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Episodes: Fame


Emily VanDerWerff

Jan 19 2019

6 min read


A couple of weeks ago, a friend was discussing with me an idea they had encountered from Hank Green, the novelist, vlogger, and all-around internet cool dude. The idea is that fame, as it were, has tiers. Five of them, to be specific.

The lowest tier -- tier one -- is something that is really only kind of local. So, like, a beloved teacher, or the local weatherman in a small city, or someone like that would be at tier one. Tier five is reserved for the sorts of people who become so instantly iconic that they transcend time and space to become globally known -- Shakespeare or Marilyn Monroe or Einstein.

The tier that's most interesting to me, however, is tier three, which is where I guess I would sort myself, but only in certain contexts. This is a tier for people who probably won't be recognized if they go out in public, but who nevertheless ARE well-known to a fairly large number of people outside their immediate social circle. This was really formerly confined to, like, writers and intellectuals, but the internet has made the number of people who live here increase exponentially. (Indeed, the way this tier was explained to me was, "People would probably talk about it a lot on Twitter if you suddenly died," and goodness, I hope you would.)

Tier three is a weird place to live. I am almost never recognized in public, except when I am, sometimes in contexts where I'd rather not be recognized. I was once at a support group for some mental health stuff I was going through, and afterward, somebody pulled me aside to say, "I love your Sopranos reviews," when we were ostensibly all anonymous at the group. It freaked me out so bad I rarely went back. (Most of the time, it's just, like, an aspiring writer working as a coffee shop barista notices my name on my credit card.)

Tier three is also sort of... contingent. Like in TV criticism spaces, I definitely live on this tier. But in other spaces -- say those for my scripted podcast, Arden -- I'm closer to a two or a one. I'm known, but not exactly well-known. And yet I can often leverage my tier three fame elsewhere to drive people to my other projects, like how a big reason Arden had some mild success in its first season was because I could use my social media following to promote the show incessantly. Similarly, when the X-Files book was published, the Barnes and Nobles around where I grew up put it on their "new and notable" tables, some apparently with a little note about how I was a local author done good. (I am told. I never saw this with my own eyes!)

But let me pivot here, because I'm not actually famous. Like I can walk around my apartment building without people recognizing me, and I doubt many people even know I live there. And if they do, most of them will probably say, "Who?" I recognize that I've accrued some of the trappings of fame, for good and ill, like I have to watch what I say on Twitter a little more closely, and I can usually wheedle my way into events I really want to attend. But at the same time, I'm not famous.

The friend I was talking with is probably more famous than me and also sorts themselves onto tier three, but there are so many contexts in which they, too, are not actually famous. So in some ways, what we're talking about mostly boils down to semantics, to the way that on the internet, you can be incredibly well known in some spaces and virtually anonymous in others. (Maybe the distinction between tier two and tier three is simply that if you find yourself in a discussion in some field you don't really pay attention to, people will go, "Hey, that name seems familiar..." and google you. Then again, being tier three probably means you don't blunder as willingly into discussions you know nothing about.)

What most convinces me that this whole "tier" theory is on to something is the way that it becomes substantially harder to manage my time the further up the pyramid I go. When I was at A.V. Club, for instance, I used to just say yes to everything -- podcasts and interviews and press opportunities and all of that -- and I could always fit it in, even though I was also working substantially more. Now, there are so many more opportunities that I have to be picky and choosy, or else I run the risk of not having a personal life at all. Similarly, I worry a lot that when I talk about, say, the book or my work or something similar, people think I'm self-obsessed. And while I am, it's also because those are substantial parts of my life, which can be hard to relate to for others.

But I've had friends who have gone from tier three to tier four (in that they are now people where if I said, "Oh, yeah, I know so and so," you would think I was name-dropping, bragging, or lying), and in essence, I think this theory might be sort of bunk holistically but is definitely on to something when it comes to social interactions. I wouldn't have called these people "good friends" back when they were on the same tier as me, but I could be reasonably certain we would find time to get together when I was in their city or vice versa. Now, I'm lucky if I can get five minutes if we bump into each other at a restaurant or party or something.

I am 100 percent aware that this particular installment of the newsletter could come off as griping about nothing, and I swear that I mostly shared Hank Green's theory because I think it's interesting to ponder. But reading about it also made me think about how I've had to subtly reorder my life in ways both good and bad, and how that reordering has occasionally made me wonder just what I'm prioritizing and why. I am so grateful for all of the opportunities I've had, but also sometimes miss certain other pleasures of anonymity so much.

Anyway, please don't unsubscribe. I want to be even more famous!!!!!!!


Episodes went away for a long time because I had too much going on. But now that it's 2019, I want to write more of it! It's published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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