On Measuring Popularity in the Digital Age and the Driving Forces of Pop Culture

The New York Times on Popularity

The New York Times on Popularity

The New York Times Magazine has a fascinating interactive feature of what it means to be popular in modern culture. There’s a lot to digest in the post, but the gist is here:

Where does this leave the concept of popularity? Paradoxically, popularity is now both infinitely quantifiable and infinitely elusive. We’re awash in cold data even as we try and reconcile how these numbers relate to our larger intuitive sense of what people like. Back in 1940, Billboard published a single music chart, simply named the Best-Selling Retail Records, which solely tracked sales. Later, the Billboard Hot 100 collated several factors — radio play, jukebox popularity and sales — into one measure of overall success. Around the same time, the lone tree grew several categorical limbs: R. & B., country, rap and so on, each taking the measure of popularity in a different genre. From one chart grew many. This seemed to make sense.

Then the methodology evolved even further: paid downloads were included in 2005; digital streams in 2007. The top-selling song was no longer necessarily the most popular song in the country. Now it could simply be the song that the most people, somewhere, were listening to, somehow. Then, this year, Billboard announced it would include YouTube playbacks as part of its rankings, and the song “Harlem Shake” immediately became the No. 1 song in America. This was thanks largely to a snippet of it being used as the soundtrack for thousands of viral YouTube videos. That meme, like most, burned out quick as a Roman candle. So instead of “Remember the summer of ‘Harlem Shake’?” we might one day say wistfully, “Remember the two weeks in February of ‘Harlem Shake’?” This is how we ended up with a No. 1 song that isn’t even really exactly a song. I’d venture to say that its ascent to that once-hallowed position — the No. 1 song in America! — felt intuitively correct to exactly no one, including the makers of “Harlem Shake.”

I don’t really pay attention to book rankings (I rely more on recommendations from friends and acquaintances and the occasional strangers):

As for books, we know everything and we know nothing. As any jittery author can confirm, Amazon will now tell you right out in the open where anyone can see exactly where in the vast universe of literature your particular contribution sits. You can watch your sales ranking rise or (more likely) fall in real time, like a stock ticker of public disinterest. On the other hand, The Times publishes 17 separate best-seller lists, from Combined Print and E-Book Fiction to Children’s Middle Grade to Manga. The purpose of all these different lists is to effectively capture the elusive phenomena of consumer choice — the individual decisions that reflect genuine widespread interest.

The Times goes  to cite the popularity of the SyFy movie Sharknado, which took over Twitter the night it aired. But I like this analogy on the ephemeral nature of popularity:

Perhaps the best way to think about the state of popularity is like a kind of quantum element: Both static and in perpetual flux. For example: You can most likely now close the record book on any record that measures how many people did the exact same thing at the exact same time. The movie with the highest box office of all time, adjusted for inflation, is still “Gone With the Wind,” released in 1939.

Not sure I buy this defense of The Fifty Shades of Grey, however:

No, my favorite fact is that, at one point last year, a nurse wrote in the comment section of The Times Magazine’s blog to say that patients (male and female) were reading it while hooked up for dialysis. We’ve all seen the readers on the subway or in the airport lounge, but the dialysis patients seemed like the apotheosis of the “50 Shades” phenomenon. Obviously, it would be much better for literature if dialysis patients across America were reading James Salter or Alice Munro. But “Fifty Shades” has been great in a different way: it has created space within everyday culture for stuff that was once the dominion of pornography. Those who accuse “Fifty Shades” of simply being porn are just wrong; in its innocence and its popularity, the book takes power away from porn, creating from the same basic elements something more human, a kind of squeaky-clean dirt, which can thrive even in the least sexy places on earth: the subway platform, the airport or next to a dialysis machine.

I had absolutely no clue on the most popular podcast in America (I rarely listen to podcasts):

“Welcome to Night Vale” is a twice-monthly podcast about a fictional town styled as a half-hour of community news. The show has been described variously as “the news from Lake Wobegon as seen through the eyes of Stephen King,” “NPR from the Twilight Zone,” “ ‘Lake Wobegon’ by David Lynch” and “ ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ as narrated by Rod Serling.” This summer, the show, which is narrated by Cecil Baldwin and written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, became suddenly, immensely, improbably popular, reaching No. 1 on iTunes, where it has remained, ahead of “This American Life” and “WTF With Marc Maron.”

If you’ve got some time, do explore the entire interactive of 16 popular things in culture that The Times profiles.

