A popularity contest

This was to be my next column for the dearly departed Word magazine. I’d pitched it, and it was in a holding pattern, awaiting clearance – in other words, for a bit of space at the front of the mag. It was half-written, so I’ll finish it here. (Hey! Self-publishing! For no money! It’s the future!)

Today’s hot topic is … well, a seemingly obscure anecdote from my days as a music journalist, but bear with me. I remember being on Pop Will Eat Itself’s tour bus circa 1991 and discovering, amid the usual collection of VHS tapes and CDs, the inevitable copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, very much the accessory du jour at the time (the Fifty Shades Of Grey of the early 90s, except not much favoured by women.). The NME photographer Tim was keen to show me the “bit with the rat”, already notorious as the most disgusting chapter in the book. This proved simple, as the band’s paperback fell automatically open at that very page, where its spine was now permanently bent. This was the blunt, physical way of discerning a novel’s most popular passage in the 20th century: you used your detective skills.

In the same prehistorical era, the NME, in common with other quaintly paper-based publications, would run an annual reader survey. No clicking here. It involved finding a Biro, filling in a form, cutting along the dotted line, sticking it in an envelope, licking a stamp and sending it off via the postal service. (As a reader, I used to fill these in with glee, but never once got round to sending the form in.) The results of the survey were eagerly disseminated by the suits and presented back to those of us who toiled in the editorial department and we’d learn, without exception, every year, that the readers bought the paper primarily for the Gig Guide. Not for the reams of purple prose we sweated over every week, but the Gig Guide – unavailable elsewhere in that pre-electronic age, lest we forget. It was the newspaper’s “bit with the rat.”

How Amish the methodology seems now. We also used to have what were known as “chart return shops”, which were outlets selected to propel A Flock Of Seagulls or Sailor to the toppermost of the poppermost – and where, we were told, shady record company sharks would bulk-buy said items to help them on their way. It wasn’t exactly a level playing field. But then, nor is the click-based electronic age we now live in. What might appear to be a more democratic popularity contest is just as open to corruption.

Consider the list of “favourites” that appears on every self-respecting website – some of which can be seen above, but you know what I’m talking about: the most popular entries on a blog, most read stories on a news site, the “trending” topics on Twitter. If ever there was a self-fulfilling algorithmic prophecy, it’s here. Because once a “popular” story appears in the “most popular” panel, it’s far more likely to be clicked on, and to remain popular. This is how a search engine like Google works, isn’t it? And how something like Charlie Bit My Finger can remain one of the most watched clips on YouTube even though it’s barely worth a look.

Hey, we all need our hand holding. It’s a jungle out there. It’s certainly a jumble out there. Information is now no longer fired at us from billboard and TV screen; it oozes out of every electronic pore. Sports players are covered from head to toe in brands and logos, and that’s before they stand in front of the backdrop created out of more brands and logos; no news programme is complete without a ticker running along the bottom of the screen – that’s now standard-issue – but at every juncture on TV now we are entreatied to email, text, Tweet and add our voice to what is already a cacophony of voices. Those electronic black-and-white pixillated squares that look like interference are now stamped on every other ad, waiting to be unlocked by the app on our mobile phones (if we have such things), in order to supply us with more information. I won’t moan about the amount of supplements in our swollen Saturday and Sunday newspapers, for fear of jinxing them out of existence, but there again is an information overload, bagged up.

Perhaps it’s a benign public service to constantly shuffle things to the top of charts, so that we only need trouble ourselves with what’s already popular. But I worry – and I know I shouldn’t – that perhaps this accepted algorithm is killing our freedom of choice. There are a lotta books on Amazon. There is no meaningful way you can “browse” the site, despite the use of that word; in reality, you’re at the mercy of having books suggested to you based on … books you’ve previously looked at. Never mind books you’ve previously bought. I must admit I sometimes use Amazon as a journalistic resource. It’s free! But if you look a book or DVD up, for research, it will affect what other books and DVDs Amazon hawks at you. “Like this? You’ll love this!” Not necessarily. Amazon currently thinks I want to buy Coriolanus on DVD, because I recently looked up the BBC Television Shakespeares box set simply to see how many discs were in it for a link in my Telly Addict column. Fail!

Talking of books. My first memoir, Where Did It All Go Right?, defied low expectation and crept up into the Top 10 non-fiction paperback bestsellers back in 2003. I discovered at that time that WHSmith runs its outlets at stations and airports as a satellite to its high street stores; I also discovered that this is precisely where you want your paperback displayed. The thing is, once it’s in the Top 20, say, at those vital station and airport shops, it’s more likely to be picked up by a browser waiting for the call to go to their gate. The popularity of that book is thus almost guaranteed: it’s displayed at head height in the chart section, ergo it gets bought and stays in the chart section. Honestly, WDIAGR? lingered at head height for months. It wasn’t because it was one of the best books on sale, merely one of the most visible.

So, the seeding of that which is already popular is not new. In the old days, when the pop charts were based on people going out and buying round black discs at the weekend – as opposed to being based on people clicking a mouse or trackpad at literally any time of the day or night – it really mattered what was on Top Of The Pops, or conveniently displayed in Woolworths. These days, the equivalent is whatever’s in the revolving banner ad on the iTunes store homepage, or any of its generic tributaries. (When the Collings & Herrin Podcast found favour with a comedy nerd who worked on the iTunes Store webpage and then started to chart highly, as long as we kept producing one a week, our prominence was ensured.)

The Long Tail is an attractive concept: that with electronic shopping, an outlet without floor space to contend with can almost literally offer anything and everything, and the most obscure item in the shop will drive turnover as readily as your bestselling loss-leaders. But as the online stores have got deeper and deeper – and the tail longer – I wonder if customers aren’t more likely to be just adding to the pre-packed myth of “popularity”, and picking up that which is already trending? (Something trends; people chase it; it trends some more.)

Me? I’m old fashioned or moribund enough to still prefer books that fall open at well-thumbed pages, and shops you can poke around in with racks that can be thumbed. That said, you will find this widget on this blog, which makes me a massive hypocrite. I’m quite looking forward to a blog entry called “You must read this blog entry” going to the top of the charts, where it will stay FOREVER.

PS: Now that my situationist prank has succeeded (see: below), I’ll change the title of the post back to its original.