What Is Contagious Is Random

Contagious: Why Things Catch OnMy boss has tasked me with the job of revitalizing the blog for our flagship website. This is a job I worked very hard to avoid. Because a professional blog is different from a personal blog like Frankly Curious. In general, people come here because they think I’m vaguely interesting and they want to know what I’ll rant about. But a professional blog is all about trying to find market niches and determine what articles will take off — go viral. And so he recommended that I read Jonah Berger’s book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

Given that he’s a nice guy, he sent me the book along with two others that I might actually like. I was highly suspicious of the Berger book as I am all such books. Why do things catch on? Well, I can tell you why once they catch on. Or at least I can provide you with a plausible sounding reason. But can you really predict what is going to take off? To quote William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” In Adventures in the Screen Trade, he wrote about a collection of films and why producers thought they would be great successes. All the films were, in fact, flops. So he went through the earlier happy talk to explain why it was wrong.

Of course, I don’t think that Gibson’s reasons for films flopping were right either. For example, he said that Pennies From Heaven flopped because Steve Martin wasn’t a singer and a dancer. Personally, I think it flopped because it’s an incredibly depressing film. Coming off The Jerk did people really want to see that? Did people really want to see that film under any circumstances? I wrote a largely positive review of the film, but that is looking at it as art — not as popular entertainment. Regardless, my ideas are no better than Goldman’s; they are just guesses.

Nobody knows anything.

Can We Predict What Will Be Contagious?

The issue is not confined to Hollywood. We’re really good at finding patterns in things. But that doesn’t mean we’ve figured out reality and it certainly doesn’t mean that knowing some patterns lead to actionable intelligence. In Contagious, Berger lists “Six Principles of Contagiousness.” Here they are with my brief descriptions:

Social currency
This is the kind of thing that makes people want to share it with others. For example, when I hear a particularly clever line in Bob’s Burgers, I want to share it with people. When I learn about a bizarre bit of computer trivia, I want to share it with any person I think will understand it.
Some things trigger other things. For example, if people mention chatbots or AI, it will trigger me to tell the story of Robert Epstein.
When people connect emotionally with something, they are more likely to share it.
If others see people doing something, they are more likely to follow along. I’ve thought that a lot of fashion (eg, baggy pants) were due to someone having no option but to dress a certain way, and so doing it proudly rather than apologizing for it.
Practical value
People are more likely to share things that are useful. This appears to be why people are always forwarding nutrition information to me. Note to everyone who knows me: I don’t care.
Is there a broader narrative that the story falls into? Note: this is how racism works.

This is all fine, but I think it is useless. For example, what is it that makes something have social currency? What is “cool”? These six principles are really just a way of explaining why things have taken off — not why things will take off. As Berger himself notes: plenty of cute animal videos go viral, but far more do nothing at all. And it is usually the case that there isn’t anything particularly different between them.

Theories Don’t Help

What’s more, all of these principles are common sense. You can boil them down into one really useless sentence, “People share things that they find interesting.” The big question remains: why do they find them interesting? And I don’t think a theory helps you there. You still have to go on a case by case basis. And you have to accept that a lot of great and interesting work still won’t catch on because that’s just the way the world is.

“Nobody knows anything.” —William Goldman

I think that books like Contagious act as pacifiers. They give people something to hang onto in a world that is pretty much random. And now, the internet is not really about making content that people will push; it is about making content that computers will push. Think about Upworthy — the viral content machine. Inside of six months, it saw its traffic fall by over 50%. This did not happen because the content changed; it happened because Facebook changed a computer algorithm.

This is all very disturbing from the standpoint of all content creators. It’s as though companies like Google and Facebook have become gods and we do our best to please them. But they are no less fickle than the Abrahamic god. But the larger issue is that people end up with worse content, because everyone is writing for these gods now.

I know this very well from my work here. I know the kind of articles that get a lot of hits. If I wanted to push my numbers up, I’d be writing a lot more about the presidential election. Instead, yesterday, I wrote about something that I know people don’t like reading about: central banks. But I think the issue is important. It’s the sort of thing that people should be exposed to even if they don’t care about it. But I’m not here to make money, so I can do that. I could never do that in my day job.

