Can the Science of Popularity Help Create the Next Diverse Blockbuster Hit?

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The author of Hit Makers: Why Things Become Popular argues that familiar formats and wide-reaching distribution channels are the secret to viral success on the Internet.

By Carson Leigh Brown


Derek Thompson argues familiar plotlines and powerful distribution channels can help boost a film like Hidden Figures to box-office glory. (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

In all likelihood, there’s a painting by Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, or Degas housed inside the Impressionist wing of your favorite museum. These artists are often cited as leaders of the Impressionist movement, even if their most famous styles and subjects differed — Degas played with movement in dance, Cézanne with still lives, and Monet with outdoor landscapes, for instance. According to Derek Thompson, a senior editor at TheAtlantic and author of the new book Hit Makers: Why Things Become Popular, they have been canonized together due to something of a historical accident: All once belonged in the collection of a lesser-known artist, Gustave Caillebotte.

Caillebotte was a buyer of last resort for many of his artist friends, and, after he left his collection of paintings to the French state upon his death, they were displayed in the state museum. This display in a hallowed institute gave them the credibility that they needed to be considered art, Thompson argues. It’s a story he tells to illustrate a major thesis in his new book: Canons are, essentially, arbitrary nonsense.

Thompson’s book uses social science to critically assess pop culture across the last 150 years, from 1868 to now. His study carves a path for readers to critically assess their own standards for great art — Thompson explains how repeated exposure to an idea or work of art makes us more willing to see it as valuable, for example, and how the best movies use familiar genres and franchisesto help us fall in love with something new. Insights into the appeal of the familiar and the importance of distribution could help the next generation of diverse creators be the force behind blockbuster hits like Moonlight and Hidden Figures, Thompson argues.

In a telephone conversation on Monday, Thompson talked to Pacific Standard about some of his book’s most important findings for diverse creators, the assets and drawbacks to the science of virality, and what makes a speech powerful and resonant through the ages.

Let’s start succinctly: In short, what is the thesis of your book?

The thesis of the book is that familiarity beats originality and distribution beats content. We think we want things that are fresh and new, but, in fact, we fall in love with that which is sneakily familiar. And we want to think that quality is destiny and content is king, but, in fact, the groups, organizations, and stars that own the power of distribution dictate popularity.

Did you have a favorite chapter to research, or did you have a favorite moment?

My favorite chapter to write was the chapter about the psychology and economics of music. I started at a very basic level asking musicologists, “What is music?” The answer from musicology seems to be that the God particle of music is repetition. You take almost any sound that would otherwise appear to be cacophonous and, if you repeat it at a common interval, suddenly the brain is processing it as music.

The really fun insight was when I was trying, essentially, to find a story for chapter two. I always knew that the thesis of the chapter would be [about] familiar surprises — we love things that are new, as long as they remind us of things that are familiar. And then I discovered this man, Raymond Loewy, who is the father of industrial design and the godfather of the 1950s American aesthetic. He had a theory for why people like what they like called MAYA—Most Advanced Yet Acceptable—which was exactly this idea. His story was a lovely thing to discover.

What are the implications of these theories for film and television casting and how to make Hollywood more inclusive?

In many ways, the thrilling success of multiculturalism in the movies this year was Moonlight. Moonlight is a film about a very rare and otherwise taboo subject: homosexuality in the black male community. This is a slice of life that I’m guessing the majority of its audience had not been regularly exposed to. But look at how that movie was structured, in three parts: In the first part, the future lovers played with each other and got to know each other, in act two they hooked up and fell apart because of some cataclysmic event, and then, in act three, they came back together, albeit in a bittersweet finale. That is exactly the story structure of every romantic comedy in the world. So this incredibly brave, original, novel, and liberal movie nonetheless used an extremely familiar story structure in order to move its audience.

And this is precisely what I’m talking about, and what Loewy was talking about with familiar surprises and MAYA. If you’re going to surprise people, if you’re going to move people with something that’s original, one of the challenges is making it just familiar enough so that people fall in love with it, want to spend time with it, and it moves them.

