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When Kim Kardashian was 4 years old, a University of California economist named Moshe Adler wrote a six-page paper explaining the means by which she would eventually attain worldwide renown. Published in the The American Economic Review, “Stardom and Talent” made the unsettling claim that fame could just be a matter of luck. Even an insignificant incident (like the unauthorized release of a sex tape) could escalate into superstardom by a sort of positive feedback loop: The more famous an entertainer becomes, the more readily you can talk about her with your friends; the more she gets talked about, the more her fame expands.

The underlying phenomenon is not unique to Kardashian or entertainers or even humans. Other researchers have shown that random noise can get amplified in businesses and ecosystems, explaining the otherwise inexplicable dominance of a company or species. Sociologists call it “preferential attachment,” and it seems to be nearly universal in hierarchies. Superstars simply make their milieu more efficient, facilitating gossip, and while some (such as Kate Winslet) are bolstered by talent, quality is no requisite.

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The same is true of cities. San Francisco and Boston have natural harbors, and New York is built on the Hudson, but you don’t need good geology to attain geographic celebrity. Indianapolis, for instance, is the metropolitan equivalent of Kim Kardashian. Just as Kardashian can’t act in the traditional sense, the nation’s 13th most populous city is devoid of conventional geographic merits, such as a major waterway or safe harbor. The city came into prominence for reasons nobody could have predicted, any more than Moshe Adler could have guessed that he was describing the future life of Kim Kardashian. Famous for being famous, Indianapolis provides an opportunity to appreciate why cities in general are so special. 

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Indianapolis was founded by decree. In the summer of 1820, 4-year-old Indiana sent a delegation of 10 men to the middle of the state, some 8 million acres of wilderness recently “purchased” from the Native Americans for several thousand dollars. The delegation was given the task of locating a replacement for the temporary capital of Corydon—a small town located at the southern border of Indiana—following the logic that the state’s legislative center should literally be in the center, equally accessible to all Hoosiers. Beyond that, the State Assembly was vague (understandably enough, given that most Indianians had never ventured into Indian territory, and less than 1 percent of Hoosiers had ever lived in any town or city). Locate the capital wherever you “deem most proper,” they instructed, “having specially in view the health, utility, and beauty.”

After visiting the few farmsteads in the region and imbibing plenty of local corn whiskey, the commissioners chose a swathe of woodland called the Fall Creek settlement, where a dozen families were living in log cabins. They were mostly squatters, getting by as subsistence farmers, but the commissioners put great stock in the fact that their settlement was the spot where the Fall Creek met the White River. There was big talk of mills and shipping, yet so little understanding of either that nobody bothered to check the depth of the water.

Indianapolis came into prominence for reasons nobody could have predicted, any more than sociologists could have predicted the fame of Kim Kardashian.

The noble new capital needed a grand new name. Down in Corydon, the legislators considered pseudo-Indian monikers like Suwarrow and Tuwarrow, all of which were ridiculed and dropped. Finally Judge Jeremiah Sullivan, a man who evidently remembered his grammar school Greek, had an epiphany: Why not call it Indianapolis? (The suffix polis means “city.”) Already exhausted by the Suwarrow/Tuwarrow debate, the legislature accepted it, inducing a new round of mockery. (“Such a name, kind readers, you would never find by searching from Dan to Beersheba,” sniped the Indiana Sentinel.)

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Of course the former Fall Creek settlement also called for a grand new plan. To lay out the town, the legislature appointed Alexander Ralston, who’d previously assisted Pierre L’Enfant to design Washington D.C. As L’Enfant had planned D.C. to resemble Versailles, Ralston planned Indianapolis to resemble Washington. Four avenues radiated from a central circle, intersecting a grid of 18 streets at a 90-degree diagonal. One of these, named in honor of George Washington, was designated to convey the new National Road from Cumberland, Md., through the middle of town.

Within this geometric grid, superimposed on one square mile of the Fall Creek settlement woodlands, full blocks were designated for the state house and courts. The remainder were broken into a dozen lots each, and offered to the public in the fall of 1821. Exactly one was bought on the first day. To sell off the rest took two decades.

By then a number of things were obvious about the Indiana state capital, and none were positive. First, no governor was willing to live in the middle of town, where an ostentatious mansion had been built according to Ralston’s grandiose urban plan. Second, the unpaved roads were snowed in or flooded much of the year. Third, the Fall Creek was good for little more than mosquitoes and malaria. Fourth, the White River was too shallow for big boats and shipping, and an attempt to augment it with a Central Canal—dredged like the Erie—sent the state into bankruptcy. The 90-mile trail from Madison to Indianapolis—still Indiana’s most populous town—took three days by stagecoach in the best of conditions.

Health, utility, and beauty? In the words of one Indianapolis local, the centrally located state capital was “an almost inaccessible village.”

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In 1968, Andy Warhol famously predicted that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Last year some researchers at McGill University and Stony Brook University decided to find out if he was right. To rigorously test whether fame is fleeting, they compiled a database of approximately 100,000 names appearing in 2,200 English-language newspapers between 2004 and 2009 and looked for patterns of recurrence over that five-year period. They also looked at patterns in The New York Times between 1988 and 2008. What they found in both cases is that the famous stay famous. For instance, 96 percent of names with 100 or more mentions were already garnering newspaper attention three years before reaching 100 mentions per year. According to co-author Eran Shor, “even the Kim Kardashians of this world stay famous for a long time. It doesn’t come and go.” In that respect, fame (even in the realm of tabloid celebrity) is equivalent to other systems in which status is extremely pronounced, from the military to the classical musical canon. Just as Moshe Adler argued in the ’80s, there’s a positive feedback loop that keeps on looping, ensuring a few big winners and many, many losers.

However, the data that Shor and colleagues collected showed that the cycle is not inevitable. In the lowest tiers of the “public attention hierarchy,” they found that fame behaved much as Warhol imagined. As they wrote in the American Sociological Review, fame only stabilizes “once a person’s name is decoupled from the initial event that lent it momentary attention.” For Kim Kardashian, the initial event was her sex tape and the decoupling happened with the reality television series Keeping Up with the Kardashians. For Indianapolis, the initial event was the city’s selection as state capital, but what made it immortal was the arrival of the railroads.

Health, utility, and beauty? In the words of one Indianapolis local, the centrally located state capital was “an almost inaccessible village.”

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Even as late as 1846, there was no reason to believe that Indianapolis would amount to much more than Corydon. Citizens of the capital considered railroads to be undemocratic compared to waterways, and shut them out in favor of the impossibly costly Central Canal. When the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad finally rolled in on Oct. 1, 1847—instantaneously reducing the three-day coach ride to a little over four hours—Indianapolis was 15 years behind comparable American cities, most of which were already serviced by multiple tracks.

By the following year, several other lines were advancing toward the capital. Because Indianapolis was so far behind the times, town planners could avoid one of the greatest transportation problems faced by early adapters, which is that in every city each train company typically built its own independent station. The stations for different train lines might be miles apart, seriously impeding passenger and freight connections. In late 1849, Indianapolis negotiated a revolutionary pact between railroad companies and began construction on the nation’s first communal station. Completed in 1853, the Union Depot initially connected five local lines. Over the next couple decades, with the support of an urban “belt line” connecting tracks, Indianapolis became the “Railroad City”—the hub of eight major rail lines and 40 smaller ones—and the junction point between industrial centers including Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh.

Two million people passed through Indianapolis in 1870. The city’s population remained below 50,000. There just wasn’t much to keep people there. That changed with the discovery of natural gas in east-central Indiana in 1886, a vast deposit tapped all the way to Indianapolis by the 1890s. “Beyond all doubt the gas supply is inexhaustible,” touted the Indianapolis Board of Trade, offering unlimited free fuel to manufacturers. The timing was perfect to foster some of the earliest car builders such as Waverly and Marmon. There were dozens of companies by 1909, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built to test and race the latest models. The speedway in turn attracted more manufacturers, including the Duesenberg brothers, who built the ultimate luxury cars of the ’20s. Retail price: $20,000.

Of course it didn’t last. (Nor did the natural gas.) But even as Henry Ford’s assembly lines entrenched Detroit as the national automotive capital, Indianapolis indirectly benefited. Early involvement in the auto industry meant that Indianapolis was quick to supplement the rails with pavement. In 1927, the old National Road became U.S. 40, one of the original federal highways. Other highways followed, resulting in seven interstate spokes, the most of any city in the United States.

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In the midst of all this construction, a local businessman named Robert Norwood noted the inadvertent advantage to being geographically unremarkable. “No major obstacles hinder [this city’s] well-ordered four-way directional growth,” he wrote. As America developed, the characteristics of Indianapolis that seemed like deficiencies unexpectedly became the qualities that made it so significant. It became famous in spite of itself.

One of the most famous sociology experiments of the 20th century started west along the highways from Indianapolis. In 1967, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram distributed letters to 160 people in Omaha, Neb. The letters were all addressed to the same person, a stockbroker from Boston. People were instructed to help route the letter to him by forwarding it to an acquaintance they thought was one step closer to being an acquaintance of his. On average, the letters got to him in six steps. Though the experiment was notoriously sloppy—neglecting to account for all the letters that got lost—the notion that everyone in the world is connected by a mere six degrees of separation has been folk wisdom ever since.

