What takes a song from a moderately enjoyable earworm to an unavoidable hit? How does a movie go from a solid screenplay to a worldwide phenomenon? In an age of social media saturation can any content ever really go “viral”? Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction (2017) by Derek Thompson endeavors to answer some of these questions.
Hit Makers explores what makes a hit with surprising results as he examines how exposure, familiarity, and other factors play into the often ineffable quality of popular appeal.
In chapters themed around popular music, movies, and television Thompson examines various sensations from their inception to the moment they were decidedly a hit. Examples include how “School House Rock” went from a middling B-Side song to the defining song of a generation thanks to one nine-year-old’s music collection, the origin story like legend surrounding Star Wars, and how one writer of Twilight fanfic managed to tap into the zeitgeist and create a sensation of her own.
This book is at its best when Thompson is sharing stories instead of disseminating theories and facts although those are just as fascinating to learn. Some gems include the exposure effect (being the right thing and being seen), fluency vs. disfluency (as it relates to people wanting to be shocked while simultaneously gravitating toward what they already know), as well as the principle of striving for the most advanced yet acceptable outcome in all things. There are a lot of interesting takeaways here although the ultimate lesson remains that culture is chaos and there’s no good or consistent way to predict a hit.
Hit Makers is approachable nonfiction at its best and a must read for anyone with more than a passing interest in pop culture. Recommended.