How’d you make the decision to put Donald Trump in the book?

It’s a book about culture, and culture sometimes is considered the back page of the newspaper — it’s the thing you read if the world isn’t falling apart. I actually think of it in the opposite order. Culture creates politics and culture informs economics: I wanted to explain how pop culture informs capital-S “Serious news” as well. So yes, there’s a chapter that begins with Impressionist art and talks about pop music, but the theme of the chapter is really channels of distribution and the power of exposure. And what is Trump if not an exposure machine?

I thought to myself that it would be almost cruel and stupid not to include Trump in a chapter about the power of exposure and how familiarity leads to liking. If I’m talking about TV, it would be stupid not to include politics, because one of the most important implications of TV is the way that it reflects politics. I was always thinking, “What’s the most important implication of this idea?” An implication that is essentially an A1, a front page, implication.

There’s a moment in the book when you talk about French artist Gustave Caillebotte accidentally starting the Impressionist designation. What does this story say about what we deem worthy in the art world?

I think it speaks very powerfully of the force of familiarity. That to art experts in the 1870s, Impressionism was new and therefore bad, but to seven-year-old children today, Monet’s Water Lilies are familiar and therefore good. That’s a really powerful concept, if you step back, scale up, and think: “Wait, how many parts of my life and my culture do I think are good merely because they’re familiar? And how many things do I think are bad merely because they’re new?” The implications for politics are dramatic.

This [also] suggests that canons are bullshit. If the Impressionist canon exists in large part because of a literal stroke of bad fortune — Caillebotte just died of a freak stroke in his 40s — and that’s why some of the most famous paintings today are famous, because they happened to be in this one guy’s collection that became the first Impressionist exhibit in a French state museum, that suggests all sorts of things about other canons. For example, that the domination of literature canons by dead, white, English-speaking men is equally bullshit. These men are similarly beneficiaries of a history of exposure by similarly white, upper-middle-class men, who wanted to promote these works because they spoke to them. I happen to like Mozart a lot and I happen to like Brahms a lot and I happen to like Monet a lot, but it’s so interesting to think how many of our tastes are historical accidents.

How much stock are entertainment professionals putting in social science? How much should they?

I did not want to write a book that was selling snake oil. I wanted to tell interesting stories and give exposure to powerful ideas, while being really upfront as often as I could be about which of these ideas were more hard science and which were more, “Psychologists are studying this idea, but we don’t exactly know for sure what’s up.” So for example, the mere exposure effect in the first chapter is one of the sturdiest psychological findings ever — I feel really good leaning on that. Something like disfluency, the idea that when we confront a sentence or a product or idea that is confusing and forces us to think, we react to it in a really different way so that we almost always hate it, that’s a concept that has psychological backing, but is a newer idea.

I wouldn’t be doing a very good job of telling you the science of popularity if I didn’t tell you honestly that science exists along a spectrum from, “We’re figuring this out live” to “It’s evolution. It’s gravity. We’re pretty sure this thing exists.”

How does science explain virality?

What science seems to suggest about virality is that virality is kind of bullshit. The way that viral diseases spread is through generations of one-to-one, or one-to-two, or one-to-three sharing. But when data scientists look inside the “information cascade,” essentially the map of an idea spreading from one person to a million, they almost invariably find that the key mechanism by which that information was distributed was not viral, it was a broadcast, which is, by definition, one-to-one thousand or one-to-a million [sharing]. For every viral video, BuzzFeed article, or meme that you see, there’s almost alway a moment inside the information cascade where many people see it from one source.

And the reason that this is important is that, if you believe in the viral myth, you essentially are arguing that great products and ideas are self-distributing. People will just buy [a title] and love it and read it and pass it on, because it is a virus. But that’s just not the case — products don’t distribute themselves. This is why the first thesis of the book is, “familiarity beats originality” and the second thesis of the book is “distribution beats content.” Nothing self-distributes. Distribution is more important than content in building popularity for a product.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.