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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