FROM THE WALLS OF RAY’S PIZZA to the offices of various investment banking titans, carefully arranged photographs of the owner with a celebrity convey one singular truth: I, the owner, was once within a few feet of someone who has been projected onto millions of screens in homes and in movie theaters.
The fame wall isn’t new, if course, nor is what it represents. But now it’s more ubiquitous because it’s finally gone digital.
It’s not enough to adorn the walls of your home or office; there are entire walls on Facebook to bedeck.
And among venture capital and social media types, particularly, the practice of taking photos of oneself with famous faces and tweeting or posting the snaps has become epidemic—even when the types in question are already wealthy and powerful. Money does not necessarily trump the allure of celebrity, which is worth projecting in itself. I may be an alpha monkey in my own right, the photos say, but you should know that I have been in close proximity to more publicly visible alpha monkeys.
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, author of the book Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity, has made a study of this sort of behavior. Using the entire Getty photo database, she and her colleagues at U.S.C. have devised not just a taxonomy, but a phenomenology of star photos. “Without sounding too wonky,” she explained, “they’re always expending different forms of capital. People who possess extreme versions of a particular thing—wealth or fame—end up hanging out with one another, hoping some of the star dust rubs off.”
According to her research, as The Observer suspected, there is the A-list, which she said is “meaningfully connected” (though perhaps the exact opposite of that phrase would be more appropriate)—and the rest of humanity. “If you’re a C-lister, you might as well be a Z-lister … you might as well not be on the list,” she declared, sounding very much like an A-lister herself.
(When it was pointed out that this was reminiscent of the famed restaurateur Graydon Carter’s theory about the various “rooms” of power, wherein the beta monkeys become alpha monkeys by passing through increasingly exclusive rooms to the elite “inner room,” Ms. Currid-Halkett giddily replied that Mr. Carter had in fact emailed her to that very effect. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, Graydon Carter emailed me,’” she enthused, a tad susceptible to the A-list glow herself.)
Patrick McMullan, who has been photographing the celebrity species in its natural habitat for decades, has witnessed firsthand the pull of being photographed with celebrities. “People always want to be with Madonna,” he said. “Business people really want to be with Buffett.”
But if there is no chance for real mobility into the realm of celebrity oneself, no chance to be Ms. Ciccone or Mr. Buffett, why the constant drive to stand next them?
The fresh-faced entrepreneurs “grew up geeky guys and now they are gazillionaires, and they can settle past scores,” Ms. Currid-Halkett explained. “It imbues a particular product with coolness or glamour. You have an entrepreneur spending time with stars and that adds cachet to the brand. ‘My gosh, there must be something cool about that venture capitalist that all these Hollywood people would be photographed with him.’”
So, Mark Pincus, Farmville creator and Facebook billionaire: that tweet pic of you getting Jason Alexander to jokingly pay for dinner with your Black Card? Canny business decision! Jim Breyer, venture capital genius and Silicon Valley heartthrob: those pictures of you on your Facebook wall with Beyoncé, Shakira, Jessica Simpson and Will Smith? Not gauche! Brand building. And Tim Draper, founder of go-go venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson: that picture that Steve Jurvetson took of you picking up Natalie Portman was not irrational or vaguely creepy. Just exuberant! Not weird at all.
However, the adoration flow may be starting to flow in the opposite direction, as well, though mostly to the one-man Z-list named Mark. “Facebook is the essence of cool,” said Ms. Currid-Halkett. “Maybe not if you’re a hipster on the Lower East Side, but there’s no question that as far as tech companies go, it’s about as forward thinking and sexy as you can get. Celebrities want to show up at Facebook’s headquarters more than Mark Zuckerberg needs to go to the Vanity Fair Oscar party.”
Though the übergeek did post a picture of himself with country singer Keith Urban when the country singer dropped by Facebook’s Palo Alto headquarters. (It’s possible he just has very specific taste in celebrity photo-mates.)
Jason Binn, both a participant in and observer of the celebrity-proximity industry, also noticed this shift. “Hollywood is a big force to building brand, getting traction,” he said. “But lately it’s also about people who are very tech-savvy and have created strong revenue streams. These people are as much celebrities today. I go to the Oscars and the Golden Globes, and I see these guys there. And I see celebrities flocking to them, the Eric Schmidts, the Sean Parkers.”
As The Observer put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard, as it were—a tweet came across the wires, concerning Mr. Binn himself. According to the Twitter feed of Michael’s, midtown mess hall to the media elites, Mr. Binn was “in the house,” lunching with Today show host Hoda Kotb. His plate barely bussed, he retweeted the Michael’s tweet and appended a twit pic of himself and Ms. Kotb theatrically thumbing through a copy of Mr. Binn’s magazine, Gotham—thereby unwittingly demonstrating the bizarre compulsion we were just discussing. Mrs. Kotb then retweeted Mr. Binn’s tweet, amplifying the effect.
But in the course of our research we stumbled upon another, even more rarified frontier whereupon new money could align itself with Hollywood power: the photoless photo.
One post by handsome-elf Tumblr founder David Karp read, “Just had dinner with Jessica Alba … I didn’t take a photo because I’m a CLASSY GUY.” The unverifiable celebrity moment, wherein the beneficiary of tinseltown sheen demurs from obtaining photographic evidence and declares as much in perfectly inflected above-it-all-ese. Very clever, Mr. Karp. We see what you did there.
Even though we don’t.