When They Can’t Lay You Off, Employers in Japan Send You to Boredom Rooms

What happens if you’re working in Japan and a company wants to lay you off, and offers you a lucrative early retirement or severance deal? Well, if you choose not to accept the terms, the company has no right to fire you. So what they’ll do instead is send you to work in a so-called “Boredom Room.”

In Japan, lifetime employment has long been the norm and where large-scale layoffs remain a social taboo, at least at Japan’s largest corporations like Sony. The New York Times profiles one man who’s chosen to go into the Boredom Room and spend his workday there: reading college textbooks, surfing the Internet, and who knows what else.

Sony said it was not doing anything wrong in placing employees in what it calls Career Design Rooms. Employees are given counseling to find new jobs in the Sony group, or at another company, it said. Sony also said that it offered workers early retirement packages that are generous by American standards: in 2010, it promised severance payments equivalent to as much as 54 months of pay. But the real point of the rooms is to make employees feel forgotten and worthless — and eventually so bored and shamed that they just quit, critics say.

Labor practices in Japan contrast sharply with those in the United States, where companies are quick to lay off workers when demand slows or a product becomes obsolete. It is cruel to the worker, but it usually gives the overall economy agility. 

However, and this is a point worth emphasizing: critics say the real point of the boredoom rooms is to make employees feel forgotten and worthless — and eventually get so bored and shamed that they just quit.

Read the entire story here.

Liu Qianping: Fashionable Chinese Grandpa

The Wall Street Journal profiles Liu Qianping, a 72-year-old grandfather who has taken the Internet by storm by modeling clothes:

He owes his star turn to his granddaughter, Lu Ting, a clothier who struggled for months to find a model who could boost her online store without breaking the bank. “He’s just so slender,” Ms. Lu says of her 110-pound grandfather. She notes that he looks great in crimson dresses and credits him for more than quadrupling her sales in recent weeks.

Mr. Liu’s ascent in the modeling realm speaks volumes about shifting cultural mores in a fast-aging society. The waif of a man, who goes about in a three-piece suit and a bow-tie when he isn’t clad in pink satin, is among a cadre of Chinese seniors who are all too familiar with cultural upheaval. Their lives have been marked by unimaginable change—from surviving famine to the advent of fast food. Along the way, many have adopted a devil-may-care approach that flies in the face of stereotypes about conservative Asian elders.

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Thank you, Internet, for helping breaking all kinds of stereotypes. Read the entire story here.

On Israel’s Flourishing Russian Culture

Israel has the third-largest Russian-speaking population outside of Russia, after the United States and Germany. 

The New York Times Lens blog looks into how Russians have assimilated into Israel culture, via photographs by Oled Balilty:

Mr. Balilty’s journey started a year ago, at a large Russian New Year’s Eve celebration. In Israel, most people celebrate the Jewish lunar new year, Rosh Hashana. Mr. Balilty said that he can appreciate continuing one’s culture, as his parents had emigrated from Morocco to Israel.

“The Russians are totally Israeli. They work like everyone else, often in high-tech jobs, but at night they can live in a different world,” Mr. Balilty, 33, said. “They came here with a beautiful culture, but the culture didn’t open to the Israeli people. I hope someday that Israel will be able to fully experience it.”

See the photographs here.

A Hunger for Tales of Life in the American Cul-de-Sac

The New York Times profiles Nikolai V. Zlobin’s book on American culture. Zlobin is spot-on about many things in American culture:

On Russians raising their children:

In Russia, children are raised by their grandmothers, or, if their grandmothers are not available, by women of the same generation in a similar state of unremitting vigilance against the hazards — like weather — that arise in everyday life. An average Russian mother would no sooner entrust her children’s upbringing to a local teenager than to a pack of wild dogs.

Some general scrutiny:

Mr. Zlobin scrutinizes the American practice of interrogating complete strangers about the details of their pregnancies; their weird habit of leaving their curtains open at night, when a Russian would immediately seal himself off from the prying eyes of his neighbors. Why Americans do not lie, for the most part. Why they cannot drink hard liquor. Why they love laws but disdain their leaders.

Interesting bit:

Mr. Zlobin, who has lived in St. Louis, Chapel Hill, N.C., and Washington, finds his answers in middle-class neighborhoods that most Europeans never see. Readers have peppered him with questions about his chapter about life on a cul-de-sac. Most Russians grew up in dense housing blocks, where children ran wild in closed central courtyards. Cul-de-sac translates in Russian as tupik — a word that evokes vulnerability and danger, a dead end with no escape.

But this isn’t exactly correct: there are neighborhoods with true dead ends (they usually have a yellow sign as a warning). This is the literal tupik, not the cul-de-sac. There is no Russian equivalent to the word cul-de-sac, so I disagree with this translation.

Not a boring read.

Beloit College Mindset List for Class of 2016

Each year since 1998, Beloit College has released the Beloit College Mindset List, providing a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college this fall. Here are some cultural milestones for the class of 2016, who were born in 1994 (the year of the professional baseball strike and the last year for NFL football in Los Angeles):

  1. They should keep their eyes open for Justin Bieber or Dakota Fanning at freshman orientation.
  2. They have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of “electronic narcotics.”
  3. The Biblical sources of terms such as “Forbidden Fruit,” “The writing on the wall,” “Good Samaritan,” and “The Promised Land” are unknown to most of them.
  4. Michael Jackson’s family, not the Kennedys, constitutes “American Royalty.”
  5. If they miss The Daily Show, they can always get their news on YouTube.
  6. Their lives have been measured in the fundamental particles of life: bits, bytes, and bauds.
  7. Robert De Niro is thought of as Greg Focker’s long-suffering father-in-law, not as Vito Corleone or Jimmy Conway.
  8. Bill Clinton is a senior statesman of whose presidency they have little knowledge.
  9. They have never seen an airplane “ticket.”
  10. On TV and in films, the ditzy dumb blonde female generally has been replaced by a couple of Dumb and Dumber males. 
  11. The paradox “too big to fail” has been, for their generation, what “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” was for their grandparents’.
  12. For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job in the State Department.
  13. They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it.
  14. There has always been football in Jacksonville but never in Los Angeles.
  15. Having grown up with MP3s and iPods, they never listen to music on the car radio and really have no use for radio at all.
  16. Since they’ve been born, the United States has measured progress by a 2 percent jump in unemployment and a 16 cent rise in the price of a first class postage stamp.
  17. Benjamin Braddock, having given up both a career in plastics and a relationship with Mrs. Robinson, could be their grandfather.
  18. Their folks have never gazed with pride on a new set of bound encyclopedias on the bookshelf.
  19. The Green Bay Packers have always celebrated with the Lambeau Leap.
  20. Exposed bra straps have always been a fashion statement, not a wardrobe malfunction to be corrected quietly by well-meaning friends.
  21. A significant percentage of them will enter college already displaying some hearing loss.
  22. The Real World has always stopped being polite and started getting real on MTV.
  23. Women have always piloted war planes and space shuttles.
  24. White House security has never felt it necessary to wear rubber gloves when gay groups have visited.
  25. They have lived in an era of instant stardom and self-proclaimed celebrities, famous for being famous.
  26. Having made the acquaintance of Furby at an early age, they have expected their toy friends to do ever more unpredictable things.
  27. Outdated icons with images of floppy discs for “save,” a telephone for “phone,” and a snail mail envelope for “mail” have oddly decorated their tablets and smart phone screens.
  28. Star Wars has always been just a film, not a defense strategy.
  29. They have had to incessantly remind their parents not to refer to their CDs and DVDs as “tapes.”
  30. There have always been blue M&Ms, but no tan ones.

See the complete list here. It’s quite fascinating. For comparison purposes, here is Mindset List when I was entering college.

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(via Carpe Diem)

On Expanding Your Comfort Zone

Derek Sivers writes an inspiring post on how he’s been able to expand his comfort zone over the years:

I’m 40 meters underwater. It’s getting cold and dark. It’s only the third dive in my life, but I’m taking the advanced training course, and the Caribbean teacher was a little reckless, dashing ahead, leaving me alone.

The next day I’m in a government office, answering an interview, raising my right hand, becoming a citizen of Dominica.

I’m in a Muslim Indian family’s house in Staten Island, washing my feet, with the Imam waiting for my conversion ceremony. Next week they will be my family in-law. The Muslim wedding will make her extended family happy. I’ve memorized the syllables I need to say. “Ash hadu alla ilaha illallah. Ash hadu anna muhammadar rasulullah.”

We’re on a rooftop in Rio de Janiero on New Year’s Eve, celebrating with some Brazilians we met the day before. Down below on the beach, a million people are wearing all white.

I’m alone on a bicycle in a forest in Sweden. I left from Stockholm 6 hours ago, headed south, with only 50 Krona, and I’m getting hungry. I don’t know the way back.

We’re in a filthy dorm-room apartment in Guilin, China, studying at the local university. At the local grocery store, we choose from a bin of live frogs.

The India Embassy official hands me a pseudo-passport that says I am now officially a “Person of Indian Origin” – a pseudo-citizen of India.

