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Hit Makers

The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction

By Derek Thompson
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  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

Hit Makers (2017) looks into the cultural phenomena of popularity and fashion, as well as the science behind them. These blinks offer an up-close examination of why some products, songs and works of art take off, while others fade into the past.

Key idea 1 of 9

Popularity is about exposure, not quality.

Meandering through an art gallery or museum, you might assume that you’re seeing the cream of the crop when it comes to works of fine art. But the reality is that things become popular for plenty of reasons besides their actual quality.

Just take the paintings of Claude Monet. Many of them, like The Japanese Footbridge, depict ponds filled with colorful water lilies. These water lily paintings are world famous, with museumgoers forming small crowds around them just to catch a glimpse.

Now compare this popularity to that of another impressionist painter, Gustave Caillebotte. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. held a special exhibition of his paintings, in which the gallery described him as a relatively unknown French impressionist.

This description was accurate, since few people had heard of him. But despite this lack of name recognition, Caillebotte’s work is incredible. His paintings depict nineteenth-century Paris in an exquisitely delicate impressionistic style. In his own time, around 1876, he was seen as one of the most innovative impressionists around.

In other words, Caillebotte’s work was at least on par with Monet’s, but Monet became famous while Caillebotte remains obscure. Why?

Simply put, it’s because of exposure to an audience, which is a fundamental ingredient in popularity.

In addition to being an artist, Caillebotte was himself an art collector who was fond of the work of his impressionist friends. Three years after his death in 1894, some of the paintings in his collection were displayed in the first large exhibit of impressionist work at the Musée du Luxembourg.

Among them were several paintings by Monet, Degas and five other impressionists, but none of Caillebotte’s own works. As a result, the seven impressionists chosen for the exhibit rose to recognition and remain famous to this day, just because they were thrust into the spotlight at the right moment.

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