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Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an…

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction

by Derek Thompson

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306.3 T4695 2017
  ebr_mills | Mar 23, 2017 |
Summary: Explores what makes a hit, and explodes some of the myths around hits such as the idea of something going "viral".

How does something become a "hit?" Anyone creating a work of art, propounding an idea, promoting a candidate, launching a new product would like to know. Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, was curious about this phenomenon and out of his research come countless stories about everything from Brahms Lullaby to Fifty Shades of Grey.

Brahm's Lullaby is a case in point of the kinds of things Thompson explores in this book. It sounds very much like an Austrian folk melody--familiar elements with a gentle surprise and a "hook." Thompson observes that it has both the novel and the familiar and that this combination is crucial for a hit. Thompson explores the MAYA rule of designer Raymond Loewy, MAYA standing for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. He implemented this principle on everything from mimeographs and trashbins to bullet-shaped train locomotives, Coldspot refrigerators, and Lucky Strike cigarette packs. Advanced yet familiar--and they all sold like crazy. Thompson goes on to show how this applies to music, movies like Star Wars, the rise of vampires and cable news, and phenomena like Taylor Swift and the laugh track on comedies.

The other crucial element is distribution. Brahm's Lullaby became a global phenomenon because of German migrations to North America and elsewhere in the second half of the nineteenth century. Thompson explodes the myth of something going "viral." Instead, what often makes the difference is when a few figures who already have an audience promote something, millions here and then it takes off. And there is a hidden side of "dark broadcasters" whose unseen influence helped build the awareness of people like E. L. James of Fifty Shades fame. On the flip side, success is sometimes isolating the particular audience with an affinity to your product--homophily. What may be critical is knowing who are the friends of your audience. And sometimes, it is plain chaos, where Rock Around the Clock becomes the first rock 'n roll hit when a young boy, Peter Ford, buys the record, and a few months later through his father, Glenn Ford, plays the record for a director filming a movie titled Blackboard Jungle. The rest is history as a record (a "B" side!) that had gone nowhere suddenly became the anthem of a generation.

What makes this book fascinating is that Thompson is a prolific story gatherer, introducing us to everyone from an obscure, but wealthy Impressionist artist, Caillebotte, whose collection became the Impressionist canon, to the people who have launched our social media blockbusters. He explores the backstory behind Game of Thrones and Mickey Mouse and the evolution of reading from books to the News Feed. He also raises profound questions about the transforming influence of the little plates of glass we carry about with us that connect us to the world, that both inform us, and constantly transmit information about us to those trying to shape the next "hit."

It is here that I thought Thompson was at his most thought-provoking. He describes in the chapter "Interlude: 828 Broadway" visiting Chartbeat, that gave instantaneous feedback about reader behavior on websites. Downstairs from Chartbeat was the venerable Strand Bookstore. He asks "Does great art begin with feedback, or does it start with the opposite--a quiet space, devoid of distractions, where creators can turn the spotlight inward and make something mostly for themselves?" As both bibliophile and a new generation writer fluent with the online world, he wrestles with the implications for himself:

"I've come to see that I need the feedback loop, the standing ovation and devastating silences that can greet an online article. But when I circle a pile of books at the Strand, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that perhaps the best writers also knew to just do the work and forget, for a moment, that anyone would ever read their reverie. They mounted a stage production in their minds, but just for them, something palatial and private, like a daydream" (pp. 280-281).

The irony I'm struck with as I read Thompson's work is that excellence and originality in writing, art, music and innovation are not always what is rewarded. He observes the absence of good taste, and that the biggest hits are often re-boots of the familiar. The challenge today is that instantaneous nature of the feedback. Was it easier to practice artistic integrity when most likely you wouldn't be famous, a "hit," until after you were dead? You might struggle with poverty as you "did the work and forgot." But were you tempted so greatly to bend the work to the feedback loop? Maybe this has always been the tension in which artists live. Perhaps it is a good thing that there is an element of randomness in all this or we might all be tempted too greatly, and all art and endeavor be reduced to pursuing the "hit." ( )
  BobonBooks | Feb 27, 2017 |
Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson is a very highly recommended examination of popularity of things and how and why they gained their status. This is an engrossing look at popularity. Thompson has a comfortable writing style that is full of anecdotes and examples. He creatively ties widely divergent topics together in a fascinating, entertaining format.

Nothing really "goes viral." There is a reason why a song, movie, book, app, etc. became popular. Thompson explores "the psychology of why people like what they like, the social networks through which ideas spread, and the economics of cultural markets." As he succinctly points out, people are both "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." So, Hit Makers asks two questions: 1. What is the secret to making products that people like - in music, movies, television, books, games, apps, and more across the vast landscape of culture? 2. Why do some products fail in these marketplaces while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits?