I’m the back of a truck in Cambodia, soaking wet, hitching a ride back to Phnom Penh after an all day bike ride. The roads were flooded but we rode our bikes through anyway, Mekong River water chest-high.

That week I speak at four conferences in Cambodia, Singapore, Brunei, and Indonesia. By the 4th one, my American accent has started to morph into something kind of Asian.

Derek mentions how some people push themselves physically, but he’s been pushing himself culturally. I want (need!) to improve in both arenas.

Do check out Derek’s question at the bottom of his post and the hundreds of comments people have left in response.

The Spanish Baby Snatching Phenomenon

This is a very interesting piece in Der Spiegel on the baby snatching phenomenon in Spain:

All of these women share a similar fate. From the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, until well into the 1990s, more than 300,000 children were reportedly taken from their biological parents and passed on to adoptive parents.

In regions captured by the anti-communist Nationalists during the war, doctors and nuns felt it was their patriotic duty to take newborns from “red parents” and give them to other families. There, they were to be raised in accordance with Nationalist and Catholic beliefs.

After the victory of the rebels under General Francisco Franco over the Republicans, the organized theft of babies became a political tool, a way of depriving leftists of their offspring. In 1941, Franco enacted a law that made it permissible to erase evidence of the ancestry of such children by changing their last names.

Most of these stolen children were entrusted to the care of Catholics loyal to the regime. The aim behind this was to rid an entire people of the “Marxist gene,” at least according to the theories of Antonio Vallejo-Nájera, the national psychiatrist of Francoist Spain, that were widespread at the time.

Here is part 2 of the story.

Tim Cook on the Apple Culture

Earlier this week, the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, spoke at a conference put on by Goldman Sachs. For his final question during the the Q&A session, Cook was asked how his leadership might change Apple, and what aspects of the culture he might try to preserve. Here’s what he had to say:

Apple is a unique culture and unique company. You can’t replicate it. I’m not going to witness or permit the slow undoing of it. I believe in it so deeply.

Steve grilled in all of us, over many years, that the company should revolve around great products. We should stay extremely focused on a few things, rather than try to do so many that we did nothing well. We should only go into markets where we can make a significant contribution to society, not just sell a lot of products.

These things, along with keeping excellence as an expectation of everything at Apple. These are the things that I focus on because I think those are the things that make Apple a magical place that really smart people want to work in and do, not just their life’s work, but their life’s best work.

And so we’re always focused on the future. We don’t sit and think about how great things were yesterday. I love that trait because I think it’s the thing that drives us all forward. Those are the things I’m holding onto. It’s a privelege to be a part of it.

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(via Dustin Curtis; full audio here)

The Largest Biometric System in the World

It has been called “the biggest social project on the planet.”

A major problem in India is that few poor people can prove their identity: they have no passport, no driving licence, no proof of address. They live in villages where many share the same name. These people cannot open bank accounts, and no one wants to lend them money. India has no equivalent of Social Security numbering, and just thirty-three million Indians, out of 1.2 billion, pay income tax.

But India’s relatively new program, the unique identity (UID) authority, will enroll approximately 400 million people by the end of this year. The scheme is voluntary, but the poor are enthusiastic about it. This Economist piece has some details, which relies on maintaining a huge database containing biometric information (ten fingerprints and an iris scan) of each of India’s residents:

For the poor, having a secure online identity alters their relationship with the modern world. No more queueing for hours in a distant town and bribing officials with money you don’t have to obtain paperwork that won’t be recognised if you move to another state looking for work. A pilot project just begun in Jharkhand, an eastern state, will link the new identities to individuals’ bank accounts. Those to whom the government owes money will soon be able to receive it electronically, either at a bank or at a village shop. Ghost labourers staffing public-works schemes, and any among India’s 20m government employees, should turn into thin air. The middlemen who steal billions should more easily be bypassed or caught.

That is just the start. Armed with the system, India will be able to rethink the nature of its welfare state, cutting back on benefits in kind and market-distorting subsidies, and turning to cash transfers paid directly into the bank accounts of the neediest. Hundreds of millions of the poor must open bank accounts, which is all to the good, because it will bind them into the modern economy. Care must be taken so mothers rather than feckless fathers control funds for their children. But most poor people, including anyone who wants to move around, will be better off with cash welfare paid in full. Vouchers for medical or education spending could follow.

The scheme based on biometrics is not without criticism, however. Nevertheless, the cost of enrolling each person into this program is about $2, so India’s program could be a model for other poor nations.