Everything starts at zero, writes Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson in his new book, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. This ancient truth is known to all creators: the blank canvas, an empty page, the unfilled columns in ProTools awaiting sonic imagination. Once completed, another journey begins. The distance between zero and popularity is complex.
The creator is always in a relationship with their audience. Two considerations must be taken into account. Humans are neophilic, by which Thompson means we are “curious to discover new things” as well as neophobic, “afraid of anything that’s too new.”
For example, the origin tales of Batman and Wolverine are fresh takes on beloved stories. Given the misogyny embedded in the gaming and comic book worlds, however, a new female superhero who destroys her male competitors might be a stretch. (Which might explain why Jessica Jones needed to fall for the hyper-masculine Luke Cage.)
Thompson points to fluency as one ingredient in popularity. We enjoy what we like. For example, my dopamine receptors tingled when Thompson mentioned Joseph Campbell and Jeff Buckley, given that they’re both huge inspirations to me. I inherently “got” what he was saying. If these passages were written in a Facebook post my thumbs would immediately turn upward.
This might be good for his like count, but is the broader algorithmic picture healthy for society? Probably not. Fluency is the goal of the analytic gods tinkering behind the algorithms. But disfluency—hard thinking—is of equal value. While Thompson recognizes that “less thinking leads to more liking,” he also points out that
The most special experiences and products involve a bit of surprise, unpredictability, and disfluency.
Deeper thinking about complex subjects, he continues, is required for understanding truth. The problem is we learn through repetition regardless of the validity of the content. The “fake news” phenomenon relies on an ancient tactic: confuse the public by repeatedly drowning your audience in a flood of misinformation.
Thompson notes that as we age our explicit memory system wanes. We become more susceptible to confuse a statement that “feels right” with one that is correct. It only feels right because we keep hearing it. Thus the journey from “I heard that” to “it must be true” is quite a short walk.
This is why a strong-but-weak female hero like Jessica Jones is judged in light of her relationships to the men around her: Cage, but also Kilgrave. Our culture demands it because our culture’s writers keep writing the story that way. As Thompson puts it,
Repeated exposure to sexist entertainment makes young people fluent in discrimination, so that gender bias feels as automatic as breathing oxygen.
The word ‘story,’ he writes, has roots in the Latin historia. Much of history comes from a reading of the observations of that time, but those tales, like the ones we write today, are dependent as much on our perception of reality as reality itself (and in many cases, more so). The stories receiving the most acknowledgement are the ones that become our reality moving forward.
In our current age getting the story out is becoming more challenging despite (or rather because of) the numerous platforms available to share that story. Whereas in 1980 major movie studios spent twenty cents on advertising for every dollar earned, today that number is sixty cents. Success, he continues, is “more than good ideas, brilliant execution, and powerful marketing…It also begs for a gospel of perseverance through inevitable failure.”
Today the goal of any idea is to go viral, which is where Thompson’s most interesting idea emerges: he doesn’t believe anything goes viral. He discusses Erika Leonard, a burgeoning writer who was unknowingly tapping into our neophilic nature when dreaming up Twilight offshoots on FanFiction. For years she wrote, read, and replied to everyone while becoming the site’s most popular author thanks to her fusion of romance and bondage. Three years later she decided to pursue a writing career. She left FanFiction to self-publish her debut.
Even then it would take over a year for Vintage to purchase the rights for Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, Leonard’s moniker. A mainstream flood commenced, yet it had been at least four years in the making. There was nothing viral about it. Thompson writes that she reached the audience of her audience—her fans kept sharing, which led to more awareness. That’s how word spreads; there is nothing spontaneous about it.
Bondage fantasy is one thing; Breitbart quite another. What’s true and what’s popular do not always align. It’s well-documented that humans prefer what we’re already comfortable with—the history of our stories. This does nothing to hone intellectual integrity or emotional maturity, however. Thompson sums this up in one brilliant line:
A great story should be an invitation to think, not a substitute for thinking.
I’m often taken aback when I see pro-Trump messages on my Facebook feed. There’s a reason: my circle is filled with liberals. That’s part of my own bias, but it’s also how the site decides what I do and don’t see, so that when the Trump supporters that I’m connected with occasionally pop up, it’s rather jarring. Twitter’s “muted words” function is another example of a digital safe space that’s arguably more harmful than beneficial.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way, which is the crux of Thompson’s argument. Facebook could offer disfluent feeds, he writes, which could make for more open dialogues and debates. While he focuses on entertainment throughout the book, politics is unavoidable. Being exposed to only what we agree with might drive up likes (and revenue) but in the long run it harms culture. Thompson concludes,
Music and theater are often meant to be cathartic, but information isn’t supposed to feel like therapy. Sometimes learning about the world should hurt.
We often talk about a morally-responsible AI as our robots become a reality, but perhaps we also need to discuss the ethics of social media. These platforms are powerful disseminators of artistic creations across the planet. What their algorithms are doing for societies, however, is a different story, one we need to write much more carefully moving forward.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.