Little Miss Anti-Popularity Rides Again

“Popularity is the one insult I have never suffered.” Oscar Wilde

My alternate title for this piece was “Page View Syndrome” but then I thought that sounded like something you’d catch by using the computer terminal at an Indonesian whorehouse. Oh, and that is the title of the article that prompted all this…

There’s a thought-provoking piece that PC Mag did that details the dangers involved in basing what we see on the web on popularity. In the case detailed in the article, the author likens our internet future to a Max Headroom-style situation (look it up you crazy youngsters) and discusses a writer being fired from a publication because his articles weren’t popular enough. This popularity contest is a seriously scary thing to consider and here’s why…

First of all, if you ever went to high school and you aren’t Mystery Guest, you may have suffered a bit. Popularity isn’t always pretty. Mystery Guest IS always pretty, however. ANYWAY, popular kids weren’t always popular because they were the ones who’d go on to save the children, end poverty, make clean water available to everyone, and become a lean-to in the forest. At the risk of this turning into a blog post about me crying and watching Pretty in Pink again (why didn’t Andy just want Duckie Dale?), I do think that we should all consider the dangers of anything that’s popular with the masses.

I’d like to say that yes, in some cases I think that mainstream popularity can be good. Ben and Jerry’s for example, is pretty popular and I have absolutely no issues with it other than that I feel weird paying 5 bucks for a milkshake that I’ll slurp down in 5 minutes. The same thing holds true for my beloved and much-maligned Starbucks. Many things are popular because they ARE as close to perfection as you can get, like Cherry Garcia. You just can’t fall into the trap of letting popular opinion constantly tell you how to think. Lots of people have STDs…you sure don’t want to go and contract one just to be a part of something do you?

It’s just as bad to like something for being liked by everyone as it is to hate something because it’s liked by everyone. However, you have to think of everything in the world that’s caused a stir, and how that benefits society. These people and things aren’t always popular but they’re sure as hell important. Caravaggio caught some flack for painting using corpses as models. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was banned. Trite examples, perhaps, but this isn’t the place for a lesson on all the people in the world who were once seen as being of no relevance, and who ended up being tremendously important. This is a lesson in not using a black and white measurement in order to determine what gets put out there for the public’s consumption, and unfortunately, popularity tends to be determined BY a black and white measurement.

The main issue here is that if popularity of page views, for example, ever becomes a standard for who publishes and what gets published, we’re in for serious trouble. You simply cannot gauge true importance by large numbers. If I may again draw an analogy to the arts, think of all the films and albums and paintings that were never popular but that enjoyed massive critical aclaim; online content is really not that much different.

Getting caught up in numbers for the simple fact that they are a discrete measurement may have made sense at one point, but it doesn’t today. It’s difficult to explain nuances, though, so while you may realize that there’s more to an SEO campaign than the number of new visitors in a month, it’s very tricky to explain this to a client, or your boss, without sounding like you’re simply trying to get out of something. It’s also easy to fall into the extreme of this, and justify poor numbers in one area by making a crazy interpretation of what another number means.

So without launching into a day’s worth of data interpretation and doubletalk for the people who care about your sites, how will you let them know what’s truly going on? Can you use ANY numbers to accurately reflect success or failure? If you think that you can, what are those numbers, and how can you justify their importance? It really isn’t very clearcut right now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *