What Makes Things Cool?

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Clippings From Derek Thompson’s article in The Atlantic:

Loewy had an uncanny sense of how to make things fashionable. He believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible. Loewy called his grand theory “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” (MAYA) He said to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.

In her 2013 memoir cum cultural critique, Sleepless in Hollywood, the producer Lynda Obst mourned what she saw as cult worship of “pre-awareness” in the film and television industry. As the number of movies and television shows being produced each year has grown, risk-averse producers have relied heavily on films with characters and plots that audiences already know. Indeed, in 15 of the past 16 years, the highest-grossing movie in America has been a sequel of a previously successful movie (for example, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) or an adaptation of a previously successful book (The Grinch). The hit-making formula in Hollywood today seems to be built on infinitely recurring, self-sustaining loops of familiarity, like the Marvel comic universe, which thrives by interweaving movie franchises and TV spin-offs.

This appetite for “optimal newness” applies to other industries, too. In Silicon Valley, where venture capitalists also sift through a surfeit of proposals, many new ideas are promoted as a fresh spin on familiar successes. The home-rental company Airbnb was once called “eBay for homes.” The on-demand car-service companies Uber and Lyft were once considered “Airbnb for cars.” When Uber took off, new start-ups began branding themselves “Uber for [anything].”

But the preference for “optimal newness” doesn’t apply just to academics and venture capitalists. According to Stanley Lieberson, a sociologist at Harvard, it’s a powerful force in the evolution of our own identities. Take the popularity of baby names. Most parents prefer first names for their children that are common but not too common, optimally differentiated from other children’s names.

Upcoming Book: Hit Makers – The Science of Popularity In An Age Of Distraction.

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