Imagine for a moment that you could only ever listen to the most popular music—only the top 10 songs, say, or the top 10 albums. Imagine as well that you could only read the books that were most popular, and that the only available movies to see were, again, the super popular ones. Food, too, is limited in this scenario to only the most popular items. Even your activities: imagine for a moment you can choose in your spare time to do only one of, say, ten most popular leisure pursuits.
I am assuming this thought experiment is starting to sound a bit like a nightmare. Even a person with happily mainstream tastes veers regularly from liking and doing only very-popular things; everybody’s got a number of at least somewhat off-the-beaten-path favorites of some kind. This is why the accumulated preferences of a large population never coincide precisely with any one individual’s tastes. And they’re not supposed to: top 10 charts of various kinds are inherently interesting as information, but are not intended as strict behavioral control.
At least, not so far.
The web is working hard to change this—in particular, companies run by web entrepreneurs who so worship the God of Page Views as to drain life of qualitative meaning entirely. It’s all about quantity, all about getting the most people to click a link or like or follow. These are entrepreneurs such as Emerson Spartz, recently profiled in The New Yorker, who was there quoted as saying, “The ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it’s quality.”
This is patently absurd. It doesn’t require that much history or independent thinking to realize that popularity and quality are not only not always aligned but often enough misaligned. Things that are popular are not always of high quality and things of high quality are not always popular. This is a truth as old as civilization, and it is not changed by a home-schooled 27-year-old who seeks page views for a living.
And then there is this truth, perhaps too subtle for Spartz and his fast-moving, screen-focused peers: that sometimes a thing of quality takes time to be seen, understood, and recognized. Schubert would not have ended up on any “most popular” list in his lifetime. Nor the Velvet Underground while they were still around. Or recall, if you would, the way The Shawshank Redemption was received upon release versus the way it is regarded today.
Despite the gaping hole in their understanding of human culture and human nature, this new generation of web entrepreneurs are the ones taken seriously in our benighted digital culture—the ones offered the microphones at TED conferences, followed on Twitter, and generally glorified as shining examples of 21st-century success. The lonely few of us who focus our attention on quality rather than quantity are not merely ignored, we may as well not exist when it comes to the so-called “real world” of commerce and (ooh, that word) innovation.
And while much of the squawking about Spartz after the article came out had to do with how his click-bait web sites purportedly spell the end of serious journalism online, that part of the hubbub seems to me somewhat overblown. Serious journalism has never been all that popular, and it’s unlikely that junk sites like Dose are specifically exacerbating the problem. To me the more serious concern is the Orwellian implication here—if publicly acclaimed web leaders can willfully present quantity as quality, what else are they dissembling and misrepresenting for their own ends?
In the New Yorker article and elsewhere, Spartz speaks without hesitation of his fascination with “virality.” His career to date as a web-site entrepreneur has seen him devoting endless energy and data-crunching power to refine again and again his understanding of what causes something to become rapidly and monstrously popular online. The endgame, not surprisingly, is the increasing employment of sub-rational enticements to promote an all but addict-like response from unwitting visitors: use this wording and not that wording, this photo and not that photo, place the headline here and not there, and so forth.
Users caught up in this kind of virality vortex have left the concept of quality just as far behind as have the web sites they visit. Quality by nature is a response of the thinking and feeling being, not a robotic reflex; even if arising in an instantaneous sensation, the recognition of quality springs from the depths of open-hearted intuition, not reptilian-brain instinct. At least those entrepreneurs baiting users into meaningless clicking have the gratification of profit tied up in this awful game; visitors, however, are left after the fact with little but the emotional equivalent of a junk-food coma. What did I just spent all this time doing? And why?
Thankfully, short-sighted hucksters share a common eventual fate: failure, and ridicule. And mark my word, history shall prove these virality chasers to be laughing-stocks, as much for their risible inability to mature beyond a toddler-like sense of greed and entitlement as for their blindness to their own human hearts. They hide behind currently acceptable jargon (innovation! disruption!), incapable of recognizing the painfully familiar and unimaginative nature of their actual endeavor. As Leon Wiseltier wrote recently in the New York Times, “there is nothing innovative about pandering for the sake of a profit.”
Quality is real, quality is not measurable by engineers, and quality will long outshine the petty strivings of page-view millionaires and their Silicon Valley acolytes. If you have a moral compass, you understand the existence and the importance of quality, so right away this gives you a hand-hold on what people who belittle the importance of quality are like—rudderless human beings, blinded by power of one kind or another, and just as likely to do harm as good in the world. Steer clear of these people and for god’s sake avoid their web sites.