What re­ally made Monet’s art go vi­ral?

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY JONAH BERGER Jonah Berger is a pro­fes­sor at the Whar­ton School at the University of Penn­syl­va­nia and the au­thor of “Con­ta­gious: Why Things Catch On” and “In­vis­i­ble In­flu­ence: The Hid­den Forces That Shape Be­hav­ior.”

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

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