Popularity Contest

I like things that are popular. Why wouldn’t I? If they’re popular, they’re good!

Wait, that doesn’t sound right. But it doesn’t sound wrong, either. Hrmm…

Okay, let me think this one through. For a lot of folks, something has to cross a certain minimum popularity threshold before they’ll consider approving of it themselves. And for other people anything that crosses that threshold immediately gets dismissed. I could dwell on the psychological nature of “conformists” versus “elitists” all day, but that basically just boils down to tribal status-seeking and not much else, so I don’t find it particularly interesting. What I do find interesting is the set of conditions under which it’s reasonable to assume that “popular = good.”

On the one hand, we talk about “the wisdom of crowds” with some regularity. There’s the Efficient Market Hypothesis (and the corollary that betting markets are the best predictors), and these things take as an axiom that “the masses” are better than any one person at knowing if something is good. But then there’s also the reverse – in some cases, it’s clearly true that elite experts are more knowledgeable than the masses on certain topics. We shouldn’t “poll the audience” when someone is having a heart attack – we should get out of the way of the cardiac specialist.

So how do we know?

Okay, here’s the easy one. I think “the crowds are right” is almost always true in matters of taste, as long as it’s a crowd of your people. For instance, if you like classic rock, then the most popular classic rock songs are also probably going to be ones you really enjoy, with some variation on the rankings, perhaps. If you like comedy movies, then the most popular comedy movies are probably the ones that make you in particular laugh the hardest, too. That’s because there’s no second step – music or movies or whatever aren’t good because they lead to something else we want, they’re just good because they are the thing we want.

That’s different from, for example, policy. Lots of very bad public or company policies are very bad, because they’re a means to an end. The means part may be popular because we like it in and of itself, or because we think that it will lead to a desirable end – but we don’t know. That extra layer of uncertainty is what starts to create static in the “popular = good” formula.

Ultimately though, in any of these cases, the formula really rests on one variable – how close are you, personally, to the median member of the crowd in question?

If you’re in the exact center of a particular crowd’s tastes, then the chances are high! But if you’re not, then the popularity bell curve will fall farther and farther from your personal position. So even when listening to the “wisdom of the crowds,” make sure you ask yourself – which crowd?

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