Black Holes and the (Meta)physics of Popularity

 

Black Holes and The (Meta)physics of Popularity

Have you ever stopped to question how something becomes and remains popular? Has it ever baffled you beyond words why a singer or a film or a book gain a massive following, and yet has left you cold, and unable to see its appeal? Have you ever finally succumbed to peer pressure and bought the latest must-read book, that must-have music and found yourself wondering why the blazes this has somehow hit the big time when you can see few redeeming features in it?

I bought the novel Twilight about two years, to read while away on a trip, and was seriously disappointed. I got to the end and was unable to see why it has become a global phenomenon. It is poorly written, and unoriginal; someone has described it at Jane Eyre with vampires and werewolves. The characters are flat and unrealistic, the plot thin and predictable and it doesn’t even scare. While I am fully aware I am not a part of the demographic for which it is intended, I am also aware that a hefty section of the fan base comes from women of my age and background. I remain baffled.

The same applies to certain of the big blogs, which will remain nameless and linkless for reasons I hope will become apparent as I go on. These are the blogs that have hundreds of thousands of hits a day, who have subscribers in their tens of thousands, and every post draws hundreds if not thousands of comments. I’ve had a look at such places and come away baffled by why the numbers are so high. They don’t usually offer anything that strikes as wise or clever or helpful or really anything out of the ordinary; the self help ones seem to repeat the same type of information you can find anywhere. There’s nothing there to keep me coming back. And yet people do. They come back and read obsessively and comment and recommend and re-tweet.

These are the blogs I call the Black Hole Blogs. They inhabit the same universe as I do, they occupy a tiny space(virtual places are virtually without geography) and yet they have such immense mass that they draw in everything. Other blogs speak of them with awe and reverence and even a little fear. There’s always a danger they will swallow up all the readers who have an interest in that subject, and once those readers go past that event horizon from which exit is impossible, they are lost to lesser blogs.

It’s the same with best-seller books and authors, and blockbuster movies and chart topping music. Once something reaches a certain size, the size alone is what draws people in. How many of us went to see Avatar, because everyone we knew had been to see it? It’s a very average movie, with recycled themes. I was disappointed (I saw it in 2D so perhaps that is another factor) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about.

In the end, I do question whether popularity is more about herd mentality than it is about the quality of the product itself. Nobody wants to be the odd one out who doesn’t watch a certain reality TV show (insert whichever is current) or hasn’t seen the in-film or read the in-book. Every time a Harry Potter book was launched, commuter trains were packed with adults reading the latest offering from JK Rowling. Before that The Da Vinci Code was the in-book. It doesn’t matter in the end about the quality of the product, if the marketing gets a certain number of people to buy into the adventure(music, book, film TV whatever) then a strange cascade effect takes place.

There are plenty of times where the popularity is deserved. A great book, a superb film, a fabulous album can just as often reach the heights. And yet, so too does total and utter rubbish. It baffles me. It’s beyond  simple issues of taste and choice.

In blogging terms, there is a possible collateral benefit of being associated with a Black Hole blog, at least in the minds of the smaller bloggers. Commenting on such a blog may bring readers to your blog, may even attract the attention of the Black Hole blogger, though in practice, I suspect that the majority of this kind of blogger may at best skim through their comments and only reply to those who are already a part of their network, if at all. If a post is getting hundreds of comments, or thousands, it would be a full time job reading the comments alone.

If you only equate success with numbers, then allying yourself to the Black Hole blogs and aiming for their level of ‘success’ is a futile and probably deadening exercise.At best you’re going to be a pale shadow, accused of copying them or be swallowed up by them and get no readers of your own. But if you leave aside concepts of numerical success and examine things based on their own intrinsic worth then a very exciting universe emerges, one where you can make discoveries for yourself.

Be a pioneer. Find books that make you go, “Hmmmm!” when you read the cover and turn over the first pages with the excitement of a Dr Livingstone of the literary world. Don’t wait for recommendations from the media for what films to see or music to buy; go out and see what you can find. Don’t mindlessly obey those little prompts you get at Amazon, “If you liked X then you will like Y”. Avoid automatically buying another book by a famous author simply because the words NY Times best-seller is printed in bigger letters than the book title.

Look for blogs that intrigue and excite you because of what the author says or does, not because it is endorsed by a celebrity or because you think you may get traffic as a result, or because you are convinced that something that has gotten 10 million hits somehow MUST have something. It might, but it no longer needs YOU. Go and find the blogs that are out there that are languishing for lack of hits, but whose author has talent and insights, and encourage them with your comments.

Open your mind to the small, the independent, the quirky and unpredictable things of the world, those mindblowingly undiscovered places and things and people and writers and musicians and artists. Open your eyes to see beauty and talent, open your ears to new experiences in music and find out for yourself what you like without being brainwashed that it is whatever product the sellers happen to be selling at the moment.

In other words, don’t be a sheep. Be a wildly alive explorer and see what new worlds within this one you can find and share.

There is no map but the one you create for yourself. So go and explore and steer clear of Black Holes. I’m looking forward to reading your Captain’s log.

Opposites

One of the lessons I do with pre-intermediate students is on opposites.

What is the opposite of light?

Well, I suspect most of you would have said Dark, but I’d have accepted Heavy too. Many words have multiple opposites: right  can be the opposite of wrong but also of left.

Most concepts have their opposites too. Good versus evil, Light versus Dark, introvert/extrovert.

I was thinking last night about how our very world shapes our perceptions of things. For instance, mathematics is based largely on the fact that for some reason we have two hands(binary) and ten fingers(digital). I think also the way we interact conceptually is based on having two hands. Everything is either/or or simply both. We can hold things in each hand. When you add things to the equation, it becomes complex and we seek to simplify by putting things into categories. We like to pigeonhole everything. We like things to be symmetrical and even.

And because our planet spins round the sun, we are aware from our earliest days of the contrast between dark and light, between day and night, and this is something I feel has strongly influenced how we perceive the moral and ethical world too. The seasons too have a power to change how we classify the way the world works.

Often when I have covered opposites, I move onto synonyms. People often forget that due to English being a composite language made up of hundreds of influences we often have words that mean almost but not quite the same thing. Is valiant the same as courageous? Not quite. Is intelligent the same thing as clever? No. There are shades and nuances in language that make it so hard for even native speakers to fully get to grips with it.

It’s the same with life. Absolute good and absolute evil are not things we normally encounter. I do believe they exist. I believe in God and I believe also in Not-god. I don’t like the terms that exist for this, because they carry a medieval taint. For most things though, there are infinite shades of in-between good and evil.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s built into the laws of physics. For every hero there is a villain. Our world is built around opposites.

So why do New Agers find it so hard to accept that Light and Dark are as much a part of our world and every person here, that the oppsite of light is not evil? Daytime and nighttime are built into the biology of life. You can’t have life without both. Dark is not evil. Dark is just…dark.