How popular things become popular?

When I was a lot younger, I thought that likability determined whether something became popular or not. Take The Beatles, for example; they were popular because “everyone” liked them (according to my mother). The same could be said of Elvis (according, again, to my mother), hula hoops (according to the Coen brothers), and Like a Virgin (according to me, when I was 14). Of course, this meant that if you did not like any of those things, you were hopelessly out of touch. Perhaps you were  too old, too weird, too un-coordinated, or just un-cool; either way, something was wrong with you, because millions of fans cannot be wrong.

Popularity baffles me. Mind you, I tend to agree with Chuck Klosterman when he says “don’t get pissed off over the fact that the way you feel about culture isn’t some kind of universal consensus.” (Klosterman, 2004). Klosterman, however, stops short. He simply reminds us that “culture can’t be wrong, because culture just IS,” but he doesn’t wonder HOW it becomes what it IS. So, even if my instincts back then, when I was a teenager, were right, likability does not explain how an artist, a fad, a song, or a gadget get to have millions of fans? Where does it all start?

One explanation is the discovery story. It goes something like this:

A talented group of musicians form a band. They rehearse constantly, write wonderful songs, but must also hold menial jobs to pay the rent. At night, they play at very seedy joints, in hopes of being noticed. One night, out of the blue, a record producer (or a talent scout) catches their act. He signs them, puts them in a study, and has them lay down the tracks that will become (insert name of album here). Their first single hits the top ten, and it’s all uphill from there (at least until egos, drug overdoses, or Y0ko Ono get in the way).

Does this story sound familiar? with small variations you can apply it to musicians that range from Johnny Cash to Madonna. And it may even be true, but it is also very simplistic; it assumes that all anyone needs to be “discovered” is talent, hard work, and luck.  As Barthes would put it, such a story is a myth, and it “obscures history” (but I’ll get to that in another post). For now, I’ll limit myself to reviewing three explanations of how the popular becomes popular.

The political economy perspective

For communications and media scholars, “political economy” is a term generally used to describe scholarship concerned with the relationships among economic, political, and communications systems within the structure of global capitalism” (Bettig, 2002). Political economy is highly influenced by Marx’s views about capitalism, that is, by the idea of how the capitalist economy works. Under capitalism few individuals and/or corporations control the means of production. This control allows them to shape society and exercise dominance. Through conglomeration and monopoly, capitalists maximize profits at the expense of quality. They can also influence prices, wages, supply and demand, which is guaranteed by the lack of competitive alternatives.

In terms of the media, political economists argue that they are also controlled by capital. Consolidation shuts down  alternative viewpoints, and as a result, the media can be used to influence public opinion,  to suppress dissent, and to “manufacture consent” (see Chomsky).

In Malcolm Gladwell’s article “The Coolhunt” we catch a glimpse of what political economists believe about popular culture: it is a commodity. Commodities are manufactured by large conglomerates, and their success in the market depends on advertising. Popularity, hence, is not a fluke; it is the result deliberate actions that call attention to the commodity and make it desirable. Here’s an example from the Mac vs PC (or PC vs Mac… thanks to Sam Szabo, for pointing that out).

The role of advertising is to persuade us. But there is no guarantee that ALL OF US will head to the apple store just because we watched an ad. In fact, according to Dallas Smythe, that isn’t really the point of advertising at all.  Since we live in an industrialized society, we will go out and buy things anyway. Advertising merely shows us how to evaluate different products. Here are two examples to illustrate this:

Political economy also tackles the question of mass appeal. Mass appeal presupposes that there is ONE mass audience, and that what this audience wants determines what becomes popular. Accordingly, Reality TV is popular because people watch it. However, Eileen Meehan (and also Smythe) suggested that this isn’t the case. The ratings, says Meehan, determine which shows are put on the schedule. In the United States, Nielsen is the company that issues the television ratings, and they are based on sampling procedures that do not count everyone equally.

Why not? To put it simply it is because television networks in the business of selling audiences to advertisers, and advertisers want bona fide consumers (Smythe). A bona fide consumer is someone who has disposable income to purchase brand name items. Meehan adds that this  excludes entire segments of the population from “the audience,” which ends up being middle class, white, suburban, and male.

Meehan and Smythe provide some persuasive arguments that explain how television operated when there were only 3 networks. However, we now live in a multi-channel society, and it is neither feasible nor realistic to talk about ONE AUDIENCE when we have so much segmentation. Hence, can bona fide consumers can be of any color of the rainbow, gender, ethnicity, or political persuasion?

Absolutely, but one key insight still holds: they need to be able to consume. If they can’t, or won’t, they’re of less value to advertisers.

