The sci­ence of go­ing vi­ral

How do things be­come pop­u­lar? Rather than be­ing ex­cit­ing and new, in his book Hit Mak­ers, Derek Thomp­son says a repack­ag­ing of the fa­mil­iar ex­erts a pow­er­ful pull, Saul Auster­litz writes

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Saul Auster­litz is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view.

In field after field, we have seen it: new hits pig­gy­back on old hits. The mul­ti­plex is an end­less swirl of Mar­vel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse en­tries and Star

Wars se­quels. One of the big­gest pub­lish­ing suc­cesses of the past decade was con­structed out of re­pur­posed Twi­light fan fic­tion. Brood­ing TV he­roes bred their own off­spring, prop­a­gat­ing un­til they threat­ened to sub­merge what was once the Golden Age of Tele­vi­sion. So it should come as no sur­prise that the same should be true of the sub­set of non-fic­tion books we might call in­spi­ra­tional so­cial sci­ence. Where once had reigned Mal­colm Glad­well and the now-dis­cred­ited Jonah Lehrer, ped­dling a craftily-var­ied ar­ray of re­searchers’ find­ings, his­tor­i­cal anec­dotes and brief bi­o­graph­i­cal pro­files, all or­bit­ing a sim­ple-to-fol­low cen­tral hy­poth­e­sis, there now comes Derek Thomp­son, a se­nior edi­tor at The At­lantic. Thomp­son’s book asks a com­pelling ques­tion: what goes into mak­ing some­thing a hit? Draw­ing on ev­ery­thing from the be­lated suc­cess of Bill Ha­ley & His Comets’ Rock Around the

Clock to the ca­reer of de­signer Ray­mond Loewy to the sto­ry­telling prow­ess of Ge­orge Lu­cas,

Hit Mak­ers casts its net widely to as­say the prin­ci­ples of giv­ing the au­di­ence what it may not yet re­alise it wants.

“The power of well-dis­guised fa­mil­iar­ity,” Thomp­son ar­gues, “goes far be­yond film. It’s a po­lit­i­cal es­say that ex­presses, with new and thrilling clar­ity, an idea that read­ers thought but never ver­balised. It’s a tele­vi­sion show that in­tro­duces an alien world, yet with char­ac­ters so recog­nis­able that view­ers feel as if they’re wear­ing their skin. It’s a piece of art that daz­zles with a new form and yet of­fers a jolt of mean­ing.”

Thomp­son is of­fer­ing Hit Mak­ers as a work of well-dis­guised fa­mil­iar­ity, go­ing so far as to draw on ma­te­rial from other his­tor­i­cal/so­cial-sci­ence pop­u­laris­ers like Steven John­son, whose The Ghost Map is briskly sum­marised in one aside about the Lon­don cholera out­break of 1854. Thomp­son him­self is a writer in the mode of Loewy, whose self-de­clared motto, MAYA, ar­gued that “peo­ple grav­i­tate to prod­ucts that are bold, yet in­stantly com­pre­hen­si­ble – ‘Most Ad­vanced Yet Ac­cept­able.’”

Hit Mak­ers is an ex­pert re­fash­ion­ing of well-known ma­te­rial, grav­i­tat­ing to deeply fa­mil­iar topics in or­der to fill in the edges and il­lu­mi­nate the hid­den nooks. (I, for one, hadn’t known that Tetris was cre­ated by a Soviet com­puter sci­en­tist.) On Lu­cas, he says the di­rec­tor would ner­vously trim his hair with scis­sors as he wrote his scripts and that he him­self bor­rowed from a tra­di­tion of cin­e­matic tales of heroic der­ring-do, fea­tur­ing fig­ures like the Shadow and the Lone Ranger. Thomp­son picks through the in­spi­ra­tions for Star Wars, rang­ing from Flash Gor­don to Akira Kuro­sawa’s The Hid­den Fortress, de­scrib­ing Lu­cas’s film as “an orig­i­nal com­pi­la­tion”. “It’s not like one kind of ice cream,” Lu­cas said of his work, “but rather a very big sun­dae.” The book, then, looks at ev­ery­thing from the his­tory of Im­pres­sion­ist art to the mu­si­cal com­po­nent of po­lit­i­cal speech­writ­ing, to the busi­ness model of ESPN. Thomp­son cir­cles a fun­da­men­tal co­nun­drum of pop­u­lar­ity. Are au­di­ences in search of some­thing new, or some­thing fa­mil­iar? Do they want safety, or are they seek­ing a thrill? There is a good deal of ev­i­dence sum­moned for both sides of the de­bate.

Hit Mak­ers briefly tells the story of Charles Dou­glass, whose “Laff Box” was the first tele­vi­sion laugh track, not-so-sub­tly in­form­ing view­ers when and how to laugh at their favourite sit­coms. Spo­tify data in­di­cates that most users stop seek­ing out new mu­sic at the age of 33.

There is also the ar­rival of the gen­uinely new, which Thomp­son in­di­cates is of­ten the re­sult of an art­ful tweak of the staid con­sen­sus. Suc­cess, he ar­gues, is less about the in­her­ent value of the new than the con­flu­ence of the right work at the right mo­ment in the right place. It is Whit­ney Wolfe, a young Tin­der em­ployee vis­it­ing soror­i­ties at South­ern Methodist Uni­ver­sity, con­vinc­ing all the sis­ters to sign up for her dat­ing app, and then tak­ing it to the neigh­bour­ing fra­ter­ni­ties to show mem­bers all the at­trac­tive young women al­ready log­ging onto the site.

