Would You Rather Be Interesting or Popular?

I asked this question yesterday on Twitter and the responses were mostly of the “do we really have to choose?” variety.

But yes.  Yes, you do have to choose.

Because as Colin Dean and I were exchanging tweets about the question, something occurred to us:

Being interesting is usually a direct result of someone consciously deciding NOT to be mainstream.

This doesn’t mean interesting things won’t eventually become popular.  On the contrary, if something is unusual or remarkable enough to get people talking about it, it’s logical to presume that enough people may eventually be talking about it that it could be recognized as being popular.

Which, it seems, is the point at which it will simultaneously cease to be interesting.

I Only Love You When We’re Alone

Popularity is driven by our own petty needs: safety, affordability, accessibility and usefulness.  If something is generally popular, it usually possesses most of these traits.

But being widely accepted by the masses also results in a thing becoming familiar to everyone — and, therefore, personal to no one.

That’s usually the opposite of what makes something interesting in the first place.  When a new TV show, movie, song or book seems to speak directly to you, its conscious divergence from the norm is what causes you to embrace it (and to share it, secretly, with others whom you believe are also “like you”).

But when something becomes popular, it becomes familiar.  It becomes safe.  It becomes something everybody agrees with.

Something that “normal” can’t possibly represent you, can it?

Not unless you’re willing to admit that you really are incredibly average, which is a self-evaluation that few people are willing to concede.

Thus, we choose to define ourselves by the ways we purposely diverge from the norm.  We seek out like-minded people and activities that validate our own desire to feel “different,” but not so different that we run the risk of being considered “odd.”

In short, we become comfortably individual… just like everyone else.

But what happens when we want to make a living?

Some People Pay for Rarity, But EVERYONE Will Pay for Safety

As fellow Twitterer globaldale noted:

Interesting is much more satisfying than popular, unless, of course, money is involved!

And there’s the rub: interesting sells, but popular sells a lot.

“Interesting” means you might need (or like) something, but there’s a risk involved.  It might not work.  It might not suit your needs.  It might not be the flavor you were expecting.

“Popular” means everybody’s using it.  It’s already been tried and tested.  It may not be spectacular, but it’s reliable, and reliability saves you time, which saves you money.

Thus, if you want to sell a lot of something, you want to produce something everybody trusts and needs… but that only happens if people notice it in the first place.

And no one notices anything unless it starts out by being interesting.

Cart, Meet Horse

Being interesting gets you noticed.  Ideally, it gets you noticed by the popular people.

Richard Nevins touched on this when he asked, in response to my original query: “Do popular folks borrow interesting stuff to bring to the masses?”

The answer is a resounding “yes.”  Because being popular is a full-time job, which leaves precious little time for being interesting. And, as talkr mentioned on Twitter:

[I'd rather create] something interesting, because it stays long after the next popular thing comes along and dethrones your creation.

“Dethrones” being the key word, because once you’re popular, you never want to stop being popular.  But since you’re also short on time (and on the freedom to experiment with “interesting” things while you’re away from the public eye), you need a steady supply of interesting, to keep your popularity humming.

So the popular kids make the interesting kids more popular as a way to help themselves remain interesting.

It happened when the jocks started wearing Weezer t-shirts in high school, and it happens every time your favorite social media guru retweets a blog post written by a guy with 10 followers: the interesting and the popular rely on each other to survive.

Or, as SexCPotatoes summed it all up:

Being interesting means someone wants to marry you. Being popular means everyone wants to sleep with you.

Selective desires vs. chemical needs.  Ladies and gentlemen, make your plans accordingly.

And if you do want to become the most popular person in the world, we’ve now confirmed that it’s deceptively easy: just start by being the most interesting.

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  • http://www.jacksonwightman.com/ Jackson Wightman

    Hmmmm….dare I say “interesting” post? I am sure lots of people will read it and make it popular too. :)

    You're generally right with this but it seems as though there are glaring exceptions of things and people that are simultaneously interesting and popular. (Seth Godin is an example of a person who fits this bill – yes he had to be interesting before he was popular but he seem to be doing both pretty well now).

    I am not sure the dichotomy is as consistently true as you seem to posit. But maybe I'm misreading you.

    Thanks Justin.

  • http://occamsrazr.com Ike Pigott

    I don't know that I buy SexCPotatoes take on it.

    But I do agree with the premise, and I come down hard on the side of “Interesting.”

    The difference between being Interesting and being Popular is one of Purpose.

    When I choose to be Interesting, it is because I have a desire to meet the needs of another — and usually that involves a specific group of people. It means that I am focusing internal energies on an external client(s).

