My wife has to warn people: “Don’t tell him that he will like something, he’ll just end up hating it.” She usually has to say this after someone says, “Dave, do you know what band you would LOVE?” or “You know what show/movie/book you should read next?”
And she’s not wrong. I have a wire crossed somewhere upstairs – if you tell me that I will like something, I will most likely gain an immediate distaste for it. It could be that I’m an asshole, or it could be that the stuff people generally like just isn’t….good?
The same goes for anything on any sort of “best seller” or “best of” list. When you call something a bestseller, it tends to sell better regardless of the material of the thing. Just because it is selling well doesn’t mean it is a quality item worthy of your attention. Yet, you would think it otherwise.
I always hit bookstores when I travel. They call to me like a magnet, and I can sniff one out anywhere. Places that sell new books always have the table up front with the same two dozen books on display. These are whatever is on the NYT best seller lists. To get on this list, a book has to sell anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 books in one week. The metrics of this list change from one year to the next, but 5,000 books doesn’t seem like a lot – especially for a country of over 300 million people.
Then again, maybe one out of every hundred people would consider themselves a “reader” nowadays.
The question, then: Do you like this thing? Or is it trending?
I’d like to think no one would care about Taylor Swift if algorithms didn’t do their thing and spread the easy-to-digest stuff to the masses.
Do I like this? Or is this just a representation of the profile one of the data harvesters has collected on me?
Do I like this? Why do I like what I like?
It’s not that I think pop culture creates sub-par stuff. It’s how we’re asked to perceive popular culture that steps on the significance it could have. We’re not asking questions or critiquing it – we’re just giving it a thumbs up/down and then moving on to the next thing. As Soraya Robert’s writes for Long Reads:
Now, instead of approaching everything with a sense of curiosity, we approach with a set of guidelines. It’s like when you walk around a gallery with one of those audio tours held up to your ear, which is supposed to make you appreciate the art more fully, but instead tends to supplant any sort of discovery with one-size-fits-all analysis.When Did Pop Culture Become Homework? – Longreads
Pop culture is no longer about enjoying things, but about participating in the mainstream. Take of that what you will. In the Ezra Klein podcast about discovering your own taste, they go a step further:
“Algorithmic recommendations…prevent us from being challenged and surprised, like everything is molded to our preferences of what we’ve already expect.”
You get more of what you got, the best sellers keep selling the best.
While riding his Peloton one evening, Chris Nolan received a scathing review of one of his movies from the instructor on the screen in front of him. His response:
“Criticism shouldn’t be an instinct. It should be a profession.”
Whether or not you like something isn’t a critique, but we use it as a metric of what we might want to consume next. True criticism is appraising one work in the context of something else. It was probably a great movie, but not for someone who scrolls on their phone while watching The Voice.
How do you find what you like versus liking something because it is well liked?
In The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction, Jacobs makes the case for reading to your whim. Not the best sellers or the classics, or trying to run down a list of “100 Books You Should Read Before You Die” (because what happens then?), but going on a whim. And that whim is for those who embrace serendipity.
What should you read next? Well, that all depends on how open you are to letting new things into your orbit. Of course, this is means coming across stuff you might not like, or having to sit without an answer for a little while (“Google has killed serendipity”). Doing away with the algorithm, which means doing away with both the inputs and the outputs of the algorithms.
Less time on the screens, more time doodling.
When you take away the noise, you start to hear what you’re supposed to be listening to.