Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Good vs. Popular, part one: "The Good, the Bad, and the Bieber"

As a musician who performs for a certain part of my living and my enjoyment, the Eternal Question of "good" versus "popular" has practical as well as academic applicability.

Let me first establish that ideas can be both (things can be good AND popular) and it is also possible for them to be neither (things can be neither good NOR popular).  The refuge of the neurotic is that if one's art is not popular, at least it is good.  And that just isn't true.

I'd also like to establish that many creators want their content to be both good AND popular.  Popular means it is widely experienced and disseminated -- good means it is held to be meaningful and worthy of attention.  I certainly wouldn't complain were both to occur with this blog, for example.  

Let's look at YouTube.  As of today (Feb. 27, 2013), the top six videos of all time are:

1) Psy - "Gangnam Style"
2) Justin Bieber - "Baby"
3) Jennifer Lopez - "On the Floor"
4) Eminem - "Love the Way You Lie"
5) LMFAO - "Party Rock Anthem"
6) "Charlie bit my finger - again!"

These things are popular.  The six videos have been viewed a collective 4.4 billion times.  The number one video has been viewed 1.3 billion times.  That's a lot. Of those six, I've seen one and bits of a second.  Of the top thirty, I've seen five.  Clearly, my tastes and what is most popular do not align.

It is easy to measure what is popular.  YouTube has a little number that counts up by one every time a page is loaded and a video is viewed.  Some videos tick up faster than others.  The ones with the most views are the most popular.  Pretty straightforward.

The ease of measuring and comparing this popularity makes it easy for corporations and advertisers to monetize. Since more people watched a particular video AND they seem to be continuing to watch, the best course of action is to get a product in front of those eyes.  The assumption is that those eyes will see an advertisement for "Capt'n Pappy's Fish Logs" and that will lead to better sales.

It may not translate to instant buying fever, but the goal of advertising is to plant the idea.  That way, when you are next at market and see the cartoon logo of "Capt'n Pappy", you'll think, "Say, I've heard of these.  I'll try them over these other brands like 'Bosun George', who's clearly nowhere near the seaman Pappy is."

Advertisers want to be associated with what is popular.  Companies don't spend millions of dollars and fall over themselves to put ads in the Super Bowl just because they like Sundays in February.  There will be a certain number of people who will watch that event, whether it is filled to the brim with ads or whether no ads occur at all.  So they may as well advertise and get guaranteed placement in front of those eyes!

As easy as it is to measure popularity, we have a much more difficult time measuring what is "good". People don't interact with things they perceive as meaningful in the same way they deal with things that are popular.

Elaine - (1847)
Consider the paining "Elaine", by Toby Rosenthal (HERE). It currently sits in one wing of the Chicago Art Institute and I visited it during my trip to Chicago in December of last year. While I was viewing it, no other patron passed by or stopped to look, so it's not popular in the same way the Impressionist gallery is (where I often bumped into people as we all struggled to see haystacks and lilies). It is one of my favorite paintings and I consider it "good" in the sense that it is very meaningful to me and that it is well painted. If I sit and think about paintings, it will usually come to mind, even though I had forgotten who painted it for most of the time since I departed Chicago.

How does one measure the fact I think it is good? Not in number of viewings, as I've seen it only three or four times in my entire life, separated by years. Neither have I purchased any copies to hang on my own walls. I haven't evangelized to very many other people about it.  It doesn't connect with a meaningful relationship or event in my life.  I have no great connection to the Arthurian legend upon which it is based.  There are simply no applicable ways to measure my interest or feelings about this painting.

If an advertiser had placed a logo on the wall next to it and accompanied it with a tasteful plaque stating that it was "brought to me" by that company, I would have long ago lost any knowledge of that.  And since the theme of the painting is death, what if I drew the mental connection from the advertiser to the end of all things? Clearly the advertiser would have no idea if the money was well spent.  They'd much prefer to possess a numerical confirmation that the more they advertise during the Super Bowl, the more product they sell.

YouTube has tried to address this with the ability to like or dislike a video (via an Ebertarian thumbs up or down).  The views will increase whether you like it or not, but it gives each video a sort of temperature gauge.  If a video has a great many views but dislikes far outnumber likes, you have a general sense that the video is popular (or at least deceptively linked) but not valued.

Take Psy's "Gangnam Style", the number one visited YouTube video of all time.  In addition to the 1.3 billion views (and counting!), it has been liked 7.1 million times.  It has been disliked about 650,000 times.  We can use the like/dislike scale as a more useful measure of whether or not the video is "good" simply because it requires the tiniest amount of extra effort.  People who really like it will say, "I'll give this a thumbs up!" People who are indifferent will close the browser, leaving only +1 to the view count.  And people who hate it will say, "I can't reach through my screen to set this abomination on fire, so I'll just resort to thumbs down."

But look at the number 2 video from the top six: Justin Bieber's "Baby".  It has 834 million views, which by any yardstick is a considerable amount.  It also has 1.5 million "likes", so a fair number of viewers cared enough to say "heck yeah!"  But it also has 3.4 million "dislikes".  So a larger percentage of viewers have visited the page and said "heck no!".  The page views (popularity) increase either way, but the reaction is more mixed than the number one song.

But is it a less meaningful song than "Gangnam Style"?  The data doesn't give us the whole picture.  Justin Beiber is very much appreciated by his core fan base, but he has an active group that dislikes him so intensely that they follow and mock him at every opportunity.  They are far more likely to load the page (increasing the views by one) and then vote him down, regardless of actual thought or perception of the song.  So we can't trust the reaction-meter as a guide to measure whether a thing is "good", because it doesn't account for blind and unconsidered approval or hatred.  

To conclude, YouTube offers a good way to measure popularity, but it isn't nearly as good as measuring whether or not something is good.  At best, it can tell us a general attitude towards a thing, but that is no measure of whether or not something is meaningful.

Next time, I'll address this further when we talk about "Twilight" and "50 Shades".  Feel free to thumbs up or down as appropriate.

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