How I Became a Micro-Celebrity

Daniel Tunkelang
5 min readJun 15, 2023

In the 1979 movie “The Jerk”, there is a hilarious scene where Navin (played by Steve Martin) becomes excited at the discovery that his name is in print — in the local phone book. He exclaims: “I’m somebody now. Millions of people look at this book everyday. This is the kind of spontaneous publicity, your name in print, that makes people. I’m in print. Things are going to start happening to me now!”

Indeed, they do. A crazed gunman chooses Navin’s name at random from the phone book and decides to kill him. Don’t worry, the movie has a happy ending. And Navin goes on to invent the “Opti-Grab”, which was the original working name we used for Endeca. It’s all good.

Being Somebody

But what I am interested in is what it means to “be somebody” in the digital age. I doubt that I know anyone who reads printed phone books anymore. But we are more obsessed with fame and celebrity than ever.

Personally, I have enjoyed the experience of being recognized as a sort of “micro-celebrity”. My name is strongly associated with faceted search and query understanding, concepts which have achieved enough traction in the world of search engines to route attention to me. Slightly more broadly, I am fairly well known by my work and name to search scientists, engineers, and product managers — a small but highly impactful community.

I feel privileged that people recognize my contributions, and even more gratified that people are creating value by applying what they learn from me in their own work. I am also grateful that my micro-celebrity has enabled me to live the dream professionally as an independent consultant.

Luck

I owe much of my professional success to luck. I was raised by loving parents whose backgrounds in computing and languages placed me on a path to focus on the challenges of communicating with machines through text. I found teachers at every stage of my schooling who cultivated my interests in math, computer science, languages, philosophy, and literature.

Some moments in my trajectory feel miraculous in retrospect. I secured a key internship despite poor grades, because I fortuitously had a letter of recommendation from a professor whom my interviewer knew personally. Endeca’s founders connected with me in 1999 because they thought that my PhD on graph drawing, which they discovered through my CMU home page, made me the sort of expert on graph theory that they were looking for. Moreover, one of them was friends with a guy whom I’d randomly met at a conference 10 years earlier. I have been extraordinarily lucky.

Seizing Opportunities

Even so, I give myself credit for making some choices and investments to take advantage of my luck, and particularly to achieve my micro-celebrity.

As a graduate student, I was hardly an exceptional researcher. Nonetheless, I used my limited software engineering skills to implement and package my graph drawing work so that others could be aware of it and use it. Folks like NASA researcher Al Globus did exactly that. I also wrote detailed introduction and previous work sections in my dissertation, so that it would serve more people as a standalone reference on graph drawing.

These steps hardly made me famous. But they did start me on a path of punching above my weight, and particularly above my scholarly talent.

At Endeca, I threw myself into every opportunity to engage the public, whether as part of campus recruiting or at industry conferences. Many of the venues had low expectations, which made it easier for me to stand out. Many of the events turned out to be a waste of time. But I knew that it was a numbers game, and that I would have to kiss lots of frogs to find my prince.

Speaker, Writer, Organizer

In 2007, when an MIT student approached me for help with a research study on personal information management, I not only secured Endeca’s assistance for him, but also seized the opportunity to persuade him and a few of his colleagues to create the Workshop on Human-Computer Interaction and Information Retrieval. The return on this investment was incredible, and HCIR ultimately evolved into a bona fide ACM conference.

The following year, I used an invited talk at the ECIR 2008 Industry Day as a springboard for personal branding. At the conference banquet, I found myself at a VIP table where, as I recall, I was the only person I didn’t know. Despite being one of the only people at the table without a Wikipedia entry, I managed to overcome my impostor syndrome enough to use this amazing opportunity to connect with the leading lights in my field.

Infused with energy, I started a blog on my return, which I dubbed The Noisy Channel. I devoted a massive amount of time and energy to this blog, starting with posting an opinionated perspective on Nick Belkin’s ECIR keynote. I used my blog to promote myself and my ideas — along with other people and ideas — through educational, entertaining, and edgy posts. I strongly encouraged community, at a time where I was not aware of any other digital space that brought together people who worked on search.

Then, in 2009, I was offered the chance to organize the SIGIR 2009 Industry Track. Determined to make the most of this opportunity, I managed to recruit genuine industry celebrities like Matt Cutts and danah boyd as speakers. My efforts paid off: the industry event, beyond being a massive success, rubbed off some of the speakers’ celebrity on me. I started to feel like I was finally starting to “be somebody”.

I continued making these sorts of investments for years, publishing a book on faceted search, blogging about query understanding, and cultivating a strong social media presence across a variety of platforms. I made being a micro-celebrity part of my job — and sometimes the most important part. It was not always fun or easy, but I knew that it was important.

Reflections

I am reasonably talented, but I am hardly exceptional compared to many of the peers with whom I have been fortunate to study and work. I was not even a good speaker until I invested in Toastmasters and other training. My only reliable “superpower” has been the ability to write well and quickly.

So what allowed me to achieve micro-celebrity? Partly, I have always been highly motivated by attention. Without that motivation, I doubt I would have put in all of the work to obtain that attention. I also adopted a strategy of finding the biggest pond in which I can still be a big fish. The size of my pond has grown with my career, but I always prioritized my distinctiveness.

Achieving and maintaining micro-celebrity has required a lot of work, not all of it glamourous. But I have found the results to be incredibly gratifying — especially when I’ve been able to use my platform to help others.

For those of you who find my trajectory inspiring, I hope that seeing some of the details of my journey is helpful to you — and that those details help you decide whether the rewards justify the investment. For me, they have.

Meanwhile, I wish you the best of luck in finding your special purpose!

--

--