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What WWI fighter pilots can tell us about internet fame

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In a world where silly blog gimmicks* can make their way into the spotlight, and a wholly unremarkable girl from New Jersey can become a household name (at least in America), it often seems like fame has nil to do with merit.

But obviously, this isn’t always the case. The most famous basketball players are generally the highest scoring, and the best known scientists are generally the ones who’ve made the biggest contributions (or at least stolen some of the credit).

In a recent study, two engineers from the University of California, Los Angeles attempted to quantify exactly what bearing personal achievement has on fame, as measured by the number of Google hits associated with a given person. The group they chose to investigate might seem like an unusual one—German ace fighter pilots from WWI. But it works well for their purposes because it’s relatively obscure—meaning the researchers could personally vet all of the webpages that showed up in search—and because achievement in the world of fighter pilots is quantifiable in very simple terms: the number of enemy planes shot down, or aerial victories.

The chart above shows how a pilot’s aerial victories in the 1910’s has impacted his internet legacy. But to really see the relationship, it helps to plot the data on a logarithmic scale:

The impact of achievement is outsized: as the researchers point out, Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. the Red Baron, commands 27% of the search hits for all the aces in the study, though he’s only responsible for 1.6% of all the downed planes.

To be sure, achievement doesn’t translate as directly into fame in other arenas; we evaluate fighter pilots based solely on their performance in battle, which can be summarized neatly in one number. Few professions are like that. Still, for the non-Snookis of the world, it’s good to know that sometimes merit can have some…well, merit.

*Disclosure: I was blind date number 22, a.k.a. “Don”. But calling the project a gimmick isn’t an attempt at payback, I swear!

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