When we talk about fame, we usually think of celebrity fame.
It’s the tabloid kind of fame, defined by gossip and stardom. The kind of fame where fans recognize you on the street and average people know your name. But chasing it is ultimately a Faustian Bargain — a short-term win, but a long-term loss — because the fruits of celebrity aren’t as tasty as they look from far away.
I didn’t recognize the challenges of fame until I interviewed Jennifer Morrison, a Hollywood actress famous for her roles as Dr. Allison Cameron in House and Emma Swan in Once Upon a Time. During our conversation, she told me a story about the time when an over-excited fan jumped on her on the streets in New York City. The fan came on to her so strong that she thought she was getting mugged. Her experience wasn’t a one-off. Celebrities frequently combat violations of personal space, which is why so many of them hire full-time bodyguards. Going further, Tim Ferriss has received so many death threats and suspicious letters that he got a concealed carry permit.
On the business side, traditional celebrities like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston don’t own their distribution. They made their name in a mass media age when people weren’t media companies like they are today. Unable to reach their audiences directly, they depended on the media for reach and distribution. Before the Internet, mass media was the only way to reach their audience, which is why so many celebrities teamed up with talent agencies and public relations professionals with connections at the national newspapers and television networks.
The Internet offers an alternative: Niche Fame.
People who are Niche Famous are well-known in a small circle of influence but virtually unknown outside of it. Their relationships with fans are built upon shared interests. Instead of being widely-known, they are well-respected. As a result, they can meet the people they want to meet and build the businesses they want to build without the intrusiveness of celebrity. Though they have global influence on the internet, they can lead normal lives because average people don’t know who they are.
And yet, because the Internet is so good at matching like-minded people, they are uniquely able to meet people who share their interests. Here’s an example from my own life. In my Annual Review, I wrote about my desire to work with a PhD philosophy tutor in Austin. The day after publishing, I received an email from a reader who knew the perfect person and shared my passion for tennis.
Likewise, Patrick O’Shaughnessy who runs a podcast called Invest Like the Best, says that having an audience is like having a personal artificial intelligence that introduces you to people and ideas based on your interests.
Beyond the social benefits, Niche Fame has never been so lucrative. People with Niche Fame are raising investment funds to leverage their networks, building direct relationships with their audiences, and the online education boom helps them monetize their knowledge. You become Niche Famous by being an expert in obscure topics like marketing for software-as-a-service companies like Patrick McKenzie, writing about the open-source community like Nadia Eghbal, or launching venture-funded Direct-to-Consumer startups like Nik Sharma. All of them have Personal Monopolies in a narrow area of influence, outside the mass media eye.
The Niche Fame trend is still in its infancy. As the Internet matures, Niche famous people will increasingly hide their identities too. They’ll act in accordance with Naval Ravikant’s idea that: “You want to be rich and anonymous, not poor and famous.”
Look closely and you can already see it happening. People like Jesse Livermore and The Stoic Emperor can speak truthfully and avoid in-person ridicule because people don’t know who they are. But from talking to both of them directly, I know that they receive most of the benefits of writing under your real name (such as meeting like-minded people), without the reputational risks of doing so.
Celebrity isn’t the treasure we think it is. For most of the benefits without the subsequent costs, pursue Niche Fame instead.