Q+A: Derek Thompson On Why Things Become Popular

Popularity is a strange beast. Whilst it might seem that cultural juggernauts like Star Wars or Fifty Shades of Grey arise out of nowhere or that they defy logic, it’s more often than not a complex web of variables that allows them to emerge as top of the food chain. But senior editor of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson, has an all-together different theory, having recently released the book Hit Makers, an absorbing read about why things such as the bizarre meta-reality app Pokemon or the iconic Beatles permeate culture so deeply rather than other alternatives. The conclusion he comes to is remarkably simple, we like familiarity.

Things that we already know, that are ubiquitous but with a dash of inventiveness or originality. We sat down with Thompson to explore these fascinating ideas and how Trump has managed to break every rule book with regards to popularity.

What inspired you to focus on such a unique area? Do the ‘Tipping Point’ authors of the world inspire you?

I am inherently interested in popularity. Why do some ideas — Trump, Pokemon Go, 50 Shades — seem to come out of nowhere to become phenomena, while at the same time, why are people such creatures of habit, preferring the same movie franchises, TV shows, and songs, over and over again? Do ideas really go “viral”? These seemed like naturally interesting queries from which to make a book.

One of your main hypotheses in the book is that we enjoy the familiar with a dash of the new. Would you say there are examples of things that are popular that turn parts of our culture on its head, that don’t “piggyback” as you call it? Or does that take time to permeate culture?

Think of it this way – cultural markets are neophiliac and consumer tastes are neophobic. Entertainment companies only survive if they get us to consume the new, but everything we know from human psychology suggests we are consistently enamoured by the familiar. So that is the central challenge for creators, innovators, entrepreneurs – to make surprising ideas sneakily familiar, and to make familiar concepts surprising.

What does it say about society when we choose to ignore a hit maker who was easily as good as, if not better than, the Cézanne’s or Lennon’s of the world? Are the reasons logical?

Quality is a hard thing to prove. Is John Lennon good? I think so. You think so. But if an Amazonian tribeswoman says she hates “Oh, Yoko!”, who is in a position to say she’s wrong? I really try to get away from trying to be normative about taste in the book. To what end should I tell people that their valuation of Renoir is wrong? Taste is emotional, and one of the most important ingredients of taste is familiarity. Kids who grow up surrounded by impressionism and the Beatles are going to like Renoir and Lennon. That doesn’t make them “high-cultured”, it makes them creatures of a certain culture.

How has social media changed the notion of popularity?

Let’s just talk about Facebook. Facebook’s influence is extremely complicated. It connects the world, knitting us all together on this social graph, but in creating an engagement algorithm that preferences familiarity and similarity, it has also strengthened affinity groups and fortified filter bubbles, which divide the world. I think it clearly allows for a scale of popularity that is extraordinary. Publishers like BuzzFeed and The Atlantic have found their audiences to grow tremendously because of the sheer scale of Facebook.

How do we even begin to assess the almost insane popularity of President Donald Trump? And why can’t we switch off?

It feels to me there is a certain bizarre compulsion we have that goes beyond any high exposure indicator. Throughout cultural history, we see something interesting happens when a radical idea suddenly enters the mainstream through a moment of public consecration: when impressionism first hung at a French Museum in the 1890s, when rock and roll first played in a movie in 1955, or when a figure like Trump mainstreams an unapologetic xenophobia that has lingered for many years outside of the mainstream. Those sound like really different ideas, and of course they are very different in all sorts of obvious ways. But in all three cases, this radical thing became suddenly really really really popular and widely talked about very quickly, right after its moment of public consecration.

Is the notion of virality changing?

I think the contemporary conversation around virality has become lazy. We say anything that gets popular really quickly is viral, when that’s just not true. If I read an article that was posted on the front pages of the Huffington Post and Drudge and then shared by one friend on Facebook, did that article go viral? No. It was broadcast and shared by one friend and then I found it. I think one concept that data scientists need to understand better is networks of broadcasters — how an idea can start, for example in The Atlantic, spread to Vox and The New Yorker, and then be picked up by MSNBC and the Washington Post. Millions of people will learn about such an idea, and they may feel like it is spreading between individuals. But the most meaningful way that it is spreading is between broadcasters.

Derek Thompson’s Hit Makers is out now through Penguin.