The problem with being popular

Several people have complained about the quality of the content that comes out of a site like Digg, a site that captures popular consensus to reflect back to its participants what matters at any given moment.

I actually agree with these people but for entirely different reasons than most of them. There are few things in this world more important than giving people platforms for speaking their mind and being heard, and there’s something valuable to take away from every individual. But ranking voices based on popularity ultimately creates the opposite of empowerment.

Competition is a fantastic incentive to evolve. I’d argue most of the critical commentary of citizen journalism is positioning by the people who have more to lose from the success of commons-based journalism than they care to admit. The argument is largely protectionist fear of a populist attack on mainstream media. They aren’t competitive, and they know it.

The real problem with popularity-driven models is not the existence of reporting that hasn’t been vetted or the increasingly fuzzy lines between perspective and truth. The real problem with popularity-driven models is that they reduce both the breadth and depth of the sources, topics and viewpoints being expressed across a community.

Popularity-driven models water down the value in those hard-to-find nuggets. They normalize coverage and create new power structures that interesting things have to fight through.

Slashdot requires that a participant build a level of karma high enough to breakthrough the controlling moderator hierarchy. Digg removes many of the layers that close Slashdot from wider participation, but it also creates its own power structure as the core voters develop an unwritten etiquette for reducing the noise.

Our current advertising models reinforce the popularity-driven systems and reward the sites that can win the most traffic over those that may actually provide more meaning. The more popular your articles are, the more ad inventory you create. The more inventory you create, the more revenue you can capture.

Rather than broadcast what a few people think matters, the Internet should be used to help people help other people discover and find what matters. Personalized recommendation engines and social networks have fantastic potential because they are learning how to surface relevance in ways that have real meaning without the filter of the popularity overlords or gameable search algorhythms.

And advertisers should begin rewarding sites that capture the right customers at the right time with higher rates. They should value media based on the how well the vehicle initiates movement of the right kind of customer at the right point down the marketing funnel rather than by the volume of touch points.

Good Night and Good Luck,” the recent film about Edward R. Murrow’s battle with Senator McCarthy challenged the television industry to rethink the value of the medium to society. Murrow’s speech in the beginning of the film is a harsh criticism of broadcast-style media:

“We have a built in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surplusses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it may see a totally different picture too late.”

He then goes on to fault popular opinion for allowing McCarthy to frighten everyone with his tactics:

“[Senator McCarthy] didn’t create this situation of fear. He merely exploited it and rather successfully. Casius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.'”

Finally, Murrow has to confront the station management and their desire to maintain strong sponsor relationships. His boss apologetically demotes Murrow:

“‘$64,000 Quesion’ brings in over $80,000 in sponsors and it costs one third of what you do. I’ve got Tuesday night programming that’s number one. People want to enjoiy themselves. They don’t want a civics lesson….I never censored a single program. I never said ‘no’ to you. Never.”

Murrow replies:

“I would argue that never saying ‘no’ is not the same as not censoring.”

I’m not saying popularity isn’t important. What other people think matters profoundly. It’s the root of being a social creature. And anyone who creates would be lying to you if they claimed they weren’t hopeful that what they create becomes popular.

The method for finding and consuming what’s popular, however, shouldn’t be controlled by dynamics that value what’s entertaining at the expense of what matters.

8 thoughts on “The problem with being popular”

  1. The popularity dilemma sounds similar to Pack Journalism (see, e.g.,

    It’s ironic that a wildly popular “method of finding and consuming” is mimicing what many saw as the biggest problem with the old “Big 3-dominated” media model.

    Like your blog.

  2. Great article! I tried to broach the topic at the Vancouver IA Summit and found that it, and the bearer of the topic, was distinctly not popular…I’m grateful that a popular person like you has expressed this opinion…perhaps now the topic will be considered worth exploring and discussing by people who tend to base their decisions about whether something is “interesting” or “smart” on whether someone (already rated as popular, interesting, or smart) has determined it thus! I think you hit it on the head about adolescents being most in thrall with external affirmation of their worth and in defining themselves. Ostensibly, once we grow through adolescence we learn that the world is Lord of the Flies only if you choose to buy into and perpetuate that conceptual system. As adults we see there are far more nuances and choices re: how we want to interact with people and the world, what kinds of communities we choose to create and be part of, and how much of the old paradigms we drag with us in defining our lives and a new world. As we get a little life under our belts we’re not so desperate for affirmation of our opinion or image by people who we think know better about ourselves than we do. And we see other dimensions of value than: smart, interesting, popular, clever, or cool. Things like being humane, compassionate, kind, thoughtful, ethical, introspective. As an adolescent you consider those attributes stupid–the worst thing you can be called as a teenager is “nice.” The popular kids are nice, so why should I try to be?! Clearly nice = weak. But as an adult you learn nice is actually very powerful…takes strength to put yourself out in the world as “nice,” and actually does more to effect a new paradigm than attempts to replace traditional, elite conceptions of value with other, new, and equally elite conceptions of value. As an adolescent you don’t have a lot of choice. Beyond adolescence you revel in the realization that most of how we live and communiate is a choice. Staying in an adolescent paradigm imo leads to the creation (and necessarily to continuous maintenance) of that same types of hierarchies that many people claim social networking breaks away from—cept that a different crowd of people are at the top of the pyramid and, because the system reinforces their positiona nd amount of trust the community gives them, even less questioning and critical evaluation, and more obedience to the popular-think.

    Sorry to go on and on…and truly thanks again for the thought-provoking piece. btw if I do check back to see whether there are comments not to sound uppity but it’s less to see *who’s* saying something or whether people “liked” what I wrote, but whether there are any comments to think about substantively and maybe learn from.

  3. eep – I said: The popular kids are nice… but meant the popular kids are *not* nice

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