On the problem of popularity

On the problem of popularity

Perhaps it ought to be UNpopularity. I’m not quite sure. But a blog post needs a title and that will do well enough.

School days saw the problem rise first in most of our lives; hands up if you were the last or almost the last picked for teams? That was me, anyway. I don’t think anyone disliked me terribly much, but when it came to teams, there weren’t many who wanted me on their team. At least not until it became apparent (in sixth form) that I was an unerring attractant for balls. Get your mind out of the gutter; we are talking sports here. Baseballs, rounders balls, hockey balls. You name it, it smacked me hard somewhere on my body and I usually caught it as it fell in a sort of shocked reflex. Or in the case of hockey balls, deflected it either with stick or kickers. I got put in goal on the basis that I took up more of the goalmouth than anyone else, but I turned out to be quite a good goalie. It took till I was sixteen or so for my peers to spot that I got hurt a lot because the ball seemed to veer round specially to hit me; long term pattern recognition is not generally something teens tend to focus on. Regardless, I spent most of my school days feeling a bit left out and rejected.

Popularity among little girls is a strange thing and is based on attributes and skills I found baffling. What you wear, how you have your hair, having the right shoes (Start-rite or Clarkes didn’t cut it) and also having the right friends. But what I noticed was that the desire to be with the in-crowd skewed a lot of things. At junior school (8-11 years for non UK readers) there was a girl in my class called Lynn. Lynn was a very pretty girl with two sisters who all lived on a farm in the wilds of Cambridgeshire. The novelty of her living on a farm and her prettiness were two of the things that made her the Most Popular Girl in the Class. Other than that, I could see no reason why most of the other girls flocked to be her bestie. She wasn’t particularly kind, or clever or talented. But everyone somehow believed she was. Everyone copied the way she did things; they tried to dress like her and have their hair done the same way. She was supposed to be good at art; in fact, she’d probably have made a good cartoonist because she’d figured out a way to draw human figures quickly and accurately so that you could reproduce the same features over and over again. She was good enough to show me the method once and I used it for a while until my teacher Miss Barnes had a quiet word with me. “Why have you started drawing like Lynn?” she asked. I don’t remember what I said but I believe it was something in praise of how Lynn drew human figures. “Don’t,” she said briskly. “Draw your own way; be who you are. Your drawings are a lot better than hers.”

That’s the thing about that type of popularity: it changes how people do things, and most of the time we are unaware of it. We get suckered into an unconscious acceptance that if we do it THAT way, we’ll be in the popular camp. We’ll be besties with the most popular girl (or boy) and we’ll harvest all the benefits of that association. It is, of course, a big fat lie.

Recently my husband’s blog was nominated for a proper blog award, with award ceremony and all the trimmings. He was mildly pleased if puzzled. I voted for his blog (and yes, I did go and look at all the other nominations because I wasn’t just voting for him because he’s my husband) and I shared the call for votes once or twice. He was sent two tickets for the ceremony and gave them away because we were away at the time. Frankly, he wasn’t terribly interested. It meant very little to him. When we got back I had an email about the awards; he’d been named highly commended. I have no idea how the contest was run but usually with these things it’s about votes. So the blogs were judged not on their quality but on the number of people who had voted. I’ve seen plenty of this sort of thing for books, for book covers, authors etc and it seems to me that those who win are often those with the greatest ability to mobilise those around them to vote for them.

Being popular seems to create its own magnetic field, drawing in yet more acolytes. I’m not sure I’d ever want acolytes, to be honest, because there’s a cost to it. Time, energy, creative fizz all go into maintaining the persona that people are drawn to. That means less of all those things left to actually do something worthy of acclaim.

I don’t know what happened to Lynn. In our final year of junior school something went wrong between her parents and they split up, so she and her sisters moved away from the farm and left the area. I hope she became a cartoonist.

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13 thoughts on “On the problem of popularity

  1. Sometimes, though, a personality just IS popular, it isn’t necessarily manufactured to be popular. In fact, it’s the natural charisma that draws people to it – I think someone trying to be popular is less likely to be so. They’ll be part of the accepted herd, but not one of the people who stands out. I’m talking all the way from the playground to adult social circles workplace to social networking sites. People are often popular not just because of what they look like, what they’ve got or how loud they shout, but because they look outwards, are interested in others and not self-absorbed, and make the effort to smile (which costs neither time nor money). Radiators, not drains. I got that last little phrase from Joan Collins, actually, I think it’s really good!!!

    • Oh I definitely agree. Some people really are just nice, genuine, lovely folks. But in the world of social media, I think it’s much more easy to be taken in. As for the idea of radiators, I am conscious of the three methods by which heat is conveyed: conduction, convection and radiation. I think there may well be parallels in human warmth.

  2. (sorry, that’s a bit muddled in the middle – ineffective editing!!! Meant to say, ‘social circles, from the workplace etc etc)

  3. It continues, as you say , into current on-line conformity, and those that stand out refuse it, whether by being simply naturally generous, or failing to play by the rules; but rules there are, and those that keep within the constraints will be besties with many more than those who don’t. It is simply life!
    Just one nice memory from primary school evoked by your mention of ‘Startrite’ shoes. In South Africa those wonderful red shoes were the height of ambition! Red shoes simply did not exist any more than robins did. They both exemplified what Britain had to offer, and were seen only on cards or magazines!

    • It’s Life, Jim, but not as we know it.
      I think that those of us who walk our own path often go to places others don’t, though, and see things that crowds can’t.
      I was never allowed red shoes. So I bought myself my first pair ages 41, on my first work assignment (a pick up of students from Stansted airport), and wear them still, though they are very battered now. Ironically, they are Doc Marten airwear shoes, but in the classic T bar Start-rite style.

  4. I remember there was one girl at school (a year younger than me) who was hugely popular and beloved by all of us, even those older than her, who normally wouldn’t even look at people in her class. She just seemed calm, collected, gentle and kind, without being a pushover. I don’t want to go into the whole charisma issue, but there is something to be said for the ‘quiet power’ as well. She reminded me of Moominmamma (she was only 11 at the time).
    Online, though, well, that’s a different kettle of fish… outrageous seems to be the name of the game. But who wants to play such games? Congratulations to your husband – there’s always a bit of place for quality as well.

  5. Me, I Lisa felt different. As a first-generation American, I felt left out when the Irish, German and even the Italian kids that were here for generations would call me and my father names.

    DP is what they called me and my dad. That’s stuck for displaced person. I didn’t know it at the time. Do you only thing I knew, but that it hurt and at least one time the kid who used those words had made me cry.

    I was not popular with them. But today, I can identify with the Mexicans and the other Hispanics trying to find a new life in America .

    I also welcome those other group of displaced persons from Syria.

    That won’t make me popular here in the states. But it will among those people with the good state of mind.

    Michael J, USA

  6. I’m one of those people who is sad when TV shows do make-overs on talent scout shows and reality shows – telling people they needed ‘branding’ in some physical way before they can succeed or be happy in life. It takes away the charm and uniqueness of individuality – I noticed it at Uni a lot, teens would turn up with their own image and identity at the start of Fresher’s week and by Christmas would have assimilated themselves into a group of select clones. One girl I knew reverted to her former self having been rejected by the guy she changed everything about her image/personality to attract – I never saw her happier or more relaxed than the day she turned up minus the fake tan and nails and back in her baggy jeans and beanie hat 🙂 Like a prodigal soul xx

    • I really feel the same; it was one reason why when I did see bits of “Grease” I shuddered. Only saw it all the way through as an adult, and shuddered even more.
      I think there’s a saying: be yourself, everyone else is taken.
      I also feel rather the same way about the process of author branding, but that’s another topic and I know my thoughts would be controversial.

  7. I was highly unpopular in school, I looked different, I sounded different, I preferred sitting and reading to hurtling about after a ball. I made no effort to fgit in because I knew it would never be enough, I would still be me. Now in this age of social media I am still just me. Not popular, not trying to be. I write what I write, I like what I like…and I am still content to be happy with myself rather than miserable and fitting in.

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