It is 9-year-old rhythm-and­blues fan Peter Ford, whose father Glenn was about to star in a ju­ve­nile-delin­quency drama called Black­board Jun­gle. The film’s di­rec­tor, Richard Brooks, was in search of a fresh song to play over the cred­its, and on a visit to Ford’s house, lis­tened to some of his pre-teen son’s new records be­fore se­lect­ing one called Rock Around the Clock which had flopped upon re­lease the pre­vi­ous year.

It is, as Thomp­son wisely points out, the in­cred­i­ble, un­der­played in­flu­ence of the Im­pres­sion­ist pain­ter Gus­tave Caille­botte on the rep­u­ta­tions of his con­tem­po­raries. By do­nat­ing his ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of works by his con­tem­po­raries, in­clud­ing Au­guste Renoir and Claude Monet, to the French gov­ern­ment, he helped to cre­ate the Im­pres­sion­ist canon. We love the Im­pres­sion­ist art that we do, ar­gues Thomp­son, not be­cause it is in­her­ently bet­ter than more ob­scure work but be­cause it is more fa­mil­iar.

In a sim­i­lar vein, Thomp­son notes the in­flu­ence of charts and rank­ing sys­tems on our con­sump­tion. We down­load only the most pop­u­lar apps for our smart­phones and pre­fer the songs that oth­ers al­ready pre­fer: “The mere ex­is­tence of rank­ings – the sim­ple sig­nal of pop­u­lar­ity – made the big­gest hits even big­ger.”

In per­haps his most com­pelling line of ar­gu­ment, Thomp­son pushes back against the en­tire con­cept of vi­ral­ity, see­ing lit­tle be­yond the usual mea­sures of suc­cess in slightly-up­dated form. Thomp­son looks at the Fifty Shades tril­ogy and the “Kony 2012” on­line video (which called for ac­tion against Ugan­dan mili­tia leader Joseph Kony) and sees ex­am­ples of 21st-cen­tury broad­cast­ers am­pli­fy­ing a weak sig­nal and spread­ing it to the masses.

So “Kony 2012” did not spread from anony­mous user to anony­mous user, un­seen by the cus­to­di­ans of cul­ture, but rather through the so­cial-me­dia feeds of su­per­stars like Oprah Win­frey, Ri­hanna and Tay­lor Swift. And Fifty Shades, while find­ing an early au­di­ence through a fan-fic­tion web­site, came to mass public at­ten­tion via the be­hind-the-scenes ef­forts of prom­i­nent pub­lish­ing ex­ec­u­tives who el­e­vated au­thor E L James’s ob­scure e-book into a block­buster book and film se­ries.

And yet, the por­trait Hit Mak­ers paints is one where “the world’s at­ten­tion is shift­ing from con­tent that is in­fre­quent, big and broad­cast ... to con­tent that is fre­quent, small and so­cial”. Thomp­son finds hope in the in­ter­net’s abil­ity to “em­power in­di­vid­u­als, un­teth­ered from the old gate­keep­ers that once con­trolled distribution, mar­ket­ing and hit-mak­ing”.

There are the req­ui­site sto­ries of the law-school dropouts turned Vine su­per­stars, but the ev­i­dence of a brave new world for lone cre­ators feels thin. Lu­cas doesn’t make Star Wars any more – Dis­ney does. And even in the ma­jor leagues, the taste for the fa­mil­iar has of­ten over­whelmed the orig­i­nal – or, to be more pre­cise, orig­i­nal­ity must con­fine it­self to fa­mil­iar bor­ders.

Thomp­son notes that for 15 of the last 16 years, the top-gross­ing film in the US has been ei­ther a se­quel or an adap­ta­tion.

Hit Mak­ers is a smooth read. As Thomp­son demon­strates, rep­e­ti­tion is it­self the foun­da­tion of mu­sic; with­out it, even the most as­tute lis­ten­ers have dif­fi­culty un­der­stand­ing a se­ries of in­ter­con­nected sounds as mu­si­cal. Rep­e­ti­tion is the heart of the pop so­cial-sci­ence tome as well – rep­e­ti­tion of fa­mil­iar sto­ries, and rep­e­ti­tion of a well-honed model of sto­ry­telling.

To cri­tique Hit Mak­ers for its nag­ging fa­mil­iar­ity is to pe­ruse the shelf of books with gavels and hand­cuffs on their cov­ers and bash them for their predictable ar­ray of dead bod­ies and griz­zled in­ves­ti­ga­tors. This is, at heart, what they do.

Hit Mak­ers’ own well-dis­guised fa­mil­iar­ity will prob­a­bly not stop any of its in­tended au­di­ence from pick­ing it up at their lo­cal book­store or air­port kiosk – nor should it. But it may very well pre­vent it from be­ing quite as mem­o­rable as its au­thor hopes.

Sun­set Boule­vard / Cor­bis via Getty Images

Ge­orge Lu­cas, Star Wars cre­ator, with An­thony Daniels (C-3PO) on the set of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977). The sto­ry­telling prow­ess of Lu­cas, who de­scribed his film as an ‘orig­i­nal com­pi­la­tion’, is chron­i­cled in Hit Mak­ers.

Derek Thomp­son Pen­guin, Dh68

Hit Mak­ers: The Sci­ence of Pop­u­lar­ity in an Age of Dis­trac­tion

Michael Ochs Ar­chives / Getty Images

Rock Around the Clock (1953) by Bill Ha­ley & His Comets.

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