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The science behind today’s hits

What makes something popular today may surprise you. It has to be familiar and new. It can be big and also small. And people don’t necessarily need to like it at first.

These are just a few of the findings Derek Thompson shares in Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. A senior editor at The Atlantic, Mr. Thompson has always enjoyed taking on big issues. Writing about economics gave him the chance to grapple with such questions as “Why do recessions happen?” and “How can we raise productivity?” But, pop culture has provided one of the most tantalizing questions: “What makes something popular?”

The viral myth

In exploring this topic, Mr. Thompson continually applies findings from big data. While we may never know what made bell bottoms popular in the 1960s, we can use pixel trails and social media shares to measure and track how ideas spread today. And, says Mr. Thompson, “when data scientists have actually studied the spread of pieces of information, it looks nothing like a viral disease. What we find are essentially one-to-one million ‘broadcast moments’ rather than a million one-to-one shares.”

Calling this the “viral myth,” Mr. Thompson explains that because we can’t see these “broadcast moments,” we want to think that making something catchy enough is what enables it to spread on its own. “This just isn’t true,” says Mr. Thompson. “Distribution is more important than content for anyone trying to make an idea popular.”

It is the “dark broadcasts” we can’t see that play a key role in whether something becomes a hit. “Imagine an article being published on the news aggregation website the Drudge Report, where millions of people see it,” says Mr. Thompson. “I and a friend share it on Facebook, and you see those two Facebook shares. To you, it may seem that the article is ‘going viral,’ when in fact it’s being broadcast in a rather old-fashioned way even though we can’t see it.”

New and familiar

While strategic thinking about distribution is critical to the popularity of an idea or product, content still merits attention. Here, Mr. Thompson identifies two contradictory factors at play: newness and familiarity.

“We live in a cult of novelty,” he observes. “There’s enormous pressure to be aware of the hottest new investment strategies, fashion trends, movies, music—everything that contributes to what we call culture. But one of the oldest findings in psychological history is that we like what is most familiar to us. The key to popularity lies in this interplay between familiarity and surprise.”

To sell something surprising, Mr. Thompson advises, make it familiar. To sell something familiar, make it surprising. If you want to sell something new, and you face a lot of competition, your challenge is to make it seem as new as possible. On the other hand, he explains, if you want to sell something that has never existed before, you will want “to make that surprising thing seem as familiar as possible.”

New artificial intelligence technology follows this formula, says Mr. Thompson. “Alexa, Amazon’s virtual personal assistant, talks in a lilting voice that sounds like a woman who you might already know. Popularity lives at this intersection between novelty and familiarity.”

 

“We like what is most familiar to us. The key to popularity lies in this interplay between familiarity and surprise.”

 

The Tokyo effect

While most of us think becoming popular means becoming as big as possible—the blockbuster novel or movie, for example—Mr. Thompson has a different perspective, which he frames within what he calls “the Tokyo effect.” Traveling in Tokyo, he happened on a little shop selling vinyl from the 1970s and a particular kind of whiskey. At first surprised by its extreme specialization, he realized that such a business could actually thrive because even if it appealed to .1% of Tokyo’s population, that still meant tens of thousands of customers.

“Tokyo is the internet,” says Mr. Thompson. “It’s a system of billions of people connected to each other, and it doesn’t necessarily behoove you to try to make something that appeals to everyone. In fact, making something really specific for only 1% or .1% of those billions can still be a hit with millions of consumers.”

From “Brahms’s Lullaby” to Star Wars, many of the biggest hits in history, Mr. Thompson points out, were initially created for just a few people. “To go big, go small,” he says. “Because if everyone is connected by global networks, a hit that only is adored by 1% can still be one of the biggest hits in the world.”

Giving with heads, not hearts

While many of the findings in Hit Makers hold implications for business and commerce, when it comes to philanthropy, Mr. Thompson identifies a different set of influences: utility and emotion.

We typically watch a movie or read a book because of its emotional appeal. However, when it comes to a hammer, we care mainly about its utility. For Mr. Thompson, thinking about the utility of a particular cause or charity can make a difference in how we might spend our philanthropic dollars.

In philanthropy, “we often think with our hearts, but we might actually be better served if we thought with our heads. The new movement of ‘effective altruism’ is all about putting numbers on the most significant and important causes in the world—causes that could save thousands of lives immediately,” notes Mr. Thompson.

Using websites such as Give Well that rank charities by their utility can be helpful, Mr. Thompson finds, in taking people out of what can be “a very sentimental process. Of course, if you love ballet, give to ballet. But reserve some part of your philanthropic budget for the hard numbers, for the science, for where this money could save lives now.”

Holding fast to the anchor

Mr. Thompson doesn’t shirk from examining his own field—journalism—and the way we consume news. He refers to a 1927 study conducted by George Gallup, then at the University of Iowa, about what people were reading in the Des Moines Register. While participants reported that they read serious front page news, when probed further, it became clear that political cartoons and fashion photos actually captured their attention.

“Today, you see that it’s the quizzes or the memes that are more shared on Facebook than the hard news,” notes Mr. Thompson. “Even in the 1920s, we did everything possible to avoid reading paragraphs. We wanted stuff that was drawn and photographed, and it’s the same today.”

This can make it challenging for journalists. “I can look right at my analytics,” Mr. Thompson says, “and see which articles are doing better than others. I may draw lessons from that that would make me a worse journalist. It’s important, I think, not to be led exclusively by the big data that is revealing audience preferences, but to hold fast to the anchor of our journalistic responsibilities and say this is why I got into journalism: to tell big truths, even if it doesn't maximize my page views.”

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