The Science of Popularity: Familiarity, Repetition, and Identity

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Sep 15, 2023

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The Science of Popularity: Familiarity, Repetition, and Identity

In an age where attention is scarce and competition is fierce, understanding the science behind popularity is crucial. Derek Thompson's book, "Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction," delves into the factors that contribute to the success of products, music, and ideas. One key finding is that familiarity often trumps novelty when it comes to capturing people's attention.

Thompson explains that humans have a propensity for gravitating towards things that remind them of what they already know and love. This is why we see a proliferation of sequels, adaptations, and reboots in the entertainment industry. We crave the comfort of the familiar, even as we seek out new experiences.

But familiarity alone is not enough to guarantee popularity. The distribution strategy, the channels through which a piece of content is disseminated, play a crucial role in its success. Thompson argues that it's not about a million one-to-one moments, but rather a handful of one-to-one-million moments. In other words, reaching a wide audience through broadcast mechanisms is more important than the qualities of the content itself.

Repetition is another powerful tool in the pursuit of popularity. Diana, a music industry insider, believes that repetition is the "god particle" of music. Our brains are wired to respond to repetition and variety in a certain sequence, which is why catchy tunes often become chart-topping hits. Similarly, the rhyme to reason effect suggests that we are more likely to believe ideas and slogans that contain elements of rhyme and musicality.

Identity also plays a crucial role in the popularity of content. People crave a sense of belonging and individuality. Thompson introduces the concept of MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable), which highlights the delicate balance between novelty and familiarity. To sell something surprising, it must have elements of familiarity. Conversely, to sell something familiar, it must have surprising elements. Striking the right balance is key to capturing people's attention.

Interestingly, there seems to be a correlation between musical taste and political sensitivity. Both music and politics have sensitive periods that occur during the teenage years and early to mid-20s. After the age of 33, Spotify data suggests that people stop listening to new songs entirely, indicating that their musical tastes have crystallized. This finding raises intriguing questions about the connection between our preferences in music and our political beliefs.

While popularity may seem enticing, it comes with its fair share of drawbacks. Tim Ferriss, in his article "11 Reasons Not to Become Famous," provides valuable insights into the dark side of fame. He warns against using fame as a lever to achieve success and emphasizes the importance of considering the type of fame one desires.

Ferriss highlights the dangers that come with a large audience, such as death threats, harassment, and invasion of privacy. He shares personal experiences of receiving regular death threats and the measures he had to take to ensure his safety. Famous individuals often find themselves targeted by both overenthusiastic fans and malevolent individuals, leading to a constant state of vigilance.

Dating and personal relationships can also be affected by fame. Predators may target individuals with fame and fewer resources, taking advantage of their vulnerable position. Moreover, fame can attract "friends" with ulterior motives, who pretend to be interested in establishing a genuine connection but are merely seeking personal gain.

Invasions of privacy are another significant concern for the famous. Personal information, such as home addresses, can end up in databases and mailing lists, making individuals susceptible to unwanted attention and potential harm. Protecting personal information becomes essential to ensure safety and peace of mind.

Ultimately, fame is not the answer to life's problems. It can magnify insecurities and fears rather than resolve them. Ferriss suggests that working on personal growth and inner fulfillment should take precedence over seeking external validation through fame.

In conclusion, the science of popularity reveals that familiarity, repetition, and identity are key factors in capturing people's attention. However, the pursuit of fame should be approached with caution, as it comes with significant risks and challenges. If one desires a large audience, it is crucial to prioritize safety, protect personal information, and be aware of the potential drawbacks of fame. Instead of seeking external validation, focusing on personal growth and fulfillment is more likely to lead to lasting happiness and success.

Three actionable advice to keep in mind:

  • 1. Embrace familiarity and repetition: When creating content or products, find ways to incorporate elements that are familiar to your audience. Repetition can also be a powerful tool in capturing people's attention and making your message stick.
  • 2. Prioritize distribution: Pay attention to the channels through which your content is distributed. Focus on reaching a wide audience through broadcast mechanisms rather than relying solely on social mechanisms. The distribution strategy can have a significant impact on the success of your content.
  • 3. Protect your privacy: If you find yourself in the public eye, take precautions to ensure your safety and the safety of your loved ones. Avoid having personal information mailed to your home and consider using off-site mailing addresses. Be cautious of people who approach you with ulterior motives and be mindful of the potential risks that come with fame.

Remember, popularity and fame are not the ultimate goal. Focus on personal growth, inner fulfillment, and making a positive impact rather than seeking external validation through fame.

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