    When one chooses to be Popular, one is abandoning focus entirely for the sake of whatever pleases the horde. Being popular is neither a means nor an end, but ends up becoming both. It is the equivalent of hoisting your sails in search of the strongest wind — direction be damned. And in that process, you gather external energy for your own internal gratification.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    There are always exceptions. I'd still consider The Simpsons, Family
    Guy and South Park to be interesting… Quentin Tarantino, David
    Fincher, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson… Pixar, Esquire, Barack
    Obama…

    In those cases, I'd consider their success to be a validation of their
    own individual voices, personalities or styles. They were fringe
    brands that did something so well, their styles were absorbed by the
    mainstream and changed its course, rather than being changed BY the
    mainstream.

    Of course, that could also be my own rose-colored perception of me
    still identifying with the POVs I always identified with — which
    could be the same reason Seth Godin is still considered interesting by
    the same people who've read 30 of his books.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    I think everyone wants to believe they're interesting. No one wakes
    up in the morning and strives to be common.

    If you're interesting because you solve the problems of a select group
    of people, it stands to reason that the wider populace may also have
    that same problem, but they're just not aware of it (yet). And if
    they “discover” your problem + solution, you may become popular –
    does that mean you'd no longer consider your own solution interesting?
    (Actually, you probably wouldn't; by then it'd be old news to you,
    even as it became breaking news to everyone else.)

    But I do think SexCPotatoes makes a solid distinction. We always want
    to fuck the interesting people because we presume it would be a
    one-of-a-kind experience; therefore, being married to an interesting
    person makes YOU interesting for life. Meanwhile, fucking a popular
    person makes YOU momentarily popular by default (see: K-Fed), but even
    when the afterglow (and the notoriety) wears off, you'll always have a
    story to tell that even strangers will understand and appreciate.

  • http://www.jacksonwightman.com/ Jackson Wightman

    I don't think it is your own “rose-colored” percetion.

    FYI – If you haven't checked out Godin's blog today do so. He has a post that, while very different yours in terms its content, is grounded in the same logic.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    Thanks for pointing out Seth's post — it hits on the key issue of
    deciding what matters (to you). That's hard to adhere to when the
    urge is to create MORE, FASTER, rather than some, well.

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/03

  • red_pen_mama

    This is what I get for giving up Twitter. Interesting (not popular) conversations. Dang it.

    I'd rather be interesting. Interesting means that you don't care what people think. If you are popular, you have to work a lot harder to STAY popular. Witness all the teen movies where the popular girls and guys lament how difficult it is to be popular. It means that everyone has to like you, and so you can't do anything interesting. or that's my take.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    Of course, keep in mind that the miserably popular characters in most
    teen films were written and directed by unpopular outcasts who were
    trying to make an interesting movie.

    Even if popular people were regularly miserable — and I doubt they're
    any more or less miserable than obscure people are — that fact
    wouldn't dissuade most people from desiring popularity, because
    everybody thinks it would be different *for them*.

  • red_pen_mama

    Well, yes, I didn't mean to imply anything about movies or movie characters per se.

    I was thinking about my comment, and I was also afraid that people would read it as “doesn't want to work hard”. I love to work hard; hard work is important to being interesting, too. I just want to work to continue to be interesting rather than work to be liked.

    I think the few people who come read my personal blog do so because they think I'm interesting. (Or they do google searches for 'red pen mama' for some reason.) I'd like those people to keep coming back, and they are on my mind when I'm thinking about what I'm going to post. (Hence the reason for tossing in the towel on that 365 thing.)

    Would I love to have 1000s of readers? For that blog? No, not really. I don't brand and market myself as a mommy blogger. Because I don't want to be branded that way. But I still work pretty hard on my posts because I want them to be well written and interesting. (And, frankly, I like to write.) If that site suddenly catches fire, goes viral on the 'net (whatever your cliche) I won't claim to be disappointed. But I hope I would stay true to my voice rather than start writing things I would thing “all my readers” want to read.

    And, to return to the analogy of the teen movie, when the underdog character gets what he/she thinks she wants (to be popular), they usually screw it up to stay popular instead of staying true to themselves (see: Mean Girls, Can't Buy Me Love) and that usually bites him/her in the butt.

    I do agree with your points about teen films and popularity being different “for them”. As my dad says, “They say money doesn't buy happiness, but I'd like the chance prove that for myself.”

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    I'd rather work smart than work hard. But I'd rather work hard than
    never work at all and die, starving, in a field.

    Especially if it's a wheat field, because then I'm just not trying.

    But yes, popularity corrupts, because popularity is power, and all
    power corrupts. Unless you're the one in possession of the power,
    popularity or money, in which case, you probably don't know or care
    that the have-nots think you're corrupt, because you now have more
    important things to worry about than whether or not you're well-liked
    by the people who [resent having to] need you.

  • http://chelpixie.com/ Chel Wolverton

    “And if they “discover” your problem + solution, you may become popular –
    does that mean you'd no longer consider your own solution interesting?
    (Actually, you probably wouldn't; by then it'd be old news to you,
    even as it became breaking news to everyone else.)”

    If you think about social media as a solution to a communications problem, many have the “solution” now. And some of us don't find it all that interesting anymore otherwise we wouldn't be trying to figure out what's next instead of improving on what's there.

    And: Doesn't the story you have to tell make you interesting at least to some people? The afterglow may wear off but the story remains, someone's nearly always going to listen. Just ask those social media experts.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    You're always interesting to somebody.

    The question is, are you considered interesting by the people whom
    you'd LIKE to consider you interesting?

    (Answer: probably not, because the people we aspire to impress are
    invariably more interesting than we are.)

  • http://chelpixie.com/ Chel Wolverton

    Point.

    We really don't learn much if we surround ourselves with people we consider boring. Of course, you *can* learn something from everyone, even if it's how not to do something.

    Also, you can't always reach the ones you find interesting, because no matter how interesting you find them….they might not share the same interest in/as you.

    I'd much rather be interesting or have something to share that makes interacting with me interesting or knowledgeable so the person that shares time with me comes away with something valuable to them.

  • http://zrdavis.com/ zrdavis

    This is an issue I've hit upon in the past, but the problem really boils down to most people are morons. CBS Programming, ESPN, Old Navy, Michael Bay movies, everything on or associated with MTV, reality TV, Nickleback, Crox, Wayfarer sunglasses, Subway, Icanhazcheezburger, Perez Hilton, Fathead, Autotune, Twillight movies or really anything that uses vampires (except Vampire Weekend), 100 calorie pack snacks, etc. are all wildly popular. The average IQ of an individual who enjoys this aforementioned list is also probably around 72.

    To achieve these levels of popularity, it's tough to also be interesting; interesting appeals to intelligence. The majority of the population is not this.

    If all else fails, add kittens + captions.

  • http://fromthemindofateenagegrl.wordpress.com/ Zeenie

    I totally agree with this. I feel like something isn't as interesting when it becomes popular, but most interesting things become popular! Once something becomes popular, it loses it's novelty.

    Like the previous commenters addressed, things can still be interesting and popular, just as people can, but it seems more interesting and exciting when no one knows about it.

    Thanks for posting this!

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    As a cynic, I've made that same argument numerous times.

    But there's another shade to that observation: most people are also
    lazy. Or, maybe more charitably, most people are so bombarded by
    potentially useless information that they (sub)consciously seek the
    path of least resistance, so they don't invest too much time and
    effort in something that turns out to be unfulfilling.

    Obscure British sitcoms? Hard to wrap one's head around, may not be
    worth the effort. Obsequious American sitcoms that cater to the
    lowest common denominator? Also probably not worth the effort, but at
    least the effort on the part of the consumer is minimal.

    Being interesting usually means it takes above-average effort to
    appreciate something, and that's not a benefit of the doubt most
    modern audiences seem willing to give.

  • ecogordo

    “Everything popular is wrong.” – Oscar Wilde But on the other hand, he was interesting and popular.

  • http://moneyandrisk.com/ Kim Luu

    That was a fun tweet string that you posted.

    Ah, but here's the rub. What if you want to be neither interesting or popular.

    Interesting brings to mind the purported Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.” Keep in mind, being interesting doesn't necessarily make friends as they may decline experiencing with you yet another avalanche or kitchen explosion.

    Popular on the other hand is a lot of work to maintain as you are subject to everyone's expectations and have no time to be yourself. For women, it's even more work as you are expected to be in perfect shape and perky at all times.

    Boring anonymity is so much more desirable if people really understand how freeing it is.

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  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    Fortunately, my question doesn't force a person to be either. ;)

    Part of this is determined by our own attitudes. “Interesting” can be
    calamitous, “popular” can be taxing and “boring” can be depressing.
    If every state of being is inherently value-neutral, then these states
    only absorb the values we apply to them.

    Some people want to stand out, others don't. Whatever your choice, do it well.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    Fortunately, my question doesn’t force a person to be either. ;)rnrnPart of this is determined by our own attitudes. “Interesting” can berncalamitous, “popular” can be taxing and “boring” can be depressing.rnIf every state of being is inherently value-neutral, then these statesrnonly absorb the values we apply to them.rnrnSome people want to stand out, others don’t. Whatever your choice, do it well.

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