Diffusion of Innovations

Diffusion of innovations (DOI) offers another explanation for the popularity of things (and I’m using the term very broadly to include shows, ideas, trends, fashions, etc). Gladwell (1997) suggests that understanding DOI can explain “how trends work.” According to Rogers (1995, p. 5):

“Diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system.It is a special type of communication, in that the messages are concerned with new ideas.”

DOI recognizes that every new idea comes with a degree of uncertainty. This means that not everyone will jump on the bandwagon at the same time. Here is how Gladwell summarizes it:

In the language of diffusion research, the handful of farmers who started trying hybrid seed corn at the very beginning of the thirties were the “innovators,” the adventurous ones. The slightly larger group that followed them was the “early adopters.” They were the opinion leaders in the community, the respected, thoughtful people who watched and analyzed what those wild innovators were doing and then did it themselves. Then came the big bulge of farmers in 1936, 1937, and 1938 – the “early majority” and the “late majority,” which is to say the deliberate and the skeptical masses, who would never try anything until the most respected farmers had tried it. Only after they had been converted did the “laggards,” the most traditional of all, follow suit.

Gladwell also notes the importance of interpersonal communication for the DOI process. Accordingly, a great majority will adopt a new idea based on examples and opinions of those who adopted it first.

Going viral

Political economy and DOI are very useful when we consider how commodities, new ideas and trends become popular. In political economy, popularity is linked to market value. In DOI, on the other hand, the adoption an innovation depends, among other things, on how well it will satisfy (or create) needs (Rogers, 1995). But, what about those viral videos? How do you assign monetary value to the Dramatic Chipmunk? What need does it fulfill?

For Johnson (2007), memes can offer an explanation for the dramatic chipmunk. Richard Dawkins coined the term. In his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins argued that cultural change can be explained through evolutionary theory. Memes are similar to genes; they are “replicators” (Dawkins, 1976/1989, p. 192). Genes contain information that preserve and replicate those traits that can ensure the survival of the fittest. Memes, on the other hand,  allow trends to thrive through imitation:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said  to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain [...]. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation (Dawkins, 1976/1989, p. 192).

Like genes, furthermore, memes are also highly competitive. According to Johnson (2007), a successful meme is one that captures our attention. However, memes are very superficial; they’re ephemeral, which is why we’re not stuck with the dramatic chipmunk for years and years. We will inevitably move on as soon as new meme catches our attention.

The interesting thing about memes in popular culture is that they can, and are, being monetized. According to Bonnie Ruberg, from PC World magazine, internet memes are opening up new possibilities for businesses. Some examples include Cute Overload, StuffWhitePeopleLike.com, and ICanHasCheezburger.com.

So, why do popular things become popular?

Last year, I was one of the millions to post 25 things about me on my facebook account. I did it after I was tagged. Three days later, Katie Lee was talking about it with Hoda on the Today Show. Time magazine did a story on it, and so did every major news organization. Did news coverage helps spread the 25 random things? or did it respond to it?

The reason I ask these questions is so we can think about more complex explanations for popularity. Business imperatives do matter, to some degree, but DOI and memes also figure into the equation. So here is what I think: We should acknowledge that trends emerge from multiple sources; they can come from the top, or from the crowd. Furthermore, in our increasingly networked society, popularity  rests largely on the ability to spread through social networks, which means that our media use and our habits matter. Finally, businesses, media, and institutions can and will pick up on trends, and spread them even more (and this is what happened with Obama Girl).

In other words, it’s not productive to settle on a single explanation. We should, instead, consider popularity as a complex phenomenon through which ideas, trends, and fads spread through society.

——-

References

  • Bettig, R (2002). Political economy. In Encyclopedia of Communication and Information. (Vol 2, p. 711-713). New York: Macmillan Reference.
  • Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Gladwell, M. (1997, March 17). The coolhunt. The New Yorker.
  • Johnson, D (2007). Mapping the meme: A geographical approach to materialist rhetorical criticism. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies. 4(1), pp. 27-50
  • Klosterman, C. (2004, December 31). Culture got you down? Esquire. Retrieved July 20, 2007 from http://www.esquire.com/features/chuck-klostermans-america/ESQ0105-JAN_AMERICA_rev
  • Ruberg, B. (2009, August). Cash in on the internet memes phenomenon. PC World. 27(8), p. 33-34.
  • Meehan, E.R. (2006). Gendering the commodity audience: Critical media research, feminism, and political economy. In M.G. Durham and D.M. Kellner, (Eds.), Media and cultural studies Key Works. [Revised edition], pp. 230 – 257.  Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Rogers, E. (2005). Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press
  • Smythe, D. (2006). On the audience commodity and its work. In M.G. Durham and D.M. Kellner, (Eds.), Media and cultural studies Key Works. [Revised edition], pp. 230 – 256.  Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.