Adam Patterson | August 16th, 2013

Are companies, products, and works of art revered because of their intrinsic value? Or do our tastes simply gravitate toward that which is already popular?

Such are the questions asked in this intriguing New York Times story on the behavior driving social media’s ubiquitous “like” button:

There’s an old cliché: money attracts money. It goes without saying that crowds attract crowds, and, well, “likes” attract “likes.”

Some of us, especially those with poetic interests, pine for the halcyon days when human creations – be it songs, companies, novels, products, photographs, paintings, or inventions – were (supposedly) evaluated on the basis of their aesthetic, educational, and practical merits. Art was obviously judged more by aesthetic criteria, whereas products were evaluated according to their utility. The point is that “popularity” and hype-driven marketing campaigns played a smaller role in our decision making.

Of course, whether those halcyon days actually existed is open for debate. But it is strange to look back from this Facebook—reality TV—fast food—Twitter era and realize there was a time when a literary giant like Ernest Hemingway was “popular,” and when a musical – and defiantly uncommercial – visionary such as Ornette Coleman attracted and sustained interest from major record labels. It often seems that cultural output in the pre-Internet age didn’t follow the herd and simply had more… weight.

What’s changed? Well, one of the most simple, and cynical, observations is that over time, ‘content companies’ – movie studios and book publishers and record labels – decided that money is more important than art. You know, if Justin Bieber sells millions of records and concert tickets, who cares if his artistic output isn’t comparable to Beethoven’s?

Another common observation is that our attention spans are under assault. Few people have the patience today to wade through a weighty novel in their spare time. As the American writer Philip Roth says, the novel is competing with the screen – movies, television, iPads – and the screen seems to be winning. It’s easy to scroll through your friend’s status update and click “like.” It isn’t easy to refuse dinner invitations and dedicate two weeks of your life to reading and digesting James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses.

Lastly, the twin philosophies of relativism and deconstruction have made us wary of the idea that capital G Greatness actually exists. Greatness implies that some things are more valuable than others – and it’s an idea that often doesn’t sit well with other common beliefs, such as the belief in egalitarianism. How dare we claim that one artist is Greater than another? Isn’t everything, after all, a matter of personal taste? And, if something is popular, doesn’t that mean that it also must be of value?

Welcome to the era of “like.”

All of these questions leave us – and you, your company, and its reputation – with an obvious choice: do you want your products and services to catch fire in the market because they are intrinsically valuable, or is it good enough if hype alone drives your success?

Remember: many mediocre companies and artists hope that hype will sustain them – it’s a hope which frees them from the hard, sweaty, unglamorous labour of creating real value.

At n/n, we understand the value of hype, but we also believe there is always a reckoning. Undeserved hype will ultimately morph into a fad, and fads – as we all know – always fade into obscurity. In the absence of (fleeting) nostalgia, fads can’t sustain a respectable volume of “likes.”

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