Science requires data, and in Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson provides it. Social sciences are often perceived as less rigorous than other sciences, and Thompson strives to reverse this myth by providing the reader with data point after data point, each one its own “hit”—from the origins of the song “Rock Around the Clock,” to names beginning with “La-” (Latonya, Latoya, Lakiesha, etc.), to the corporate structure of Bridgewater Associates—to understand the commonalities between them.
(Apart from the fact that they’re all “hits,” a term which he never quite defines—“hits” are popular, but they’re also sometimes commercially successful without as much name recognition. Either way, they are a thing—movie, song, train design, etc.—which has stuck around and made some kind of societal or historical impact.)
He investigates these data points of “hits” all while harping upon the fact that on its own, each data point is meaningless, and often inexplicable—and in so doing delegitimizes his own broader arguments.
This is a great book, but the title is a lie, or at least a contradiction. Over the course of the book, Thompson slowly pulls the rug out from under his own implicit thesis—that there even is a science of popularity. And if there isn’t, then what is the book about?
For me, the book is about Raymond Loewy. Even if you’ve never heard of Loewy, you’ve heard of Loewy. He was a French-American designer, and his designs include the Air Force One livery, Studebaker cars and Greyhound buses, the refrigerator that made Sears a household name, and the Coca-Cola logo. Loewy’s design success is credited to his “MAYA” framework: Most Acceptable Yet Advanced. MAYA is a kind of distillation of James Laver’s conception of the cycle of fashion, in which a single piece of clothing evolves from indecent, to shameless, to daring, to smart, to dowdy, to hideous, to ridiculous, to amusing, to quaint, to charming, to romantic, to beautiful, simply due to the passage of time. In other words, everything has both “hit” and “dud” potential—it just needs the right time and right place. Or, as Watts would put it, the mathematical probabilities falling into place. In this way, Thompson reveals the inherent impossibility of pursuing the “Science of Popularity.” It’s like trying to unravel the algorithm behind winning Candyland. There is no algorithm. You just get lucky, or you don’t.
If Seinfeld became popular because it was completely different from any show that preceded it, but the Swedish music industry produces the most global successes because of their attentiveness to musical formulas, then by this book’s logic, it seems anything could be retroactively considered a “hit.” Thompson knows this. He interviews Duncan Watts, author of (world-wide hit) Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age and Everything is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us. Watts introduces the reader to “Watts World,” in which every occurrence is nearly equivalently likely to occur, its occurrence contingent only on chance. In Watts World, Monet was just as likely to be an obscure artist as he was an enduring cultural phenomenon. Thompson brings Watts into the conversation because he evidently respects his hypothesis—and Watts’ hypothesis holds up in many of Thompson’s data points. Monet, for instance, almost certainly gained his popularity through the generosity of his friend Gustave Caillebotte. Monet’s work was considered by contemporary art critics to be utter trash. Caillebotte, a talented artist himself, was too wealthy and too good of a friend to let this insult of Monet continue. He bought up all of Monet’s least popular works—i.e., those which couldn’t sell—and through monetary persuasion, forced these works (and works of other artist friends of his) into the Louvre. Those previously unpopular works which made their way into the most popular museum in France at the time ended up being considered the greatest Impressionist works of all time. It’s not that Monet’s least popular paintings lacked any artistic merit, nor that any artwork that appears in the Louvre automatically becomes incredibly popular. But this particular data point in the history of popularity becomes a valuable lesson for the reader of this book, in that it clarifies the randomness and unpredictability of even the seemingly most non-controversial “hits.” Most of the time, it seems, humanity’s most beloved “hits” relied upon an individual’s whim or a chance circumstance to reach their beloved status.
So why is Hit Makers so engaging to read? It’s not the thrill of getting to the bottom of the popularity mystery. It’s not really that surprising that so many “hits” only became “hits” because a particular celebrity promoted them on a particular day and other “hits” became “hits” because the creators worked hard and created a great product—even in a world where there are lots of “duds” promoted by celebrities every day and lots of creators in the world working hard and creating great products that never reach an audience.
What is much more interesting are the stories behind these “hits.” James Laver’s thesis about style helps explain why the 1980s setting of Stranger Things has entranced so many viewers, and Loewy’s MAYA principle is what allowed the iPhone to achieve its iconic style. Even a reader who’s never owned an iPhone or watched Stranger Things will likely be intrigued—because both of these “hits,” like most “hits,” have become parts of our contemporary society in upside-down, unanticipated ways.
The data points in Hit Makers do not amount to a believable conclusion about popularity, or even any kind of discernible thesis with scientific basis. But they do amount to a story—a story of human innovation, success, and failure. Thompson’s narrative voice sounds nerdy, that of an overzealous friend sharing a fascinating myth from the history of culture. He writes that writing is a challenging form of broadcast, compared to, say, a comedian on a stage who receives in-the-moment laughter or heckling as a gauge of audience engagement. But reading is not a challenging form of receiving this specific kind of broadcast. In fact, it feels intimate and expansive. In the chapter entitled “Interlude: Le Panache,” Thompson explains that speakers “pause for an average of two milliseconds before the ‘right’ to talk is passed between them… in Italian, Dutch, Danish, Japanese, Korean, Lao, Ākhoe Haillom (from Namibia), Yélî-Dnye (from Papua New Guinea), and Tzeltal (a Mayan language from Mexico).” Then, he explains how people use one third of personal conversations to talk about themselves compared to 90% of their social media posts, an idea which he expresses through a sword-fighting metaphor from the play Cyrano de Bergerac. Thompson is playing a delicate game—mingling the science of psycholinguistics with cultural analysis of technology with literary devices and literature itself. Although these disciplines are generally only considered and operated distinctly from each other, the reality is that they are inextricably related. Technology constitutes modern communication; modern communication turns into art.
Although this book positions itself as being about “science” and “popularity” and the “age of distraction,” it’s really about the role of capital A Art in building explosively powerful human connections. This hugely important topic sheds light on other topics of political, cultural, and personal relevance—like how Facebook impacted the 2020 presidential election and how Disney has forever changed the relationship between the corporation and the human. It’s also an inherently educational book, giving the reader the opportunity to learn about historical events not included in your standard history textbook. But it does the book—and the subject in general—a disservice to call itself a work of science. Scientists claim that almost nothing can be proven, only theorized to the point of societal acceptance as fact. Perhaps discussing the social sciences (which most people, to an extent, can intuitively understand) from this skeptical angle, Thompson reveals the importance of considering all scientific fact as questionable until theorized less questionable. Hit Makers is too questionable to call science. It’s a work of art, necessarily messy, complex, and inconclusive. It does not make for an air-tight argument.
Thompson knows this—as a reader, one can sense that he worships on what he calls “the altar of art.” So why the obfuscation? Data is not a new, if remarkable rhetorical and literary device; there’s no need for a book to be devoid of research for it to market itself as art. But maybe that’s part of the point—culture itself, let alone the social discipline, is always a mix of science, distraction, art, and, of course, grasping at popularity.