What really made Monet’s art go viral?
Is Claude Monet a truly great painter or just the beneficiary of good early publicity? To hear Derek Thompson tell it, he was a highly skilled early impressionist. But there was something else subtly at work in Monet’s day that created his enduring popularity. Monet was one of a handful of impressionist painters whose work was given to the Museé du Luxembourg in Paris as part of a young man’s bequest in the late 1800s. As a result, his paintings, along with other impressionist art, were shown in the first national exhibition of such work, and that broad publicity, Thompson argues, was what made those artists popular. The bequest shaped what people thought impressionism was, and Monet rode the wave to fame. As Thompson argues in his book “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction,” Monet succeeded not because he was the best artist but because repeated exposure persuaded people to like his work.
In our age, the principles of popularity still apply. Books like “Fifty Shades of Grey” land on the bestseller list. Movies like the “Star Wars” franchise gross billions of dollars and ignite the imaginations of children everywhere. And social movements like the recent Women’s March bring communities together around a common goal or interest. But while it’s clear that some things grab collective attention, why these things in particular? That question lies at the heart of Thompson’s book. Mixing anecdotes and science, he explains the famous psychological principle of mere exposure, or the fact that the more you see something, the more you like it. He began pondering Monet’s success after seeing his famous painting “The Japanese Footbridge” at the National Gallery of Art.
Thompson is a gifted writer and has a knack for finding intriguing stories. But rather than dwelling on any one in particular, or taking the time to fully unpack it, he often flits to the next sexy example. This quickly gets overwhelming. It makes it hard to remember what the main point is or how it relates to the overall theme.
In a chapter on “The Viral Myth,” Thompson argues that nothing goes viral. While this is a fun idea, it’s not exactly correct. Thompson reviews research on social media that suggests few things spread from person to person online. Rather, traditional media, especially broadcast, is responsible for causing broad exposure. If something spreads virally through social media, it typically doesn’t go from one person to the next, like a virus, but rather is propelled by a few people who have big followings, and it takes off from there.
Thompson is partially right. When people use the word “viral” what they often mean is that something is popular: a video got 10 million views or a post got hundreds of thousands of likes. But that doesn’t mean the content was actually contagious. Advertisements might get 1 million views because they were shown during the Super Bowl or because companies paid to feature them on various websites, but that doesn’t mean people shared them.
What Thompson glosses over is that some things do get highly shared. And if you understand why people share, you can engineer things to be more contagious. More emotional news articles are more likely to make the most emailed list, and people are more likely to talk about certain things, or brands, if reminded to think of them by the surrounding environment; for example, a reference to peanut butter makes some people think of jelly. Even before broadcast media existed, people were sharing stories, news and information among each other. Some things spread wide, others didn’t. We’ve all seen juicy gossip dash around a schoolyard or through an office. But Thompson provides few insights into how this builds and spreads. This kind of person-to-person sharing gets short shrift in his book.
Thompson also argues the virtues of “optimal newness,” which occurs through a blend of familiarity and novelty. On the familiar side, hit songs tend to have a certain structure, Barack Obama’s speeches repeat the same refrains, and ESPN shows the same clips again and again. Familiarity can be good, but too much of it can be boring. So if you add a pinch of newness, then you’ve got a familiar surprise — something that seems new on the surface but is similar enough to things we’ve seen or heard before to evoke familiarity’s warm glow.
And that notion captures “Hit Makers” perfectly. Thompson takes well-worn research that has often been covered elsewhere and tries to give it new life through novel stories. It doesn’t make for the most revelatory book, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Thompson, after all, seems to be taking his own advice. As he notes: “The difference between a brilliant new idea with bad marketing and a mediocre idea with excellent marketing can be the difference between bankruptcy and success. To sell something familiar, make it surprising.”
HIT MAKERS The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction By Derek Thompson Penguin Press. 344 pp. $28