Saturday, February 4, 2017

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson (Review)

Release date: February 7th, 2017
Author links: Goodreads - Twitter
Publisher: Penguin Press
Pages: 352

(copy received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review)

Description (from Goodreads):

Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson puts pop culture under the lens of science to investigate what every business, every artist, every person looking to promote themselves and their work is after: what makes a hit a hit.

Hit Makers is a groundbreaking investigation into the most valuable currency of the 21st century: people's attention. With incisive analysis and captivating storytelling, Atlantic Senior Editor Derek Thompson uses the tools of economics and psychology to reveal the secrets of what makes a hit a hit. 

Drawing on ancient history and modern headlines—from vampire lore and the Mickey Mouse watch to Facebook and Games of Thrones—Thompson offers practical lessons for how anybody can make a hit and become a smarter consumer of culture. In doing so, he shows how the universe of attention is connected. An investigation into the science of pop music uncovers the secrets of JFK and Obama’s speechwriters. An exclusive new history of Fifty Shades of Grey reveals why "going viral" is a myth. HIT MAKERS not only investigates the cultural phenomena that make up headlines. It reveals the desires that make us all human. Hits enchant us, but they also hold up a mirror to our nature. 

We are living through an industrial revolution in attention. We used to simply play the hits. Now the hits play us back. Film, music, and media companies are using new tools to learn what makes their consumers tick. Hit Makers pulls back the curtain on this new world order to make all of us smarter about what people want and how things catch fire.

From the dawn of Impressionist art to the future of Snapchat, from small-scale Etsy entrepreneurs to the origin of Star Wars, Derek Thompson leaves no pet rock unturned to tell the fascinating story of how culture happens—and where genius lives.

The synopsis for Derek Thompson's book instantly caught my attention -- not only does it point towards a phenomenon that I find extremely interesting (how certain books, movies, songs, etc. become popular while other just as good pieces of entertainment do not), it also is a book that deals with issues related closely to my studies. 

If you are like me, and find the idea of reading about how popularity is generated in contemporary society, and perhaps how it has been generated in the years part, Thompson's book is must-read!

"The thesis of this book is that even though many number one songs, television shows, blockbuster films, Internet memes, and ubiquitous apps seem to come out of nowhere, this cultural chaos is governed by certain rules: the psychology of why people like what they like, the social networks through which ideas spread, and the economies of cultural markets. There is a way for people to engineer hits and, equally important, a way for other people to know when popularity is being engineered" (quote from the review copy)
The thesis of Thomson's research and the way he goes through what he mentions as the influencers of popularity, such as the psychology of why people like what they like and the process of engineering hits are done in an interesting, well-researched manner.

Thompson makes use of stories, of famous events from the history, as well as some little less famous anecdotes, to highlight the critical arguments he is making. He never delves extremely deep into different media theories (which is something I would have liked to see once in a while) and this makes the book highly readable also for those who have no media studies/popular culture studies/etc. background. 

Importantly, Thompson spends quite a lot of time making arguments about consumer behavior and how certain behavioral patterns/practices have shaped the way in which producers of cultural products have acted. According to Thompson,
"Most consumers are simultaneously neophilic -- curious to discover new things -- and deeply neophobic -- afraid of anything that's too new. The best hit makers are gifted at creating moments of meaning by marrying new and old, anxiety and understanding. They are architects of familiar surprises." (quote from the review copy)
The marriage of old and new, of familiar and unfamiliar, can be seen for example in the way previously loved movies and movie franchises are being adapted to a new generation of viewers. For example, the upcoming Beauty and the Beast adaptation will include elements of the old and loved movie (the songs, the story), but will also include something new, such as the live action element and a more independent, feminist Belle. Earlier in 2016, Ghostbusters was adapted to a new set of audiences but arguably failed to some degree (at least in the eyes of male viewers) by being too unfamiliar as a result of straining too far away from the original movie.

According to Thompson, the story of how a product is distributed is just as important as a description of its features. Due to social media, the distribution of songs, images, written word, and so on, has become increasingly easier -- everyone with a computer/phone/tablet and an internet connection has a chance to start a blog and publish their thoughts online, but not everyone gains the kind of audiences that would turn those blogs popular. In fact, it is quite rare for an individual to actually become "popular".

Videos of people singing covers of famous songs are in multitude on Youtube, but once in a while, megastars like Justin Bieber are plucked out of that multitude and turned into global phenomenons. While people often tend to have quite strong, either positive or negative, feelings towards Justin Bieber, I cannot help but to find the story of how he became popular fascinating, and how Youtube and other social media platforms really helped him in getting his name out there.

I am writing my master's degree about television comedy narratives and their relationship with the evolution of television from broadcast to narrowcast and from broadcast to VOD. While Thompson does not discuss this topic extensively, it was nice to see it mentioned. The phenomenon of how television has evolved from a screen in the corner of a living room into something that people can carry with them in their pocket is extremely interesting, and one that will most likely be the topic of several books to be written in the future.

Those interested in politics might want to check out Thompson's arguments about the relationship between Donald Trump and the press. While the rise of Trump will probably be analyzed by thousands of writers and academics in the months and years to come, I thought Thompson's decision to include a brief section of the topic to this book is very timely and will probably make a lot of readers think about the relationship between politics and media. Thompson writes about Trump and media in the following manner
"The GOP candidate with the least elite support, Donald Trump, spent less than $20 million on advertising. But he still won the primary in a landslide, because his outrageous statements and improbable candidacy were such irresistible fodder for networks and publishers desperate for audiences. Through the summer of 2016, Trump had earned $3 billion in "free media", which was more than the rest of his rivals combined."
There is honestly so much in this book I could pick up and talk about in this review, but at the same time, I feel like I don't want to give too much away. Sure, this is a nonfiction book, so there are really no spoilers there, but at the same time, I would like potential readers to have the kind of interesting and exciting reading experience I had with this one. 

Due to my academic background, there was a lot here that I knew already, but I feel like that didn't really take anything away from the reading experience. After all, one of the best things about reading about something you already know is seeing how someone else presents their arguments and how some theories and so on can be understood in different ways. 


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