On finding quality in a time of mass popularity
Never in history has it been easier to find out what's popular. Want to know what music is at the top? No more suspenseful wait for Casey Kasem to bring you the American Top 40: Spotify Charts has city-level listening to share. Netflix reports how many hours of its shows have been viewed. The New York Times serves up the most popular news stories, while Amazon is happy to refresh its best-seller charts by the hour. Twitter happily packages the most popular discussions of the hour, and YouTube is delighted to rank and amplify videos into the millions of views.
■ Even political opinion tracking has moved into a mad rush: FiveThirtyEight, YouGov, and Morning Consult are among those who can't wait to convert the intense hunger for popularity contests into clicks.
■ But superabundance isn't the same thing as necessity. Popularity is relatively easy to measure: Amazon can count sales, Netflix can count gigabytes of data, and pollsters can survey sample populations who are eager to be heard. Much harder to do is to evaluate and judge for quality. But it is quality that really matters. Pet rocks, slap bracelets, and "Mambo No. 5" have all been popular at one time or another, but their popularity is hardly a reflection of quality. And in the limited time people have in this life, measures of popularity alone are mostly a problem of misdirection.
■ Most people instinctively don't want to be left out of popular trends, even when they turn into manias. But if too many things become driven first by popularity rather than by considered evaluation of what is of the optimal quality, the result can be a morass of mediocrity.
■ A great public service would be done, for example, if the people -- from streaming-service executives to film editors -- who knew how to attract millions of viewers to "Tiger King" were to direct the same energies to telling stories that a smart, engaged public should know. Ken Burns can't be the only filmmaker with the skills and the backing to produce shows that turn worthy subjects like the Civil War or jazz music into popular entertainment.
■ Of course there will always be a demand for light and even low-brow entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with that. But it's a strange kind of madness that keeps us from channeling the skills that we know can turn things popular into subjects that deserve to be popular because they are important. If creators can make a blockbuster out of "Stranger Things", then they could also make the Federalist Papers or the Reconstruction Era or the complexities of modern gray war into subjects people could not only understand, but would want to talk about with friends and family.
■ Measuring popularity is easy, but measuring quality is not. Yet we often know it when we see it -- and we certainly have a fair understanding of the skills required to produce quality outputs (not just in media, but especially there). If indeed we want to avoid entertaining ourselves to death, then the people who hold the levers that corral mass popularity owe it to the rest of us to point some of those skills in the right direction.