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A New Unit of Measurement – the Kardashian

Journalist and academic Ethan Zuckerman proposes a new unit to measure attention - the Kardashian: an objective exemplar of attention disconnected from merit, talent or reason.

by Ethan Zuckerman On May 10, 2012

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À propos de l'auteur

Ethan Zuckerman est directeur du "Center for Civic Media" au MIT.


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In my class today, celebrated science journalist Alister Doyle shared an insight that crystalized for me a line of thinking I’ve been exploring about media attention, celebrity and charity. Doyle shared an idea he’s developing with Paul Salopek (and let me just pause and mention how intimidating it is to have characters like Doyle and Salopek as “students” in a class I’m teaching), in which journalists develop new units of measure to explain complex and elusive concepts. The unit he shared, which he credits to Salopek, is the Jolie. A Jolie is unit that denotes the amount of international aid a country receives when it becomes the cause celebre of a prominent celebrity. He offers a working definition as the difference between aid per person to Darfur, which benefits from Jolie’s focus and advocacy, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has not. In 2005, International Rescue Committee calculated that Darfur received $300 per capita in aid, while DRC received $11 per capita. Hence, a Jolie can be thought of as a 27x increase in aid receipt. When international aid organizations campaign for increased aid, they’re seeking ceniJolies in increased aid, and would often settle for increases of mere miliJolies.

Jolie is able to attract aid to Darfur through her passion, her hard work, but ultimately through the fact that she’s the subject of a great deal of attention. While her recent films may not have attracted as much attention as her work as Lara Croft, she commands approximately 35 centiKardashians of attention.

The Kardashian is a unit I proposed a few classes back as a measure of attention. Conceptually, the Kardashian is the amount of global attention Kim Kardashian commands across all media over the space of a day. In an ideal, frictionless universe, we’d determine a Kardashian by measuring the percentage of all broadcast media, conversations and thoughts dedicated to Kim Kardashian. In practical terms, we can approximate a Kardashian by using a tool like Google Insights for Search – compare a given search term to Kim Kardashian and you can discover how small a fraction of a Kardashian any given issue or cause merits.

(I choose the Kardashian as a unit both because I like the mitteleuropean feel of the term – like the Ohm or the Roentgen – and because Kardashian is an exemplar of attention disconnected from merit, talent or reason. The Kardashian mentions how much attention is paid, not how much attention is deserved, so naming the unit after someone who is famous for being famous seems appropriate. Should the unit be adopted, I would hope that future scholars will calculate Kardashians using whatever public figure is appropriate at the time for being inappropriately famous.)

Calculating someone’s attention in Kardashians using GIS is an imperfect art – Google normalizes data so that the highest point on a graph becomes 100, and other points are scaled in relation to that high point. It’s unclear whether that scaling is linear or logarithmic – if linear, Angelina Jolie is running at approximately .35 Kardashians this past quarter; if logarithmic, she could be at a much lower level. I’m running some experiments with Google Ads to see if I can gain insights on a ratio between Jolie and Kardashian in absolute numbers of searches.

I think of the Kardashian as a unit of perspective. When I want to consider how much attention a worthy cause – preventing famine in the Horn of Africa – is attracting, I search on GIS with “Kim Kardashian” as a comparative term. The graph below is depressing, if not surprising.

It’s possible to receive far less attention than Somali famine receives in this analysis – enter your name into Google Trends alongside Kardashian, and you will likely generate a zero… or, at least, I do. I command microKardashians, perhaps nanoKardashians of attention, as do most of us.

To get a sense for the magnitude of attention Invisible Children was able to seize with their Kony campaign, it’s worth noting that they generated multiple Kardashians of attention, though for a short period of time. For a couple of days, Joseph Kony – promoted via a video that received 100 million YouTube views faster than any other in history – received more attention than Kim Kardashian, peaking at the extraordinary level of 7.7 Kardashians!

Fortunately, all returned to normal shortly, and Joseph Kony – more popular than before Invisible Children’s campaign – now registers about five centiKardashians. It’s worth remembering that the value of a Kardashian fluctuates over time. Consider Kim Kardashian, Angelia Jolie and Joseph Kony over the span of an entire year. At the peak of his infamy, Kony registers only 0.4 peak Kardashians, a level she achieved by filing for divorce after a 72 day marriage.

It’s possible to consider the Kardashian as a unit of exposure, not just a unit of attention, as in “most normal humans have their lives irrevocably altered if they experience even 1 centiKardashian of exposure”, or “LD50 for rats and most mammals is calculated at 1 deciKardashian”. While it’s unclear that multi-Kardashian exposure has harmed Joseph Kony, a deciKardashian level exposure for Invisible Children founder Jason Russell has proved dangerous and damaging.

If we discount the difficulties in accurately estimating the current value of the Jolie or the Kardashian, we find ourselves with a helpful new calculus to understand attention and aid. If Somalia is receiving $72 per capita in aid, but needs much more to prevent famine, how much aid could we expect if Kim Kardashian testified about hunger in the Horn of Africa?

Assume that the relationship between attention and aid is linear. If Angelina Jolie registers at 0.35 Kardashians of attention, and can command a 27x increase in aid, we can expect Kim Kardashian to generate 2.85 times as much, or $5554 per capita. Obviously, spending Kim Kardashian’s attention on such a cause would be overkill – we might be able to solve Somali hunger with a mere Jimmy Kimmel (roughly 4 centiKardashians.) Once we refine this methodology, I hope we can calculate exactly which celebrity needs to be deployed to address which global crisis – I will keep you posted as our research in this space progresses.

Thanks for paying an estimated 27 nanoKardashians of attention to this post.


I’m grateful for the reactions from the scholarly community this post has generated. Via twitter, Professor Barry Wellman was kind enough to point out that the Kardashian is already in use as a unit of time, representing the 72 days of Kardashian’s 2011 marriage. While I defer to Professor Wellman’s deep resevoirs of Kardashian knowledge, I question whether we really need a new unit of time to represent “seven weeks”. My use of the Kardashian gives definition to a concept that’s increasingly germane, though not linguistically compact.

Gilad Lotan, leading attention theorist for Social Flow, notes with some dismay that the Kardashian is not a constant. (I believe Kris Humphries had concerns about Kardashian’s constancy as well, though I defer to Professor Wellman on these matters.) While it is true that the value of the Kardashian fluctuates, I see this as a feature, not as a bug. At a moment of great newsworthiness – an election, a natural disaster – we would expect attention paid to Kim Kardashian to be more scarce as more attention is focused on breaking events. We might then think of the Kardashian as a unit of surplus attention, attention not demanded by the leading news story of the day which could theoretically be directed towards Somali famine or conflict in Sudan. A low Kn represents a moment where surplus attention is scarce, a high Kn a moment when it is plentiful. One war or another, it is likely that your cause or issue is measurable in miliKn, microKn or smaller units.

Andrés Monroy Hernández of MIT and Microsoft Research suggests the “nanoBieber” as a comparable unit. While I think that’s a reasonable alternative to the Kardashian, to me, it suggests attention from a youth audience, whereas I was seeking a general unit for surplus attention. It might be worth further
study of the magnitude and power of the Bieber versus the Kardashian, perhaps as a comparison between cultural power and youth cultural power.

I look forward to additional academic and non-academic feedback.


This post originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman’s blog.

Image Credits: est_studio_jari CC (BY-NC-SA)

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