Instagram, the mobile photo-sharing application, was purchased for $1 billion by Facebook in 2012; it had, at the time, thirteen employees. While a $1 billion valuation is difficult to grasp—that’s more than the New York Times is worth—the purchase is now widely viewed by tech and business analysts as a coup. Facebook’s popularity with young, lucrative American consumers has waned as it has grown into an aggregated behemoth of online content, its News Feeds clogged with video game scores, e-commerce purchases, and advertising. Instagram, despite having far fewer users, is thriving.
By conventional lights, Tim O’Reilly is not a celebrity. He has never acted onstage or on-screen, made a music video, or fallen down drunk on his own reality TV show. If he went into rehab or fathered a child out of wedlock, no paparazzi would hover outside his door. Nor is O’Reilly a public intellectual in the usual way. He holds no professorships, writes nothing for the New York Review of Books
, and has rarely, if ever, appeared on a Sunday morning TV talk show. And yet O’Reilly is both famous and exceptionally influential. According to Wired
magazine, he is “the guru of the participation age.” Inc.
magazine has called him “Silicon Valley’s leading intellectual.”
In the 1920s, gossip columnist Walter Winchell catered to a formidable public appetite for celebrity news, reaching about 50 million Americans via his weekly radio show and daily newspaper column. Winchell relished the power his column gave him: “Democracy is where everybody can kick everybody else’s ass…. But you can’t kick Winchell’s.” Precisely because public opinion had become such a formidable political force, the autocratic few who shaped it were cushioned from its blows. Today Winchell would be posting online and getting kicked by commenters within seconds. In the Internet era, no single tastemaker has the monopoly Winchell once enjoyed, and the lines between producers and consumers of public opinion have blurred.