Thursday, March 13, 2014

The cult - and culture - of popularity...

I really need for these "most popular" lists to just go away now. The gist of them always seems to be that just because something is popular, that it is necessarily worth of everyone's attention.

Well, no.

But, you're probably wondering what brought this tirade on. It's this article, from a site called Scribd, which got together with Parade magazine (which is sort of like the Reader's Digest of newspaper inserts) to find out what was the most read e-book in each state in the United States.

Maybe I just haven't been paying attention, but I've never heard of most of these books. I've read exactly two of the books on the list - Prayers for the Dead, by Faye Kellerman, which is the most-read e-book in Connecticut; and Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman, the most popular e-book in Wisconsin. I've also seen the film made from the most popular e-book in Missouri - that would be The Princess Diaries, by Meg Cabot. Also, I do recognize a good number of the authors' names on the list. But I have to admit that, just from the titles, I don't think most of those books would be very interesting to me.

The thing is, I don't see the usefulness of lists like this. I'm not interested in reading something just because everyone else is reading it. I want to read books that are of interest to me. Yeah, I might see something on this list, or on another "most popular" list, that I was not aware of, and read it, or see a movie, or listen to a piece of music, depending on the topic of the list. And that's fine. But I don't appreciate having something sold to me on the basis that I should be interested in it just because other people seem to be interested in it.

Maybe that's a flaw in my upbringing. I was raised to believe - and I do believe - that popularity does not equal worth. Take television programs, for example. I understand that a lot of people watch so-called "reality" shows - things like Survivor, The Bachelor, and the various competition shows. I have no interest in most of those. In fact, to be honest, I've never watched most of them.

I used to watch Big Brother. I think the concept is interesting as a sociological experiment, and so I tuned in for a couple of seasons. But, when it became clear that the emphasis of the competition was on seeing who could lie and deceive the most, and that this was seen as just "playing the game" and a good thing, I tuned out. It just got ugly. As far as I've been able to tell, the same is true on shows like Survivor. They make it look like lying, cheating, and being generally a rotten human being are acceptable ways of treating one's fellow human beings. I can't support that by watching.

But, these shows are popular and so are considered a good thing, when they clearly are part of the problem, culturally speaking. I really think US culture has gotten meaner partly due to the popularity of shows like this. And so, as far as I'm concerned, popular does not equal "good" or "valuable".

Now, I'm not saying that the books on the list I linked at the beginning of this post are not good or not valuable. Some of them might well be very good. But I am saying that the implication of such lists - that because something is popular, everyone should be equally interested in them - is a false premise. It's like saying that the music at the top of the Billboard charts is always "good" music simply because people are buying that music. This is also a false premise; people are often buying that music because it has been successfully marketed, and not because it has any intrinsic value.

Personally, I have a difficult time with the idea that I should like - and buy - Justin Timberlake's music, or Lady Gaga's music, or anyone else's music, just because other people do. Or that I should read the books on the linked list just because a lot of other people have read them. Or that I should go out to the theater and see 300: Rise of an Empire just because it topped the box office last week.

Okay. I'll stop kvetching now. But, really, I guess the overarching theme here is that you should go out and find what you like, rather than letting a "most-popular" list, or a best-seller list, or even a blogger like me, tell you what you should read or watch or listen to. In my case, I might make suggestions. I might even say, look, I think you should see this or read that or listen to the other. But you should also feel free to say, "Eh. That doesn't sound like something I'm interested in."

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