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.

How to Read Like a Skeptic

Ryan Holiday offers some advice on how to skeptically read a blog or news article in his book Trust Me, I’m LyingHoliday writes that he is “tired of a world where blogs take indirect bribes, marketers help write the news, reckless journalists spread lies, and no one is accountable for any of it.”

When you see a blog being with “According to a tipster… ,” know that the tipster was someone like me tricking the blogger into writing what I wanted.

When you see “We’re hearing reports,” know that reports could mean anything from random mentions on Twitter to message board posts, or worse.

When you see “leaked” or “official documents,” know that the leak really meant someone just emailed a blogger, and that the documents are almost certainly not official and are usually fake or fabricated for the purpose of making desired information public.

When you see “breaking” or “We’ll have more details as the story develops,” know that what you’re reading reached you too soon. There was no wait-and-see, no attempt at confirmation, no internal debate over whether the importance of the story necessitated abandoning caution. The protocol is going to press early, publishing before the basics facts are confirmed, and not caring whether it causes problem for people.

When you see “Updated” on a story or article, know that no one actually bothered to rework the story in light of the new facts — they just copied and pasted some shit at the bottom of the
article.

When you see “Sources tell us… ,” know that these sources are not vetted, they are rarely corroborated, and they are desperate for attention.

When you see a story tagged with “exclusive,” know that it means the blog and the source worked out an arrangement that included favorable coverage. Know that in many cases the source gave this exclusive to multiple sites at the same time or that the site is just taking ownership of a story they stole from a lesser-known site.

When you see “said in a press release,” know that it probably wasn’t even actually a release the company paid to officially put out over the wire. They just spammed a bunch of blogs and journalists via email.

When you see “According to a report by,” know that the writer summarizing this report from another outlet has but the basest abilities in reading comprehension, little time to spend doing it, and every incentive to simplify and exaggerate.

When you see “We’ve reached out to So-and-So for comment,” know that they sent an email two minutes before hitting “publish” at 4:00 a.m., long after they’d written the story and closed their mind, making absolutely no effort to get to the truth before passing it off to you as the news.

When you see an attributed quote or a “said So-and-So,” know that the blogger didn’t actually talk to that person but probably just stole the quote from somewhere else, and per the rules of the link economy, they can claim it as their own so long as there is a tiny link to the original buried in the post somewhere.

When you see “which means” or “meaning that” or “will result in” or any other kind of interpretation or analysis, know that the blogger who did it likely has absolutely zero training or expertise in the field they are opining about. Nor did they have the time or motivation to learn. Nor do they mind being wildly, wildly off the mark, because there aren’t any consequences.

When you hear a friend say in conversation “I was reading that… ,” know that today the sad fact is that they probably just glanced at something on a blog.

A classic that I’ve read that relates to this topic is Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass MediaIt will make you a more skeptical reader of the news.

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(hat tip: Farnam Street)

President Obama Reads News on His iPad

From this New York Times piece, we learn that Barack Obama is an avid consumer of news. In particular, President Obama enjoys reading the news on his iPad:

A writer before he was a politician, Mr. Obama is a voracious consumer of news, reading newspapers and magazines on his iPad and in print and dipping into blogs and Twitter. He regularly gives aides detailed descriptions of articles that he liked, and he can be thin-skinned about those that he does not.

He typically begins his day upstairs in the White House reading the major newspapers, including his hometown Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, mostly on his iPad through apps rather than their Web sites. He also skims articles that aides e-mail to him, with the subject line stating the publication and the headline (like “WSJ: Moody’s Downgrades Banks”).

During the day, Mr. Obama reads newspapers on his iPad and print copies of magazines like The Economist and The New Yorker. On most Air Force One flights, he catches up on the news on his iPad.

My question: what blogs does Mr. President read? Sadly, the NYT article doesn’t disclose. It will be interesting to find out what’s on the President’s blogroll.

What’s a City Without Advertising?

What would happen if a major metropolis made it a law prohibiting all advertising? That means no billboards, no flyers, no ads on trains or buses.

That’s exactly what São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil with a population of 12 million people (20 million in the metro area), did in 2006:

In 2006, Gilberto Kassab, mayor of São Paulo, Brazil, passed the “Clean City Law.” Citing growing concerns about rampant pollution in his city, Kassab decided enough was enough. But this was no ordinary piece of pollution legislation. Rather than going after car emissions or litterbugs, Kassab went after the billboards. Yes, you read that right: Kassab wanted to crack down on “visual pollution.”

Saying that visual pollution was as burdensome as air and noise pollution, Kassab banned every billboard, poster, and bus ad in São Paulo with the Clean City Law. Even business signage had to go. Within months, city authorities had removed tens of thousands of ads both big and small—much to the dismay of business owners, who said the ban would surely ruin them.

What’s amazing is that the ban has forced business to improvise and create novel ways to interact with potential customers. São Paulo started having a lot more guerilla marketing [unconventional strategies, such as public stunts and viral campaigns] and it gave a lot of power to online and social media campaigns as a new way to interact with people.

Makes you wonder: what other major city will take this cue and follow through with this idea?

 

Links of the Day (01/12/10)

Two must-read posts from today, one slightly humorous and the other much less so.

(1) “Conan O’Brien Says He Won’t Host ‘Tonight Show’ After Leno” [New York Times] – Conan came out with a marvelous statement saying that hosting The Tonight Show after midnight will “will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.” The statement is so bold and refreshing that perhaps he should have started the statement with “Inhabitants of the Universe” rather than the more mundane “People of Earth.”

(2) “A New Approach to China” [Official Google Blog] – in this groundbreaking post, Google outlines a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on their infrastructure coming from China. The entire post is a must-read, and the conclusion cannot be missed:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

Robert Scoble called it the “bravest corporate move I’ve ever seen a tech company make.” I think it’s a very strong statement, but we shall see how Google actually responds in the coming weeks.

Update: Another worthy reaction to the Google news comes via Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?. Jeff Jarvis writes:

I have been consistent in my criticism of Google’s actions in China. And so now I have not choice but to become even more of a fanboy. I applaud Google for finally standing up to the Chinese dictatorship and for free speech.

Will the Chinese people revolt at losing Google? We can only hope. Will other companies now have to hesitate before doing the dictators’ bidding? We can only hope. Will Google be punished by Wall Street? It probably will. But as I’ve argued, we should hope that Google’s pledge, Don’t be evil, will one day be chiseled over the doors of Wall Street.