar could be used to determine the pop icon for unit basis?

  5. There’s a good concept here, but making it any particular person ties it to an inherently unstable metric, as you note the person’s fame fluctuates. I think what would be better would be a generic “celeb”, defined in terms of the “power-law” curve for celebrity coverage. Roughly like we speak of “mean” and “standard deviation”. So instead of a nanoKardashian, it would be nanoCeleb, and today it’s merely Kim Kardiashian who is at 1 Celeb, where in a fews years it might be someone else.

  6. Thanks so much for this insightful analysis Ethan. I wholeheartedly support adoption of the Kardashian as a unit of attention, and also, as you suggest, as a unit of exposure as well. Are they equivalent? Are 4 centiKardashians of attention equal to 4 centiKardashians of exposure?

    I do believe the Kardashian to be an important new unit, but where I feel your analysis really hit a new level was in your conclusion noting that using such a high concentration as a full weapons grade Kardashian on a smaller problem is grossly inefficient. Just as you’ve suggested, by ranking attention levels as sites like SocialBro do for number of Twitter followers, precisely the right amount of celebrity can be applied to the case at hand with no wasted celebrity microKardashians. Bravo for market efficiency!

  7. Tony Olcott says:

    As I guess you know, the “coin of attention” problem has fascinated me for a long time (one of the worst papers I ever wrote attempted to use “attention paid,” as measured by visiting uniques, as a surrogate for ROI when non-commercial entities like the Dept of State invest in trying to get attention via social media). The “Kardashian”is a great idea (though, as you point out, it has the scale problem of the $1000 bill), but doesn’t this just give a name to the “coin of attention”? (as Seth above suggests). I would be interested to see whether you could build this out to include some notion of “attention budgeting”–how much attention OUGHT a person to pay to Kony vs Kardashian? The other tricky problem is what happens when lots of people “pay” their attention to something — Kardashian is rich in attention (celebrity=famous for being famous) but does that translate to something? Ditto Stop Kony — attention paid–now what? The problem between attention paid and action resulting is still a very tough nut (IMO). Anyway, thanks for a posting that is both thought- and smile-provoking.

  8. Joshua Benton says:

    Reminds me of the millihelen, the unit of female beauty required to launch one ship.

  9. I would suggest that the Kardashian is not a scalar measurement in itself, but needs to be expressed by multiplication by some factor such as the microLenat — perhaps, “the minimum unit of distraction.”

    This minimal insight is inspired by the fact that Mexico’s two “public” broadcast networks, Televisa and TV Azteca, failed to air the May 6th Presidential debates, showing soccer instead.

  10. Axel Arnbak says:

    Prior to reading this post, I didn’t have a clue who Kim Kardashian actually was. I can immediately think of two perspectives this raises on the Kardashian as a metric for (surplus) attention distribution and celebrity development aid allocation.

    1) Even though US celebrity culture is generally extrapolated one-on-one as a global standard for attention, we might need to correct attention metrics along regional lines (of say, the nation state) as a percentage of media consumption in any given research area. In my case, I would estimate Dutch – US media attention distribution ratios at roughly 65 to 35 on a scale of 100.

    2) The fact that Kim Kardashian is unknown to me might be exemplary of the attention-averse knowledge accumulation of the European academic, which is worrysome personally and another research subject altogether.

    Good luck with the further development of the Kardashian metic.

  11. David Brake says:

    I am with Axel here. There’s surely some irony that the choice of name for the unit meant to illustrate how inward looking American news is is itself unwittingly an example of this same parochialism. Makes me think what might be a more globally recognisable unit of celebrity. The Beckham might work but of course only outside the US!

  12. Allen K. says:

    72 days = “seven weeks”??

  13. Ken S says:

    I’d suggest that in day to day conversation this could/should be abbreviated as “Kard” because (1) I don’t think it’s worth taking the time to say the entire name, (2) it makes it sound/feel a bit more like “rad” (i.e. measure of radiation) and (3) one can refer to someone/something getting “Karded” much the same way one gets a yellow/red card in soccer/football.

  14. Stop This Already says:

    Sorry, but Kardashian as a unit of measurement already exists. It is used to quantify how much a person wants to hit something with a hammer, repeatedly.

  15. Heavy says:

    I think the Kardashian is an interesting concept but you’ll struggle to maintain consistency over time. For example, a summer 2012 Kardashian may end up representing 100x 2015 Kardashians. Likewise, in 20 years a new generation will have no idea how “big” a Kardashian was just like I have little concept of how big the Beatles were.

    I like the choice of Kardashian as the name, but you’ll have to set a moment in time as the standard and also calculate some equivalencies for other generation, i.e. 1 Kardashian = 10 Moon Landings = .1 Sept 11, 2001.

