Digi-Kings and Queens: They Rule the Net
Forbes.com Picks the Top 25 Web Celebrities
By DAVID M. EWALT
Dec. 25, 2007
Things change fast on the Internet--and fame is no exception. Nearly half of the online celebrities identified in the inaugural edition of the Forbes.com Web Celeb 25 failed to place on the list in this second edition. Among the casualties: YouTube star LonelyGirl15, who held last year's top spot, but has been usurped by a controversial gossip blogger. Other new faces include gadget gurus, video hosts and a boy genius CEO.
Competition was steep for this year's list. We collected data on 200 Internet personalities, and ranked their popularity in six categories. The final list of 25 names shows how the Web has leveled the playing field--so that now, even the unlikeliest character can become a star.
To generate the ranking, we first defined "Web Celeb" as a person famous primarily for creating or appearing in Internet-based content, and for being highly recognizable to a Web-based audience. That definition excludes people who were significantly famous before they hit the Web--like author Arianna Huffington, billionaire Mark Cuban or journalist Michelle Malkin--and leaves us with a pool of people whose fame depends on the Internet.
Next, we created a candidate list of 200 Web celebrities--up from 110 in our first edition of the list. Each candidate was ranked in five areas: Web references as calculated by Google; traffic ranking of their home page as calculated by Alexa; Technorati rank of their primary Web site or blog; and TV/radio mentions and press clips compiled from Factiva. We gave candidates bonus points if they regularly published their own videoblog or podcast. All six categories were then totaled to produce a final score.
Our new No. 1 Web Celeb, blogger Perez Hilton, was born Mario Lavandeira, but adopted a pen name when he started in the gossip business. Hollywood stars fear the wrath of this "Queen of Mean," who has earned a rabid following thanks to his sense of humor and snarky tone.
"[PerezHilton.com] has a really loyal fan base," says Heather Dougherty, director of research for Internet measurement company Hitwise. Ninety-one percent of Hilton's traffic is returning visitors. Those readers also include key demographics: 73% of the readers are women, and 71% are under the age of 35. Hitwise tracks 17 sites that fall into the category of celebrity news, says Dougherty, and in that category, Perez has 46% of the market share. His biggest competitor, Egotastic, has only 8%.
"[Perez Hilton's] personality is part of his success," says Elizabeth Currid, a professor at the University of Southern California and author of the book The Warhol Economy. "Sure, there are many celeb-obsessed Web sites, but Perez Hilton's claim to fame is that he is also a part of that celebrity presence online. That's what makes his blog more interesting."
Critics complain that Hilton spreads unconfirmed gossip and even outright errors--this August, he erroneously reported the death of Fidel Castro. But his audience seems to eat it up. "Voyeurism makes a lot of money," says Currid. "Sure, it's invasive, but it's is what the market wants ... [Perez] has made himself very famous by doing these sorts of controversial things. In turn, he's gotten a lot of social acclaim. He gets noticed."
The formula must be working: Perez is becoming a TV star, with gigs including guest-hosting The View, appearing as a contestant on MTV's Celebrity Rap Superstar and hosting his own series of specials, What Perez Sez, which airs on VH1.
Perez surged to No. 1 as last year's top Web Celeb, a 16-year-old home-schooled American teenager named Bree, plummeted off the list entirely. Unusually self-possessed and literate, Bree became famous after she recorded her private thoughts into a digital video camera and posted them on the Web under the name Lonelygirl15. The diaries attracted millions of fans, and quickly became one of YouTube's most-watched series.
In August 2006, when the videos were exposed as scripted fakes, and Bree was outed as 19-year-old New Zealand-born actress Jessica Rose, the news only served to increase her fame. Rose put a pretty face on a breaking phenomenon: that Internet-based entertainment provides an intensely powerful incubator for new stars.
But a lot can change in a year. Once viewers realized the program was fiction, its popularity fell. Rose turned to more mainstream work, including a Lindsay Lohan movie, I Know Who Killed Me, and a role on the ABC sitcom Greeks. But she hasn't remained in the public consciousness, and failed to rank high enough to make the new edition of the Web Celeb 25. (For more on the LonelyGirl15 phenomenon, see "Not Lonely Any More.")
The past and present No. 1 Web Celebs share one thing in common: They both provide proof of how just about anyone can make it big in the digital age. "Technology has made these things easy for someone like Perez Hilton to do," says Currid. "It's an inexpensive, easy start-up. ... It's a really quick way to access people."
That's the face of fame in the Internet age: A kid with a video camera has access to as large an audience as the biggest Hollywood star. A mom with a blog can attract more readers than a best-selling author. And an opinionated entrepreneur can become a guru to millions.