Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction — Derek Thompson

In 2011, a pseudonymous woman wrote a book about a BDSM romance between an improbably matched couple who in many ways defy romantic convention. When you read the preceding sentence you probably think of 50 Shades of Grey, a terribly written book that eventually got turned into a massive movie. But I’m actually referencing Never the Face: A Story of Desire, a well-written book—at the link I expend 2,000 words analyzing it—that’s also been totally forgotten. The post I wrote is one of my least-read pieces. Aside from my post and a Guernica magazine interview, it appears that no one has written anything about Never the Face. A paperback edition was never released. Even a Kindle edition is absent. Never the Face never went viral.

Why?

hit_makersI don’t know. Certainly the topic has a long history—the Marquis de Sade wrote extensively and famously about what we now call BDSM in the 18th Century—but Never the Face never got going. Thompson attempts to find out why some of the answers as to why many if not most people have heard of 50 Shades while Never the Face is likely to remain forever obscure. He even has a chapter devoted to 50 Shades, and while he traces the mechanics of the book back to its fan fiction origins, he doesn’t answer—and probably can’t—why that particular work of fan fiction took off. He notes that E. L. James vigorously networked with other readers, but I bet other fan fic writers did too. We don’t see them, however—they’re cultural dark matter to us.

At the end of that 50 Shades chapter Thompson writes:

To understand why some hits get so big, one cannot look exclusively at characteristics like familiarity or at marketing strategies like one-to-one-million moments. The broadcasts come first, but they are not enough. A handful of products will inevitably become massively popular each year for the simple reason that, once they are pushed into the national consciousness, people just can’t stop talking about them.

So how do you get people to talk?

That question doesn’t have easy answers either; one of the more interesting I’ve seen comes from Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.

I finished Hit Makers a week or two ago and its ideas have been popping up in my mind since; for example, the next links post will include “Why Great Critics Make Disastrous Judgments.” Hit Makers offers a useful answer: some works are so new and different that they can’t be evaluated by previous metrics. They are most advanced yet acceptable (or acceptable to many readers). Critics, bringing their previously developed and honed sensibility to the new work, miss what makes it good, and they miss the way the new work will make the critical conversation itself swerve. Cultural evolution is unpredictable, and we’re all nodes in the shaping of things. Great critics make a lot of judgments, and by the sheer quantity of them some are bound to be bad. New works can have the function of teaching us how to read the new works themselves. It takes time to let the new work work on your mind.

There are other examples of weird popularity. In “Stan Smith is more than just a shoe,” Lauren Schwartzberg profiles a mostly forgotten, middling tennis player who, decades ago, managed to sign an endorsement contract with Adidas, who released a shoe named after him. That shoe achieved improbable pop culture stardom and has sold millions of copies per year for years on end. It’s so popular that other companies make their own versions; I didn’t realize this, but I actually own a pair of Cole Haan’s copy of Stan Smith sneakers (but they’re not very comfortable and I walk wrong in them). Somehow, though, Stan Smiths have retained their cool aura over decades of fashion changes.

Hit Makers is too long and rich to summarize briefly. I will note, however, that sometimes the data is just depressing:

Television proved an irresistible seductress. By 1965, more than 90 percent of households had a television set, and they were spending more than five hours watching it every day.

One is awed by the sheer waste of time, energy, and attention. Still, when I hear critics of education talk about the problems with the school system, sometimes I think about what the alternatives may be: for many people, they are TV (or now Facebook and its equivalents: “In 2012, for the first time ever, Americans spent more time interacting with digital devices like their laptops and phones than with television”). Digital devices are probably an improvement on TV but not on many alternatives.

One is also awed by the amount of time people waste on what seems to be bullshit on Facebook. But many makers make contrarian bets that still work. HBO and The Sopranos is one example Thompson uses. That is actually an important part of HBO’s business model: do something different from what everyone else is doing. Being a contrarian is dangerous, though, since most contrarians are simply wrong. And one also faces supply and demand problems. My own medium may be the best example of those problems:

Writing in the twenty-first century might be the most competitive industry in human history. The barriers are low, the supply is massive, and the competition is global, with countless publishers producing content for a global audience.

Yet writers—like this one—keep doing it. Content is everywhere but insight is rare. Keep hunting insight. It may lead you to hits.

A world without work might be totally awesome, and we have models for it, but getting there might be hard

Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work: For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?” is fascinating and you should read it. But I’d like to discuss one small part, when Thompson writes: “When I asked Hunnicutt what sort of modern community most resembles his ideal of a post-work society, he admitted, ‘I’m not sure that such a place exists.'”

