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.

The Downside of Being Internet Famous

Gina Trapani, the founder of Lifehacker, has recently surpassed 200,000 followers on Twitter. In her post “The Flip Side of a Big Audience,” she mentions the benefits of having a large audience:

If I want a lot of people to see something, I can make that happen in a few keystrokes without any help from a PR firm or media outlet. I’ve mentioned my follower counts and blog stats in book deal and paycheck negotiations, because people who hire me are often buying my ability to market my book or project.

But the focus of her post is on the negatives of being/becoming internet famous:

You field a weekly flood of pitches. Having a big audience means you’re a commodity, and you get to constantly field pitches from strangers, acquaintances, former co-workers, and distant family members who you never hear from otherwise asking you to mention their new app, book, Kickstarter project, or MySpace page. People decide how important you are by your Klout score and treat you accordingly. Ad agencies look up how much your tweets are worth and recruit you to tweet on behalf of their clients for money. It’s a bizarre and sometimes awkward crash course in saying “sorry, no” to the requests that just don’t feel right (and most of them don’t).

People who don’t know you make wildly inaccurate assumptions about things you say. If you crack a joke, use sarcasm, or don’t fully explain your 140-character statement, you will be misunderstood, because most of your followers barely know you. Last week I said I have mixed feelings about lesbian contestants in a beauty pageant. A handful of people tried to explain why lesbians are just as worthy of beauty pageants as heterosexual women. Having to explain stinks.

You forget how to share with people who do know you. To avoid misunderstandings, you start dumbing down your posts and only writing things which are literal and mostly non-controversial. (At least I do.) But that means your friends don’t enjoy the connection that comes with hearing you be you, instead of edited-you. In an attempt to fix this problem, I set my Facebook user profile to friends-only access. But by now I’m so ruined by my addiction to the flood of retweets, favorites, and replies I get from public posts to my big audience, I spend less time sharing privately.

You get addicted to the approval of strangers. The addiction to the attention you get from a crowd of strangers turns you into a performer instead of a sharer. You look for cheap laughs, stars, retweets, and replies, instead of meaningful conversation with people you actually care about.

Your view of the world gets skewed. An outsized audience presents problems like the ones listed here that no one else has. When you have a big audience, you’re the 1% of the web, and that means your view of the world is skewed. You get paranoid about privacy, cynical about requests from friends, and impatient about misunderstandings.

I would argue that anyone who is on Twitter and is gaining popularity in the blogosphere can get addicted to the approval of strangers. It’s an odd behavior — we seek reassurance from people we’ve never met rather than the ones close to us.

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(Hat Tip: @cherilucas)

Links of the Day (02/08/10)

Here’s what I’ve been reading recently:

(1) “Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome” [New York Times] – I am not e-mailing this column, but I am blogging about it. The New York Times conducted a six month study to determine which articles were the most popular ones (as measured by number of times the articles were e-mailed):

To make sense of these trends in “virality,” the Penn researchers tracked more than 7,500 articles published from August 2008 to February 2009. They assessed each article’s popularity after controlling for factors like the time of day it was published online, the section in which it appeared and how much promotion it received on the Web home page.

The results of the study are interesting. Most people preferred to send out emotional articles (in particular, those articles that were positive or happy in nature). I also found it surprising that people preferred to share articles which were longer in length (perhaps because longer articles are better researched or more compelling in general). The New York Times elaborates:

Sharing recipes or financial tips or medical advice makes sense according to classic economic utility theory: I give you something of practical value in the hope that you’ll someday return the favor. There can also be self-interested reasons for sharing surprising articles: I get to show off how well informed I am by sending news that will shock you.

The only thing left to do is for you, Dear Reader, to email that article to your friends (or you can just tell them about this blog).

(2) “The Time It Takes to Win It All” [Wall Street Journal] – The New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV last night. This article explores the amount of work that players and coaches spend working in a typical NFL season. The most eye-opening paragraph:

According to an operational study of National Football League teams prepared for The Wall Street Journal by Boston Consulting Group, the typical NFL season requires 514,000 hours of labor per team. That’s about eight times the effort it took to conceptualize, build and market Apple’s iPod, according to BCG, and enough time to build 25 America’s Cup yachts. If both Super Bowl teams dedicated themselves to construction rather than football, their members could have built the Empire State Building in seven seasons.

It’s a well-researched article and definitely worth reading.

(3) “In Search of the World’s Hardest Language” [The Economist] – this article is from December 2009, but I just read it the other day in my print version of The Economist. I recommend reading the entire piece (did you know that in Turkish you can create a sentence such as “Çekoslovakyalilastiramadiklarimizdanmissiniz?”, which means “Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovakian?”) but if you’re curious, the Economist’s conclusion for the world’s hardest language:

With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance The Economist would go for Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ.