Hit Makers

I wish I had read this book in a paper copy rather than on my Kindle.  Had I done so, the book would be marked up with highlighted sections, and many of its pages would be folded — but at least I could go back without tap-tap-tapping, page by page, to find the parts I want to see again.

Yes, it’s that interesting.  You may have read about some of the great anecdotes in “Hit Makers:”  Why seven particular artists are regarded as the finest Impressionists painters, why “Rock Around the Clock” was the pop music phenom of 1955 and many others.

But what is most interesting is the analysis of why certain pieces of music and art and even advances in science succeed while other, possibly better ones, do not.

One concept is “optimal newness,” the idea that people like new things but only if those things include older, familiar elements.  In everything from pop music to scientific inquiry, people have a much easier time absorbing incremental change than revolutionary change.

Here’s a quote from physicist Max Planck:  “Truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

(This made me think about the Missoula floods, enormous events that carved out much of the Pacific Northwest at the end of the last ice age.  When I was in college, these were received as fact, but the high school teacher-turned-geologist who researched and established them early in the last century was a pariah in his field for decades because his conclusions seemed inconceivable to other geologists who never had visited that part of the country.)

Thompson refers also to Raymond Loewy, the 20th century designer who came up with successful new looks for cigarette packages, Sears refrigerators and Air Force One, among many others.

Loewy coined the expression MAYA,  “most advanced and yet achievable.” He understood that people could accept only a limited amount of change, and this understanding led to his remarkable success.

There are many ideas in this book, too many to cover here, but I want to mention another concept that interested me.

Viral Schmiral

Author Thompson notes that the few old news funnels — radio and then television networks and major publications — have given way in the digital age to thousands if not millions of information outlets.

He notes further that we speak now of new ideas or songs “going viral,” and he pretty much demolishes the idea.  From the book:

“In epidemiology, ‘viral’ has a specific meaning.  It refers to a disease that infects more than one person before it dies or the host does.  Such a disease has the potential to spread exponentially.  One person infects two.  Two infect four.  Four infect eight.  And before long, it’s a pandemic.”

Except “going viral” is not what happens.  Among the millions of information outlets are some with extraordinary reach. Many of these outlets have celebrities’ names on them.

Now I will bring up a discussion inspired by “Hit Makers” but not from the book itself.

Several summers ago, we read that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge “went viral” and raised more than $200 million for disease research. The idea originated with a pro golfer who challenged a cousin to pour ice over her head and donate money to the ALS charity.

But the result had nothing to do with viral spread.

Instead of growing by twos and fours and eights, the Ice Bucket Challenge was spread by celebrity YouTube videos and Twitter challenges that were reported in the news and drew in non-celebrity participants. Some of the big names:

Bill Gates, who now has 34 million Twitter followers
LeBron James, 37 million Twitter followers
Oprah Winfrey, 36 million Twitter followers
Kim Kardashian West, 50 million Twitter followers
Lady Gaga, 67 million Twitter followers
Taylor Swift, 84 million Twitter followers
Justin Bieber, 92 million Twitter followers

By contrast, the golfer who dreamed up the challenge has 236 Twitter followers.  His idea was smart, but its huge success relied on prominent people who broadcast it through their great big megaphones.


Derek Thompson, who graduated from college in 2012, has done a remarkable job with this book.  He draws from philosophy, psychology, science, history, business, popular culture and media trends to make thoughtful observations about little-discussed but interesting themes.  The book has a nice balance of interesting stories and explanations; it is sprawling in scope, but always readable.  I look forward to reading more of this guy’s work.

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