Study: fame after death for celebrities is rare except for artists

The researchers at EPFL found that media attention of singer Whitney Houston rose in the year after her death in 2012. 2012 Invision

Data scientists from the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) have found only a few people live on in our collective memory with the exception of those who create a cultural legacy.

This content was published on October 23, 2021 - 12:28

Why are some people remembered long after they die and others aren't? That was one of the key questions scientists from EPFL’s Data Science LabExternal link in the School of Computer and Communication Sciences along with Stanford University wanted to answer.

Their results, published in Proceedings of the US National Academy of SciencesExternal link, found that, only for around 12% of public figures, mentions in media spiked when they passed away and then settled at a level higher than when they were alive. 

People who were young or died an unnatural death were the most likely to receive media attention but mentions typically dropped off quite quickly. This is also the case for politicians or athletes who are no longer doing the things that got them into the news.

In contrast, artists receive a “long-term attention boost” as they create a “legacy of cultural heritage that survives them”, writes EPFL in a press releaseExternal link.

As an example, both Whitney Houston and Hugo Chavez saw a spike in media mentions on the day they died. “In the year that followed it was a different story with Houston’s ‘rise’ lasting a year while Chavez slipped into the ‘decline’ pattern,” said Robert West, who heads the Data Science Lab and was the study’s lead author.

The scientists tracked more than 2,000 public figures who died between 2009 and 2014, analysing the daily frequency that people were mentioned in both the English-language mainstream news and on Twitter during the year before and after death. They found four prototypical patterns of postmortem memory - a “blip,” “silence,” “rise,” and “decline”.

For about half the people mentioned, there’s not much discussion of them before they die and then a small “blip” after they pass. For another quarter of the people, the pattern is completely flat.

“What this research says to me is that fame is a rare thing and it's probably not worth pursuing because even if you try very hard, and the people in this data set are probably among those that tried the hardest, it doesn’t last,” said West.

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