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The evolution of pop culture

July 7, 2011
by seth godin

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Here’s the question: does pop culture change top down, or do people always get what they want/deserve?

Do car companies push a style upon the market, or does the market choose a style?

Can an influencer (like Ellen or the NYT) make a book a mass sensation, or do they merely make a bunch of noise–the market reads and recommends and embraces what it wants …

The question matters because we hand over plenty of money and respect to those that say that they can push something onto the culture. The question matters because when it comes to taking responsibility, those very same people often claim that all they can do is make a small ruckus–it’s the market that gets what it deserves.

Is banal TV banal because viewers demand it or because it’s cheap to make and easy to sell?

Are powerful cars powerful because car guys like to make guzzlers, or does the market insist on them?

Do some newspapers misbehave and cross ethical lines because it’s the only way to survive in a world where consumers are hungry for a no-holds-barred race to the bottom or … you get the idea.

Here’s my thought: both sides are right. Marketers get too much credit but also take too little responsibility.

A portion of the population is very responsive to the latest buzz, the latest big push. Part of the media (the part that wants to reach that market) is most likely to write about whatever is being hyped right now, and a fraction of the population is a sucker for what this part of the media is writing about.

But, and it’s a big but, much of the population isn’t even aware of this nonsense. They’re oblivious to the hype machine and the cycle of endless promo.

They are more likely to consume media because “everyone else” is already doing it. They’re following a trial or reading a book or watching a movie because it’s mainstream, safe, approved, the it-moment, etc.

They are more likely to demand a big “American-style” car because they’ve been trained to fit in and to buy what the neighbors think they should buy.

It’s impossible to hype your product to this spot in the middle of the market. You can get it started, sure, but only some (a handful) of the things that are adopted by the early adopters actually move through the curve and reach the middle.

We love big cars because car guys loved them and loved making them, and early adopter car guys liked to buy them, which set a century-long standard that the rest of the consumers in the market try to emulate.

Every once in a while, in the exception that proves the rule, an idea or product skips the early adopters and seems to magically entrance a different slice (witness the organic and largely hype-free start of Harry Potter). Or consider the very untraditional launch and growth of the Prius… More often than not, though, the hype machine spends itself out and fails.

Authors worry too much about the hype part. We focus too much on the promo, on the article in the Times or the review in the New Yorker. I don’t think publishers are particularly good at helping authors reach those that aren’t looking for them, even if the book is really good.

The amount of luck in the voyage from launch to mass is huge. But it’s certainly true that a product or service the delights the early adopters—delights them enough to turn them into peer-focused salespeople—is the tried and true path to mass success.

Short version: make great stuff, stuff that’s easy or urgent to talk about and that matches a wide but vital worldview. Then share it with people who have given you permission to talk about it.

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