But I still think it is a fool’s errand to try to find contagious content. I think Henri, the existential cat is one of the most brilliant ideas ever. But the original video has only three million views. (Note: the second Henri was far more popular, but far less successful.) Meanwhile, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are superstars without a lick of talent between them. Emotion? Practical value? What’s contagious is what we learned in Caps for Sale: monkey see as monkey do. Except now it is: human see as computer do.

The rest is chaos, regardless of what theory you want to present to explain it. Again: nobody knows anything.

Morning Music: Swinging Doors

Merle Haggard - Swinging DoorsMerle Haggard’s second album, Swinging Doors, is a perfect country music album. My biggest complaint about popular music generally and country music specifically is how fake it is. And I suppose that’s true of Haggard too. I mean, the man was born in Bakersfield, California. Yet listen to that accent he affects in his songs. And yet, it seems entirely authentic coming from him.

(To be fair, Elvis Costello sang with a distinctly American accent on his first few albums. I don’t think it was affected. I think it was just the result of listening to American singers. I assume the same thing was going on with Haggard.)

My favorite song on Swinging Doors has always been “The Bottle Let Me Down,” because its funny and I love country drinking songs more than anything. But arguably, the strongest song is the title song, which is about the exact same thing. And it includes a very clever refrain, “I’m always here at home till closing time.”

It’s kind of funny that I love these kinds of songs, because I’m not like that at all. Unless a drug puts me to sleep, it only makes me more introspective. This is why I hate cannabis. I don’t need a drug that encourages me to consider everything I’ve ever done in the most negative way possible. If I had to live in the state of mind that cannabis brings out in me, I would have killed myself decades ago.

Admittedly, alcohol does not make me self-critical. Instead, it makes me more accepting. But that wouldn’t be a good thing in dealing with a break-up. Just the same, the way that Merle Haggard tells the story in “Swinging Doors” strikes me as exactly what I would be like. And that does make it hilarious. But only in a fictional setting. In real life, it’s just pathetic.

Anniversary Post: the Real Shakespeare

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of OxfordI am, as usual, far behind on work. But that’s not why I’m rerunning this article about Edward de Vere. It is just that this is the kind of information that you need. I get so tired of these conspiracy theories about Shakespeare. They are all, at base, trying to justify how one man could write such amazing plays. The problem is, the plays aren’t that amazing. Just because we’ve had them forced on us our entire lives doesn’t mean they are great.

On this day in 1550, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was born. He was an awful person. He wouldn’t accept that the first child of his marriage was his. He was pretty much the definition of a libertine. But he was a poet and playwright of some repute. You know, at that time, the rich didn’t have much to do with their time. Of course Edward spent through all of his fortune by the end of his life. And that is with the Queen giving me a thousand pounds per year in addition (an enormous amount of money). I could not possibly care less about this idiot, except for one thing.

A lot of people think he wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. In one way, who cares? I mean, we know almost nothing about Shakespeare anyway. So what does it matter? But it really bugs me that one of the main reasons that people think Edward wrote the plays is because Shakespeare’s plays supposedly show so much knowledge of the way that the aristocracy lived. But this is so ridiculous. I’m poor, but I have a damned good idea of how the rich live. And it isn’t just because of television. In Shakespeare’s time, the poor knew how the rich lived because they saw it — and their servants saw it up close and personal.

What’s more, this desire to find someone — Anyone! — but Shakespeare to have written the plays is based on the idea that the plays are so amazingly great that they couldn’t have just been written an ex-school teacher from the country. Well, I have news for you all. Although Shakespeare’s plays were well regarded during his life, they weren’t seen as any better than the plays of Marlowe or Jonson. And they were seen as inferior to the plays of people who came after. I’m a fan of Shakespeare, but he just wasn’t that great.

So people: get over it. If you want to think that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays, at least go with Marlowe. At least in that case you have royal spying and murder and faked deaths. It’s a lot more fun. The Edward de Vere narrative is just boring. But really, I think people get into the whole “who wrote Shakespeare” question because it relieves them of having to read the plays, which are by and large not all that great. So sure, I’d rather read “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward De Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford than The Two Noble Kinsmen. But that doesn’t prove anything.

So happy birthday you great pretender, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford!

Afterword: Who Thinks Edward de Vere Was Shakespeare?

Who believes such nonsense? This guy: