I was having coffee with someone who mentioned how cool it felt the year she knew a person who had won an Oscar. She described watching the show and pointing at the TV, remarking “hey, it’s Joe!” because she had worked with him in the past. She seemed surprised that she had reacted this way; that she had found that short experience so cool.
The coolness effect that comes with the realization that someone you know is now momentarily famous intrigued me. It is partially a sharing of the prize–in knowing the person you feel a small sense of ownership over their accolades, as if you, by knowing them, had contributed to their recognition/distinction. As if you feel rewarded for knowing someone who was actually rewarded. A closeness to the prize and the public recognition of hard work and talent via your social closeness to the person actually receiving said accolades. It’s not really about the cultural capital, the bragging rights that come from telling the story that you know someone who won a nationally recognized award. And in the instance I began with, it certainly wasn’t name-dropping. (Who the hell is Joe? It didn’t matter that I didn’t know–it only mattered that it was a person she knew.) It was about the coolness of intimately knowing someone who was briefly a public figure.
But it was more the connection itself, and the way the connection works, that interested me in this story. The unexpected delight of not quite a coincidence, but a connecting to thousands (millions?) of nameless others who are simultaneously watching this same person that you know accepting an award. Someone in your life is now connected to everyone else who is witnessing the same event. It is a cool feeling because it means that you are now connected to these strangers–you are all in each others’ lives.
This effect has been discussed before in various ways…how we track our own lives using the lives of celebrities and public figures. This is why media outlets announce the deaths of famous people. Because viewers care. We they to know, in a way. Because it reminds viewers of their own life trajectories. This particular awards show connection phenomenon is a variation on the same theme.
It’s about connecting to strangers through particular people, making these shared people icons/symbols in the process. It solidifies our imagined community; our commonality as mortal beings. And it’s also pretty cool.