Mary Rose Cook

Eating iPods

You can please everyone.

Why does everyone love Radiohead and the iPod, yet no one deride them as philistine? Why did reddit go from being a relatively interesting news site to a politically-leaning version of Digg? Why is Digg populated by moronic stories?

It’s a matter of taste.

Steve Jobs sired the iPod by the force of his refined taste. The masses loved it because almost everyone can find a use for it, and because it is aesthetically pleasing.

Most pop music only has the former quality - we all like to dance, and to replay a melody in our heads. But Radiohead (1) take those nice melodies and spit them out in newish ways. Thus, they win the approval of everyone, including the critics. So, to a lesser extent, do Sonic Youth.

A few times a day, I visit a website called Hacker News. It’s quite like reddit: people post news items, vote and comment on them, and the most popular items get the most exposure. The difference with Hacker News is that all the news items are ostensibly focused on programming. Even in the three months since I joined, I’ve noticed a drop in the overall quality of the news items. But how does this drop in quality manifest itself?

It is often said of universally revered pieces of art that they have been “done very well”. When people say this, their admiration is a proxy for aesthetic pleasure within a well-understood set of rules. Jane Austen (2) took the romance novel, a traditionally trashy form, and wrote books that conformed to the established rules, but achieved great artistic heights. Converge released Jane Doe, a record that toes the metalcore line with its beatdowns and screaming and blast beats and heavy, distorted riffs. But they show such technical excellence and the music sounds so bleak that the record exceeds everything else in the genre.

Converge are a popular hardcore band, but they are not a popular band. I like hardcore, but my Mum does not, she says, because of the screaming. Most people share her view. Thus, Converge will never achieve the critical and mass popularity of Radiohead because, though they are very aesthetically pleasing, most people cannot find a use for them. Cathartic screams are just not their cup of tea.

How do you achieve aesthetic pleasure? There are two ways. One, appeal to a narrowly-defined group of people whose aesthetic judgement is closely aligned. Two, find the superset of the world’s taste and embody it.

This explains what has happened to reddit and Digg, and what is happening to Hacker News. These sites began with a core group of users who all had fairly closely aligned interests and values and so it was easy for the site to give them aesthetic pleasure. Once the user group became more diverse, there were an increasing number of stories posted that only appealed to a subset of the users’ interests and values. Therefore, these items get fewer votes and less attention. What rises to the top is the items that are universally appealing. But wait. Instead of a dictator with impeccable taste in charge, there is a mass of independent people. This universal appeal is based upon a lowest common denominator. We all quite like pictures of cute cats, and Top 10 lists and bold, unsubstantiated headlines. But these things only push our aesthetic pleasure bars up to maybe a four. Thus, mediocrity reigns.

The iPod has a dictator with impeccable taste and everyone can find a use for it. The same is true of Radiohead. Converge fail because of the second condition of universal popularity. reddit, the first.

(1) I don’t actually like Radiohead, but I am an outlier. (2) See Paul Graham’s article, Some Heroes, for more on good writers who chose populist genres.