I can imagine such a place: A university. At one time, most professors made enough money to meet their basic material needs without making extravagant amounts of money (there were and are some superstar exceptions). Today, a fair number of professors still make enough money to meet their basic material needs, though proportionally fewer than, say, 30 years ago. Still, universities have always depended on peer effects for reputation; they’ve tended to convince smart people to do a lot of meaningful activities that are disconnected from immediate and often long-term remuneration. Many professors appear to have self-directed lives that they themselves structure. The average person with free time doesn’t explore build-it-yourself DNA or write about the beauty of Proust or do many of the other things professors  do—the average person watches TV—but perhaps norms will change over time.

I don’t want to overstate the similarity between a potential low-work future and contemporary tenured professors—many professors find grading to be mind numbing, and not everyone handles self-direction and motivation well—but they are similar enough to be notable. In a world of basic incomes and (relative) economic plenty, we may get more people writing blogs, making art, and playing sports or other games. People may spend more time in gyms and less time in chairs.

The open-source software software community as it currently exists tends to intersect with large companies, but there are fringes of it with a strongly non-commercial or academic ethos. Richard Stallman has worked for MIT for decades and has written enormous amounts of important open-source code; the primary PGP maintainer made almost no money until recently, though he could almost certainly make tons of cash working for big tech company. Many people who make money in tech are closer to artists than is commonly supposed. Reading Hacker News and the better precincts in Reddit will introduce you to other open-source zealots, some of whom mostly blow hot air but others of whom act and think like artists rather than businessmen.

Many programmers say publicly that they consider programming to be so much fun that they’re amazed at the tremendous sums they can earn doing it. A small but literate part of the sex worker community says something similar: like most people they enjoy sex, and like most people they enjoy money, and combining the two is great for them. They may not enjoy every act with every client but the more attractive and attentive clients are pretty good. One could imagine an activity that is currently (sometimes) paid and sometimes free being used to occupy more time. I’ve met many people who dance and make their money putting on and teaching dances. If they had a guaranteed annual income they’d probably dance all the time and be very pleased doing that.

Already many professions have turned into hobbies, as I wrote in 2013; most actors and musicians are essentially hobbyists as well, at least in the revenue sense. Photographers are in a similar situation, as are many fiction writers. Poets haven’t been commercial for decades, to the extent they ever were (they weren’t when the Metaphysicals were writing, but that didn’t stop Herbert or Donne). Today many of my favorite activities aren’t remunerative, and while I won’t list them here many are probably similar to yours, and chances are good that some of yours aren’t remunerative either. Maybe our favorite activities are only as pleasurable as they are by contrast with less desirable activities. Maybe they aren’t. Consider for a moment your own peak, most pleasurable and intense experiences. Did they happen at work? If you worked less, would you have more?

In short, though, models for non-commercial but meaningful lives do (somewhat) exist. Again, they may not suit everyone, but one can see a potential future already here but unevenly distributed.

A lot of white-collar office work has a large make-work component, and there’s certainly plenty of literature on how boring it can be. If people really, really worked in the office they could probably do much of their “work” in a tiny amount of the allotted time. Much of that time is signaling conformity, diligence, and so forth, and, as Tim Ferris points out in The Four-Hour Work Week, people who work smarter can probably work less. To use myself as an example, I think of myself as productive but even I read Hacker News and Reddit more often than I should.

Some people already do what appears to me to be work-like jobs. People who don’t like writing would consider this blog to be “work,” while I consider it (mostly) play, albeit of an intensely intellectual sort. It already looks to me like many moderators on Reddit and similar sites have left the world of “hobby” and entered the world of “work.” The border is porous and always has been, but I see many people moving from the one to the other. (As Thompson observes, prior the late 19th or early 20th Century the idea of unemployment was itself nonsensical because pretty much anyone could find something productive to do.) Wikipedia is another site that has adverse effects in that respect, and I can’t figure out why many disinterested people would edit the site (my edits have always been self-motivated, though I prefer not to state more here).

One can imagine a low-work future being very good, but getting from the present to that future is going to be rocky at best, and I can’t foresee it happening for decades. There are too many old people and children to care for, too many goods that need to be delivered, too much physical infrastructure that needs fixing, and in general too much boring work that no one will do without being paid. Our whole society will have to be re-structured and that is not likely to be easy; in reality, too, there has never been a sustained period of quiet “normalcy” in American history. Upheaval is normal, and the U.S. has an advantage in that rewriting cultural DNA is part of our DNA. That being said, it’s useful to wonder what might be, and one can see the shape of things to come if we see radically falling prices for many material goods.


There’s one other fascinating quote that doesn’t fit into my essay but I want to emphasize anyway:

Decades from now, perhaps the 20th century will strike future historians as an aberration, with its religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity, its attenuations of family in service to job opportunity, its conflation of income with self-worth. The post-work society I’ve described holds a warped mirror up to today’s economy, but in many ways it reflects the forgotten norms of the mid-19th century—the artisan middle class, the primacy of local communities, and the unfamiliarity with widespread joblessness.

%d bloggers like this: