Before Facebook and LinkedIn, before the World Wide Web, before the Internet, there were publications that filled the need for people to advertise themselves as being successful or distinguished. They were collectively known as Who’s Who directories, and they probably hit their peak just when the information age made it possible for such publications to identify millions of potential new subscribers, but just before it was clear that the same access to better information was going to put to an end to such 20th century relics like the encyclopedia business. In short, the best money was made when a lot of people still thought that a cold call from a Who’s Who boiler room was the moment They Had Arrived.
In this current era when popularity is measured by the number of Twitter followers or game app downloads featuring your likeness, it probably seems inconceivable to anybody born after 1995 that prestige could be found in being listed in a printed directory nobody read and on a cheap plaque engraved with your name that nobody saw. And the truth is there wasn’t. But the Who’s Who services scratched an itch that is uniquely American–the need for some recognition–any recognition–of the hard fought and bare knuckled struggle that is behind every journey undertaken in the pursuit of a new business idea, academic career, or artistic endeavor.
In the United Kingdom this itch is satisfied with a peerage–a possibility now more in reach of the merely ambitious (and not nobly born) than in any single time since the fall of the Roman Empire. In fact the UK peerage class is the original source of Who’s Who–a publication printed by A & C Black since 1849 to catalog the comings and goings of dukes, barons, counts, and other ennobled people of the former British Empire and now fragmented British Commonwealth.
In the United States of course there is no nobility, old line Protestant descendents of the original British and Dutch settlers of New York and New England notwithstanding. Thus with no noble titles there was a need for an American version of the venerable A & C Black Who’s Who that would set people straight as to who mattered. And sure enough one got started. A publisher of travel guides, directories, and maps named Albert Nelson Marquis decided that the Who’s Who concept was an untapped opportunity to sell more books in the US. So he began printing compilations of brief bios on prominent people in 1899. Marquis’ Who’s Who is still published and is still considered to be the preeminent U.S. version.
Over the years since 1899 there has been dozens, if not hundreds of Who’s Who companies who figured out that there was a buck to be made selling biographic entries to those folks who weren’t important or famous enough to be listed in Marquis’ Who’s Who, but felt that they were still important. And there is money in it still, if the evidence of several spam emails I get every day purporting that I Have Arrived and now can be published in a Who’s Who directory too.
But these spam emails are now unintentionally comical. After all there is an ever growing online audience doesn’t even know what a Who’s Who directory is. Heck, it is an anachronism to even those that do remember. That is because a Facebook page or Twitter account will do as well, and be a darn sight more effective and less expensive, than a vanity listing in a publication nobody will read (or perhaps will never really be published) or on a plaque that nobody sees.
Maybe those Who’s Who spammers should go back to conspiratorial emails from foreign barristers who claim they have access to millions in funds…if they could only just get your banking information to transfer it.