  16. Bruce says:

    I don’t have a current Guinness Book of World Records handy, but in an earlier edition they proposed the “milihelen” as a unit of beauty.

    As in Helen of Troy, The Face That Launched A Thousand Ships, a milihelen is sufficient beauty to launch one ship.

  17. Greg says:

    Essentially, you’re proposing a currency system with floating exchange rates and a market exchange mechanism created by a global media trading floor.

    Today, a Kardashian may be worth a couple of Biebers – but with some unexpected event, we could see dramatic shifts. Celebrity events can lead to remarkable fluctuations – for example, the very minor currency of the GaryGlitter was worth perhaps a milliKardashian until his arrest; subsequently it may have peaked at a Kardashian or so, before hyperinflation destroyed its value entirely.

    Therefore, I propose a basket of celebrities to provide a more stable measure. These should all be high profile and well established celebrities. You can’t have Greece-style situations spoiling it.

    This basket, composed of a weighted-average over a reasonable period of time would provide a reliable benchmark for specific events. This is perhaps a mechanism for achieving finkelstein’s proposed measure of 1 celeb. The basket could be rebased from time to time. Perhaps an upto date global CelebDaq could be used.

  18. Randy says:

    Brilliant and amusing. Thank you. Advancing Seth Finkelstein and others’ points. I would suggest adjusting the Kard baseline to a bucket of useless celebrities and internet memes instead of a single person. The unit can still be named Kardashian, but it should be calculated by an average number of searches for many different useless terms:
    Kardashian
    Snooky
    Jersey Shore
    funny cat videos
    fail videos
    etc.

    Alternatively, the baseline could be framed against common sex/porn terms that (I’m guessing) probably behave counter-cyclically versus major events.

    This bucket could change over time, as internet tastes change. But it would always average out to capture the idea of a unit of spare attention. The fact that it trended up and down over time would reflect the real fact that spare attention trends up and down over time as workload, weather, and other real-life factors shape our spare time.

  19. Dan M. says:

    I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. Of course the actual problem being discussed makes a person despair for the future of civilization. But there are worse ways to expire than laughing until you can’t breath.

  20. Ethan says:

    Greg, I think your insight is a key one. A basket of indicators would be an excellent way to rebalance the Kardashian on a periodic basis. I will see whether MIT, Google and Entertainment Tonight can collaborate on a process that’s transparent, academically rigorous and fair.

  21. Sar says:

    Lovely. I like your proposed idea of applying the analysis to leverage mutually beneficial marketing campaigns, where celebrity culture can be exploited to enact/encourage good behavior towards solving humanitarian (and other) large-scale crises by people/governments/donors. For me, that potential is more exciting than finding the purest linguistic or mathematical expression of the concept (of course, perhaps the purer expressions would give us better results, depending on what they end up being).

  22. aarti says:

    Brilliant article, could not stop laughing, made my day!

  23. David S says:

    Google Trends will provide you with a cleaner measurement compared to Google Insights. I believe it’s a simplified view on the same data, but with one nice difference: Trends indexes your first term to 1 over your specified period (say 30 days) and then shows the second term in relation to the first.

    That means you can get a more precise read on how many Kardashians a meme registers.

    Unfortunately, Google Trends doesn’t give you Google Insight’s 7 day resolution, but on the plus side, you don’t need to guess or do math against a chart, since the output is always in relation to one Kardashian.

    So, for example, the search “kim kardashian, spacex” over the last 30 days:

    (http://www.google.com/trends/?q=kim+kardashian,+spacex&ctab=0&geo=all&date=mtd&sort=0)

    Kim Kardashian = 1.00, SpaceX = 0.06 (or 6 centiKardashians)

    For Kim Kardashian vs. Angelina Jolie over the last 30 days :

    (http://www.google.com/trends/?q=kim+kardashian,+angelina+jolie&ctab=0&geo=all&date=mtd&sort=0)

    kim kardashian = 1 , angelina jolie = .34 (340 centiKardashians)

    For Kim Kardashian vs. American Idol (http://www.google.com/trends/?q=kim+kardashian,+american+idol&ctab=0&geo=all&date=mtd&sort=0)

    kim kardashian = 1, american idol = 1.65 (1.65 Kardashians)

    The Kardashian is brilliant unit — Google Trends allows more precise measurement of it.

  24. B says:

    Stop This Already Says:
    May 22nd, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Sorry, but Kardashian as a unit of measurement already exists. It is used to quantify how much a person wants to hit something with a hammer, repeatedly.

    ^ I concur

  25. Chris says:

    What an inspired proposition. I love the idea, and hope that one day the nanoKardashian will be the official unit of attention.

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