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.

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