Why is Popular Bad?

Election night crowd, Wellington, 1931

Look at how popular those hats are! Awesome.

With the recent purchase of Instagram and its expansion to Android, it seems that it is now suddenly less cool.  I think that’s because it’s popular.  I mean there was even the Phil Schiller controversy about shark jumping. (On the plus side, I will now potentially seem less lame when I make a reference to jumping the shark, which for years had made people wonder why a 30-year-old knows so much about Happy Days.)

The whole thing had me thinking about this concept that popular is uncool. Even though, at some level, I think popular must be the very definition of cool.  A good example incident is when iPhone’s became too popular (or so they said, in 2007). But I think back to when I was in middle school. It was the early 1990s and Nirvana was everywhere.  But not in my house. I think that for whatever reason my older siblings weren’t into it at the time, but I had a distinct feeling that for me to be cool in my own sense I couldn’t possibly like a band that was cool.  

Other than having watched the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit, I knew very little about Nirvana. In fact, I studiously avoided them.  Amazingly, I thought I was cool because I preferred the Weird Al version, Smells Like Nirvana.  I didn’t buy a album Nirvana until 2002, when I was living in Australia and the annual inventory sales made me able to buy a dozen CDs at once for cheap.  Then, I discovered how much I really liked Nirvana.  I felt like I had missed out quite a bit over the last eight years, but even more so, I realized how truly lame I was.

What I think I may have first started figuring out then is that popularity does not have a relationship to quality.  There seems to an ongoing conversation about this (fun Google search!), but most of what I’ve read seems to be arguing that things that are popular often lack quality.  Sure, I buy that.  But, I will also buy that many popular things have great amounts of quality.  Which is precisely my point: in the regression that helps you determine quality from a wide variety of factors, popularity is simply not one of those factors.

Quality and popularity are independent.  Some great things are popular, but many are not.  Some terrible things are popular, but many are not.  It’s largely irrelevant.  It’s potentially entirely irrelevant because, when it comes down to it, quality is such a largely subjective measure that no one could ever say definitely what is what.

Coming back to the main point, however, I have been trying to figure out why in certain groups (hipster? nerds? techies?) popular is the very definition of not good.  I can see how popularity can change things.  For example, there are many more photos in your Instagram feed with more users because of more popularity. But does that make Instagram bad? I am sure there are thousands of amazing, creative photographers on Android adding to the overall quality of the Instagram feed. It just might be harder to find them in the extra noise.

The effect of popularity is even further afield in non-social/non-user-generated content areas.  Does the music Nirvana played change with popularity? Maybe the future music that they would have written, but Smells Like Teen Spirit is the song it is.  Whether I listen to it or not.  And it’s still really, really good.

Speaking of things I liked in the 1990s: Fedoras. (Sorry for the non-sequiter, but I have to explain the hats!)  I have two Fedoras that I bought a long-gone hat store in Albuquerque, NM.  I’m not sure anymore if I bought them due to the Swing craze or because I simply love The Blues Brothers, but I thought they were awesome.  They were not popular.  But, hat’s are back!  I’m not really into the current hat style, but I am thrilled hats are back.  The popularity comes and goes.  It doesn’t change the fact that I look decent in a Fedora and that my Fedoras are super high quality.  Quality, but still not popular.

For the past decade, since I bought my first Nirvana album, I have been trying to remind myself to battle the concept that I must not like things that are popular, simply because they are popular.  It’s not easy.  But, let’s all keep challenging ourselves to determine whether or not we like some art, music, writing, software, place, business, etc. based purely on our own opinion and not its popularity.  Then we can vote with our feet and our dollars and hope that what we each see as quality truly rises.

Image Source: Flickr/Photographic Archive, Alexander Turnbull Library
http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationallibrarynz_commons/3326203787/