Thompson covers a wide variety of pop cultural blockbusters ranging from and including Brahms lullaby, the impressionist canon (yeah, the Impressionists, as in painters), ESPN, Cheers and Seinfeld, Star Wars, Rock Around the Clock, Fifty Shades of Grey, Game of Thrones, Etsy, Facebook, the laugh track, Vampires, Disney Princesses, and much more. Even more interesting is how he ties so many different hits together to explain what they became hits. One principle that governs almost all hits is MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Achievable. "MAYA offers three clear lessons. First: Audiences don’t know everything, but they know more than creators do. Second: To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar. Third: People sometimes don’t know what they want until they already love it."

The incident that created the impressionist canon took me by surprise, and yet it makes perfect sense. Thompson shows how "the impressionist canon focuses on a tight cluster of seven core painters: Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley - the Caillebotte Seven. When painter and collector Gustave Caillebotte donated his art collection upon his untimely death, his donation helped to create the impressionist canon. The power of repeated exposure, whether it is paintings that are exhibited or other things is a powerful tool in determining what is a hit.

What makes a song succeed? "Even at the dawn of the American music business, to make a song a hit, a memorable melody was secondary to an ingenious marketing campaign." Interesting, but clearly true.

I wanted to pump my fist and yell "Yes, this!" when Thompson points out, and rightly so, that "there is such a thing as too much familiarity. It’s everywhere, in fact. It’s hearing a catchy song for the tenth time in a row, watching a movie that is oh so predictably uncreative, or hearing a talented speaker use overfamiliar buzzword after buzzword. In fluency studies, the power of familiarity is discounted when people realize that the moderator is trying to browbeat them with the same stimulus again and again. This is one reason why so much advertising doesn’t work: People have a built-in resistance to marketing that feels like it’s trying to seduce them." I have experienced this many times over the years (mindset or grit, anyone?) Recently when the video for a women's conference kept repeated the name of the event throughout the video as a buzz word, all it did was annoy me and strengthen my determination to not attend.

This is specifically for readers. Many of you will understand: "When people read, they hear voices and see images in their head. This production is total synesthesia and something close to madness. A great book is a hallucinated IMAX film for one. The author had a feeling, which he turned into words, and the reader gets a feeling from those words - maybe it’s the same feeling; maybe it’s not. As Peter Mendelsund wrote in What We See When We Read, a book is a coproduction. A reader both performs the book and attends the performance. She is conductor, orchestra, and audience. A book, whether nonfiction or fiction, is an 'invitation to daydream.'"

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing Group.

http://www.shetreadssoftly.com/2017/02/hit-makers.html ( )
1 vote SheTreadsSoftly | Feb 7, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 110198032X, Hardcover)

Nothing “goes viral.” If you think a popular movie, song, or app came out of nowhere to become a word-of-mouth success in today’s crowded media environment, you’re missing the real story. Each blockbuster has a secret history—of power, influence, dark broadcasters, and passionate cults that turn some new products into cultural phenomena. Even the most brilliant ideas wither in obscurity if they fail to connect with the right network, and the consumers that matter most aren't the early adopters, but rather their friends, followers, and imitators -- the audience of your audience.

In his groundbreaking investigation, Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson uncovers the hidden psychology of why we like what we like and reveals the economics of cultural markets that invisibly shape our lives. Shattering the sentimental myths of hit-making that dominate pop culture and business, Thompson shows quality is insufficient for success, nobody has "good taste," and some of the most popular products in history were one bad break away from utter failure. It may be a new world, but there are some enduring truths to what audiences and consumers want. People love a familiar surprise: a product that is bold, yet sneakily recognizable.

Every business, every artist, every person looking to promote themselves and their work wants to know what makes some works so successful while others disappear. Hit Makers is a magical mystery tour through the last century of pop culture blockbusters and the most valuable currency of the twenty-first century—people’s attention.

From the dawn of impressionist art to the future of Facebook, from small Etsy designers to the origin of Star Wars, Derek Thompson leaves no pet rock unturned to tell the fascinating story of how culture happens and why things become popular.
In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson investigates:
·       The secret link between ESPN's sticky programming and the The Weeknd's catchy choruses
·       Why Facebook is the world’s most important modern newspaper
·       How advertising critics predicted Donald Trump
·       The 5th grader who accidentally launched "Rock Around the Clock," the biggest hit in rock and roll history
·       How Barack Obama and his speechwriters think of themselves as songwriters
·       How Disney conquered the world—but the future of hits belongs to savvy amateurs and individuals
·       The French collector who accidentally created the Impressionist canon
·       Quantitative evidence that the biggest music hits aren’t always the best
·       Why almost all Hollywood blockbusters are sequels, reboots, and adaptations
·       Why one year--1991--is responsible for the way pop music sounds today
·       Why another year --1932--created the business model of film
·       How data scientists proved that “going viral” is a myth
·       How 19th century immigration patterns explain the most heard song in the Western Hemisphere

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 12 Dec 2016 03:13:22 -0500)

"An Atlantic senior editor presents an investigation into the lucrative quality of popularity in the 21st century to share economic insights into what makes ideas, productions and products successful,"--NoveList.

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