On August 14, 2013, someone posted a six-second video to Vine—the now defunct app that is more or less the spiritual predecessor of TikTok—of a little girl munching loudly on snacks and wearing an iridescent-blue dress. Between bites, the girl looks directly at the camera. “Hey,” she says, with a flick of her eyebrows and a hand on her hip. “I want to be famous.” Although the child remained blessedly anonymous, her wish came true: the clip racked up more than fifty-four million views. Major news sites reposted it; Internet scamps remixed it. The video felt like a distillation—the unfiltered truth of our online attention ecosystem, straight from the mouths of babes. In 2013, Facebook had just bought Instagram, for a billion dollars. Kim Kardashian announced a pregnancy, a divorce, and an engagement in the span of eleven months. A new device, the selfie stick, began to enter the market. Of course, this was only a taste of what was to come. Looking back, the girl in the Vine seems close to a prophet.
I hear her voice all the time now, because it’s part of the theme song for “Who? Weekly,” a popular biweekly podcast hosted by the writers and longtime friends Bobby Finger and Lindsey Weber. Both hail from the world of entertainment blogging—Weber wrote for the pop-culture Web site Vulture, Finger for the women’s-interest site Jezebel—and, a few years ago, they launched a newsletter to recap the comings and goings of D-list celebrities. In 2016, they created a companion podcast that quickly snowballed into the main event; each episode begins with a mashup of “I want to be famous” and the hip-hop artist Eve’s “Who’s That Girl?,” followed by Finger reading the tagline: “Welcome to ‘Who? Weekly,’ the podcast where you’ll learn everything you need to know about the celebrities you don’t.” Finger and Weber talk for an hour or so, spelunking deep into the demimonde with convivial delight.
The podcast, which at five years old is practically a dowager of the medium, is not interested in breaking tabloid news. Finger and Weber are primarily anthropologists: their aim is to taxonomize a new celebrity species, one that emerged, in the twenty-first century, with the rise of social media and smartphones. This species, which Finger and Weber lovingly refer to as Whos, includes influencers, former teen idols, actors with small roles in the Marvel Universe, members of mid-level rock bands, YouTube stars, guest hosts of “Jeopardy!,” and lesser-known royals. The opposite of Whos, in Finger and Weber’s vernacular, are Thems. Thems are the high-wattage celebrities that anyone might recognize. Rihanna is a Them; Beyoncé is a Them; Julia Roberts, Dwayne Johnson, and Oprah are Thems. These are people for whom the fame machine still functions in the old-fashioned way—through high-powered publicists and manicured feeds, Oscar campaigns and major-arena tours.
The chasm between Whos and Thems was once wide and clear-cut, but the proliferation of Internet platforms has led to confusion. To help us, Finger and Weber serve as guides through the rocky terrain of maybe-fame, pointing out strange and intriguing landmarks along the way. The podcast is not really about people. (I forget the names of most figures the hosts talk about.) What makes it enlightening is its study of process, the various levers one can use to catapult into the public eye. There are surprise pregnancies and Notes-app apologies, brand partnerships and pop singles, dance crazes and viral tweets. Fame has a shorter half-life than ever—most “celebrities” are Whos, not Thems—and Finger and Weber navigate its workings so that you don’t have to, zooming in on the most telling examples of ambition and desperation.
Consider a recent episode, in which the duo took on the popular self-help author Rachel Hollis, who found herself in hot water after mentioning, in a live stream, that she has a housekeeper who comes twice a week and “cleans the toilets.” After a fan commented that this did not seem relatable, especially for a woman whose best-sellers trade on being a typical, burned-out mom, Hollis lashed out. “No, sis, literally everything I do in my life is to live a life that most people can’t relate to,” she said, in an Instagram post. (In the post’s caption, Hollis, who is white, cited Harriet Tubman as an example of another “unrelatable” icon.) The exchange was a case study in the limits of girl-boss culture, and, in order to get to the heart of the scandal, Finger and Weber close-read excerpts from Hollis’s audiobook and pored over her subsequent apology. “I haven’t read the book,” Finger said, with a grin in his voice. “But I can search in the book on Google Books and then find the accompanying passage on my audiobook from the library, so I just searched to see if she’s ever talked about being relatable, and guess what, she has.” This obsessive, rabbit-hole quality can make the show feel almost manic, but it also provides something of a public service. If fame can seem like a mystery, Finger and Weber operate like Columbo, casually collecting clues and weighing evidence until they crack the case.
Celebrity, as we know it, has changed dramatically during the past two decades. Fame always took work—one need only read a silent-film star’s memoir to know that ingénues have been burning their scalps with peroxide for a while. But, historically, stars went to great lengths to obscure their exertions. Most were Thems, idealized figures whose everyday doings—Brad Pitt goes to the grocery store! Jennifer Lopez rents a film at Blockbuster!—we cared about because they otherwise seemed unreal. Today, though, we constantly encounter people who are trying, hard and transparently, to become famous, not through distance but through aggressive proximity. Thems take private planes to avoid the public eye. For Whos, being out of the public eye is a form of death.
This behavior was once viewed as gauche, but perhaps that’s changing, too. Despite Weber and Finger’s many zingers, they never punch down, unless a Who is trying to make it in a clearly offensive way. Their attitude is one of gentle bemusement, and their classifications are value-neutral; they know that whether someone is a Who or a Them can fluctuate, even from week to week. (A recent subject of inquiry was the British singer Ellie Goulding, who had a few monstrous hit singles and now fashions herself as a fitness expert.) In this sense, the show invites questions not just about celebrities but about the shifting ways in which we invest in them. As our attention spans fray, so do our fandoms; is it worth getting attached to a Who, knowing that she may never be drafted into the big leagues? Or is it even more exciting to follow niche figures, falling into ever-tighter communities around, say, a yoga influencer’s daily affirmations? The allure of fame might be greater now that it can so easily be lost. At times, “Who? Weekly” feels like a covert sports show: it tracks who is winning the game, who is losing, and who is about to fumble the ball.
Two people who are winning are Finger and Weber. “Who? Weekly” is independent thanks to the support of more than five thousand subscribers on Patreon. Its most devoted listeners have a name for themselves—Wholigans—and a bevy of inside jokes. Every Friday, Finger and Weber air an episode called “Who’s There,” in which they respond to listeners’ calls through an old-school hotline. Regulars end their messages with clannish sign-offs, like “Scar-Jo Yummy Pop!,” a nod to the fact that Scarlett Johansson opened a popcorn store in Paris. (In the language of the show, this is a very “Who-y” thing for a Them to have done.) Sometimes actual celebrities—those whom the hosts classify as Thems—call in to profess their obsessions, or to offer clarifications on past portrayals. Finger and Weber have, through the kind of brazen effort that they so giddily dissect, become part of the landscape they observe. In fifty years, we’ll need someone to explain how, exactly, they achieved their small slice of renown. ♦
Original posted at www.newyorker.com