Later experiments have shown that Milgram’s small-worlds experiment was surprisingly accurate. For instance, in 2008 Microsoft traced 30 billion instant messages between 180 million people worldwide, finding that they were separated by an average of 6.6 degrees. Around the same time, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett at the University of Southern California and Gilad Ravid at Ben-Gurion University studied the connections between 874 movie actors—from Winslet to Kardashian—by seeing who appeared with whom in 600,000 photos from the Getty Images archive. The actors’ world was even smaller than Milgram’s. Any two were separated on average by a mere 3.26 degrees.

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Partly this must be because they’re all in the same industry. (If Milgram had chosen all stockbrokers, his letters would probably have gotten to Boston more efficiently.) But the interconnectedness was also fostered by a few faces appearing at party after party. In one year, Kardashian appeared at 24 events in Los Angeles alone. In the network of stardom, she was a meeting point (as were her fellow celebutantes Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan). Once again a feedback loop was at work: Connections make the celebrity more prominent and prominence makes the celebrity more connected. Yet there’s also the residual effect for everyone else. Kardashian, Hilton, and Lohan make the whole network more tightly bound.

Clearly Katie Couric is mistaken. Kim Kardashian is brilliant at giving most everyone something to talk about.

And it isn’t only the party set that benefits. Online social networks make celebrities accessible to everyone, and help to connect all those fans. Kim Kardashian is closing in on 19 million Twitter followers, which makes her the 18th most widely-followed name globally, more popular than Bill Gates or the Dalai Lama, MTV or the NBA. A single recent tweet trashing Katie Couric for saying that Kardashian’s fan base is “mostly teenage girls” has generated articles in USA Today, The Daily Mail, The New York Post, and The Los Angeles Times. Couric publicly apologized.

Clearly Couric is mistaken. Kardashian is brilliant at giving most everyone something to talk about. The whole point of Kardashian’s reality TV shows, and the explanation for their success, is that they provide social infrastructure. “I mean, acting and singing aren’t the only ways to be talented,” she told The Guardian in an interview last year, explaining why she deserves universal acclaim for being followed around by cameras. “To be able to open up your life like that and to be so… if everyone could do it, everyone would.” It’s a rare skill, at which she’s surpassed even her mentor Paris Hilton. Kardashian has become a hub of gossip, and that gossip connects people by the million.

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As the Kim Kardashian of cities, Indianapolis is one of the nation’s great connectors. To quote the Indiana state motto, Indianapolis is the Crossroads of America. Those crossroads—and the “spaghetti bowl” of inner-city streets that connect them—help to make a vast country small enough to be cohesive.

Ironically, the spaghetti bowl was nearly responsible for Indianapolis’s demise in the 1960s and ’70s. The highways facilitated the capital’s expansion to 396 square miles, and encouraged the movement of the local population (or at least those who could afford it) away from the spaghettified city center. This centrifugal force was overcome by enlisting the city’s motoring past—and the enduring popularity of the Indianapolis 500—to establish a new identity: Sportsville, USA. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is headquartered in Indianapolis, the Colts have been playing NFL football for Indianapolis since 1984, and the Pacers grabbed two consecutive Central Division titles when Hoosier native Larry Bird returned to Indiana to coach them in the late ’90s. Bird is now the team’s president. Sporting events and their fans help support restaurants, bars, and retail stores. Alexander Ralston’s gaudy governor’s mansion is gone—but his mile-square downtown is more vibrant than ever.

Like Kim Kardashian’s fame, the city’s history couldn’t possibly have been scripted. The accumulation of random advantages is the essence of its versatility and ability to endure unpredictable change. This cumulative advantage is self-reinforcing.

In a recent paper published in Science, Santa Fe Institute physicist Luis Bettencourt called cities “social reactors” and compared them to stars—the kind in the sky, not in the tabloids—claiming that cities accelerate social interactions, and that their output increases in proportion to those interactions. In other words, the more populous the city, the higher the average income and the more patents produced per capita. That’s because infrastructure gets more efficient as social networks grow in scale and density. Ideas and resources mix more effectively. People can collaborate more resourcefully with the same amount of effort.

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These networks also extend beyond the city limits. While this point may be self-evident, it also has gone underappreciated by Bettencourt and most everyone else. A social reactor like New York City burns so bright that you’re liable only to see it in terms of internal achievements. Because the geography of Indianapolis is unexceptional, and the achievements almost accidental, the social reactor at the juncture of the Fall Creek and White River is both less intense and more diffuse than superstar Manhattan, revealing patterns extending beyond city and state limits that can be approximated by watching the to-and-fro of traffic.

The value of great cities is not only to their inhabitants but to everybody, especially when, like the capital of Indiana, they network so extensively. They make the country, the whole world, more efficient. Cities connect all of us, no sex tape required.

Writer and artist Jonathon Keats is most recently the author of Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age (Oxford University Press). He is currently writing a book about Buckminster Fuller.

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Photo: “Soldiers farewell parade” (1918) Library of Congress

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