June 23, 2022
There are so many products, so much art, so much music, so many fashion trends, so much of…everything in this world, but only a tiny fraction becomes popular. Why? In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson explains this phenomenon (the “science of popularity”). The book was a hit for me, as interesting as Thompson’s articles in The Atlantic, and articulated with the precision of a born writer.
His thesis is that when it comes to what becomes a hit, simply being talented isn’t enough. History has shown time and again that “hit makers”--networks of people or one influential enabler--need to be in place to tip the scales in the right direction. That hit maker could be a gifted speechwriter, a born salesperson, an uber-popular celebrity who retweets your tweet…some special someone who works the right magic at just the right time. “The Age of Distraction” in the subtitle refers to the challenge of standing out in an era of so much noise--social media, plentiful choices, the competition of numerous other things vying to become hits.
Hit Makers is chock full of a varied range of examples from different time periods. To name just a few, Thompson explains how Disney grew to become as popular and influential as it is; how Bumble and Hinge took off when Tinder was already popular; why Claude Monet’s work became one of the most recognizable in the world while the talented Gustave Caillebotte, an artist painting at the same time as Monet, is barely known. For every wildly successful someone or something, there are hundreds that may be just as, or even more, skilled or promising, but because they didn’t have a hit maker, they sank into obscurity.
Thompson also explores the psychology behind our taste preferences. We are sensitive to social influence, particularly the allure of popularity (e.g., conflating “best-seller” with “best quality” or “most interesting”). However, there’s more: As Thompson says, “People don’t make decisions individually. They aren’t just creatures of influence (‘I bought it because it’s popular’). They’re also creatures of self-expression (‘I bought it because it’s me’).”
I think most readers know that when it comes to certain things, we humans are easily influenced, and we know connections can make or break a person’s success. At the least, helpful connections can give us a leg up. But reading the psychology and the many examples in Hit Makers--each strengthening Thompson’s thesis but unique in their truly incredible stories--takes a truth that we may not think about deeply and magnifies it.
With that said, I find the “science of popularity” descriptor slightly inaccurate because simple, mysterious luck plays a role in the making of hits. What Thompson explores is a kind of science because there’s an observable pattern to how hit making plays out, but because some luck is mixed in, the pattern can’t simply be set down and strictly followed to get a guaranteed result.
The book educated and fascinated me, but it is extremely information dense, and that’s my only criticism. I read every word, posted many excerpts as status updates, and understood it all, but trying to summarize each example is next to impossible without a second or third reading. This may be ok, though, because they’re connected by a simple main idea. Examples of this “science of popularity” truly are everywhere, and Hit Makers has me viewing hits with new eyes.