Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Hit Makers

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson
Penguin Publishing Group: 2/7/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101980323

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson is a very highly recommended examination of popularity of things and how and why they gained their status. This is an engrossing look at popularity. Thompson has a comfortable writing style that is full of anecdotes and examples. He creatively ties widely divergent topics together in a fascinating, entertaining format.

Nothing really "goes viral." There is a reason why a song, movie, book, app, etc. became popular. Thompson explores "the psychology of why people like what they like, the social networks through which ideas spread, and the economics of cultural markets." As he succinctly points out, people are both "neophilic - curious to discover new things - and deeply neophobic - afraid of anything that’s too new. The best hit makers are gifted at creating moments of meaning by marrying new and old, anxiety and understanding. They are architects of familiar surprises." So, Hit Makers asks two questions: 1. What is the secret to making products that people like - in music, movies, television, books, games, apps, and more across the vast landscape of culture? 2. Why do some products fail in these marketplaces while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits?

Thompson covers a wide variety of pop cultural blockbusters ranging from and including Brahms lullaby, the impressionist canon (yeah, the Impressionists, as in painters), ESPN, Cheers and Seinfeld, Star Wars, Rock Around the Clock, Fifty Shades of Grey, Game of Thrones,  Etsy, Facebook, the laugh track, Vampires, Disney Princesses, and much more. Even more interesting is how he ties so many different hits together to explain what they became hits. One principle that governs almost all hits is MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Achievable. "MAYA offers three clear lessons. First: Audiences don’t know everything, but they know more than creators do. Second: To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar. Third: People sometimes don’t know what they want until they already love it."

The incident that created the impressionist canon took me by surprise, and yet it makes perfect sense. Thompson shows how "the impressionist canon focuses on a tight cluster of seven core painters: Manet, Monet, C├ęzanne, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley - the Caillebotte Seven. When painter and collector Gustave Caillebotte donated his art collection upon his untimely death, his donation helped to create the impressionist canon. The power of repeated exposure, whether it is paintings that are exhibited or other things is a powerful tool in determining what is a hit.

What makes a song succeed? "Even at the dawn of the American music business, to make a song a hit, a memorable melody was secondary to an ingenious marketing campaign." Interesting, but clearly true.

I wanted to pump my fist and yell "Yes, this!" when Thompson points out, and rightly so, that "there is such a thing as too much familiarity. It’s everywhere, in fact. It’s hearing a catchy song for the tenth time in a row, watching a movie that is oh so predictably uncreative, or hearing a talented speaker use overfamiliar buzzword after buzzword. In fluency studies, the power of familiarity is discounted when people realize that the moderator is trying to browbeat them with the same stimulus again and again. This is one reason why so much advertising doesn’t work: People have a built-in resistance to marketing that feels like it’s trying to seduce them." I have experienced this many times over the years (mindset or grit, anyone?) Recently when the video for a women's conference kept repeated the name of the event throughout the video as a buzz word, all it did was annoy me and strengthen my determination to not attend.

This is specifically for readers. Many of you will understand: "When people read, they hear voices and see images in their head. This production is total synesthesia and something close to madness. A great book is a hallucinated IMAX film for one. The author had a feeling, which he turned into words, and the reader gets a feeling from those words - maybe it’s the same feeling; maybe it’s not. As Peter Mendelsund wrote in What We See When We Read, a book is a coproduction. A reader both performs the book and attends the performance. She is conductor, orchestra, and audience. A book, whether nonfiction or fiction, is an 'invitation to daydream.'"

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing Group.

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