How to become a sensation in the internet age
* Non-Fiction: Hit Makers, Derek Thompson, Allen Lane, hdbk, 352 pages, €27.99
* Irresistible, Adam Alter, Bodley Head, hdbk, 368 pages, €23.49
What does it take to make a film, song, book or app a hit in the modern age? Tim Smith-Laing looks at two books that explore the formulas that get us hooked on pop culture.
'Popular' is often an equivocal compliment. Whatever distinguishes "popular music" and "popular science" from their non-pop variants, for instance, isn't that they're meant to be better. It might not be fair, but however fully the pop versions of things eventually justify their own worth, they always start out at as the lesser siblings of the real deal. Certainly, anyone who automatically turns their nose up at 'pop' would be a snob. But ask yourself this: if you were having a mental breakdown, would you want your GP to refer you to a psychologist, or a pop psychologist?
For some people, though, popularity is the most important thing of all. I don't just mean narcissists, reality TV stars, and politicians, or the select few who happen to be all three at once. As Derek Thompson points out in Hit Makers, whole industries rest on the ability to create popularity as reliably as a sausage factory makes sausages. For executives in film, music and publishing, it is the meaning of life. How do you scale the bestseller list, reign over the Billboard Hot 100, or top the global box office? How, in other words, can you make a hit? And how can you keep them coming?
Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he is a reliable source of interesting political and cultural commentary. Hit Makers sees him assuming the grander role of "cultural economist" to examine hit-creation across an unwieldy range of fields, from films and books to locomotives and lullabies.
His thesis is that, though many hits "seem to come out of nowhere, this cultural chaos is governed by certain rules": the laws of "the social networks by which ideas spread, and the economics of cultural markets". To look at it another way, the "architecture of the human mind" is so old, and its basic planks - "to belong, to escape, to aspire, to understand, to be understood" - so enduring, that all hits tick the same boxes.
Thompson's formula derives from the wisdom that "most consumers are simultaneously neophilic - curious to discover new things - and deeply neophobic - afraid of anything that's too new". Whatever the medium, hits come out of a Goldilocks Zone of not-too-new and not-too-old. This is hard to argue with, and, Thompson cites the acronym mantra of Raymond Loewy, father of modern industrial design: MAYA, "Most Advanced Yet Accessible".
Mostly, the MAYA principle manifests itself as the continuous repackaging of old familiars. In music, think of the genealogy that links 1950s doo-wop to the Beach Boys' 'California Girls', Wizzard's 'I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday' and Katy Perry's 'California Gurls'.
In books, EL James's Fifty Shades began as S&M Twilight fan-fiction; and the Twilight books themselves are vampire-werewolf rewrites of Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and so on. For Thompson, the acme of all this is George Lucas and his obsession with Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces - the book that outlines what Thompson calls "the closest any theorist has come to a universal formula for storytelling". There is, Campbell suggests, more or less only one story, the "monomyth": a man "goes on a journey ... from known to unknown ... survives several key trials" and faces down an "ultimate challenge". In Star Wars, Lucas designed a digest of "all things that are great", the monomyth itself and all its earlier repackagings: Westerns, James Bond, martial arts films, every World War II story ever. Jackpot.
Raw appeal, though, is nothing without dissemination: people have to get wind of things in the first place to be charmed by them. Thompson argues that the best way to become popular is to be popular already. Long before Fifty Shades became a megahit, for instance, it was what Thompson calls a "dark hit": one of the most read entries on FanFiction.net. All Random House did was turn a local phenomenon into a global one.
If this sounds tautological, that's because it is. Hit Makers floats along on a stream of shallow generalisations and circular reasoning. This could be rescued in the writing, but Hit Makers is almost parodically formulaic in adhering to the standard recipe for pop non-fiction. Take some personal anecdotes ("The first song I loved was my mother's"); add some tales of the idiosyncratic brilliance of either Steve Jobs or George Lucas; season with psychological and/or economic statistics; mingle. Best served slightly more than half-baked, but not dry. Must, above all, be easily digestible.
It stales fast. But more fundamentally, I'm just not sure popularity per se is that interesting. It's a kind of tautology itself. Hits are often interesting or beautiful, but popularity doesn't make them so, any more than its absence makes things dull or ugly.
Adam Alter's Irresistible is part of the same behavioural-economics-psychology zeitgeist as Hit Makers, and even covers common ground in examining why people like the things they do. At first glance, too, it is similarly formulaic: "At an Apple event in January 2010, Steve Jobs", begins the first page. But, with a background in psychology and marketing, Alter brings a specialist eye to his material, and it shows. Considerably more sceptical than Hit Makers about modernity's obsession with maximal appeal, Irresistible turns out to be a fascinating, salutary, read. Alter points to an epidemic of behavioural addictions in the modern world, centring above all on the screens we now carry everywhere. Since addictiveness is the aim of gadget designers, this shouldn't be surprising.
Irresistible's first section deals with the obvious question - "Can we really call this 'addiction'?", offering a careful "Yes and no" response. Substance and behavioural addictions are both "fuelled by the same basic human needs": "social engagement and social support, mental stimulation, and a sense of effectiveness". They "activate the same brain regions", and can cause the same kinds of consequences.
Simultaneously, it also seems clear that substance addictions can be substantially behavioural. Even heroin addiction, it transpired, was substantially dependent on contexts, environments, and learnt cues about what feels good in those contexts and environments. Alter recounts the aftermath of the heroin epidemic that struck the US army in Vietnam from 1971 onwards. By the end of the war, 19pc of returning GIs were addicts - just over half of those who had tried the drug. Normally, only 5pc of heroin users stay clean; but when the US government tracked the recovery of returning GIs, the recovery figure was 95pc. The conclusion, borne out by parallel findings in lab animals, was that the soldiers' addiction was linked to Vietnam itself. Removed from that environment, it was easy for them to stay clean.
If there is a whiff of hysteria in equating smartphones and heroin, Irresistible remains compelling. Any good game or app designer knows how to engineer irresistibility into their products. The hooks in a mobile game might be smaller than the hooks in heroin, but there are more of them, and now they're omnipresent. As Alter illustrates, a mere six ingredients lie behind most truly addictive experiences: goal setting, feedback, progress, escalation, cliffhangers, and social interaction. Think of the things you keep coming back to, for good or ill - running with your FitBit, watching Breaking Bad, browsing Facebook - and you'll find one or more of these. Combine them all, as in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game like World of Warcraft, and to the right person at the right time they really can become irresistible.
Even if you don't feel haunted by the spectre of addiction to your devices, Irresistible makes some vital points. In the end, Alter points out, the rise in addictions says less about us as individuals than as a society. You might be fine, but look around you: our world is designed for addiction.
The solution, Alter suggests, is for society to embrace them in healthy ways: workplaces could "shut down at six", email included; social media could remove the endless scrolling and metrics that make them so compulsive; parents could introduce children to screens within careful limits. It might be utopian dreaming, but it's hard not to agree with Alter that a better future would be one where "we'll communicate with one another directly ... and the glow of these social bonds will leave us richer and happier than the glow of screens ever could".