I asked this question on Twitter back in 2010 and again in 2015. Both times, the answers were the same: interesting won, by far.

And when I asked how people would like their online presence to be described, “Interesting” was their top answer then, too.

This is actually kind of surprising.

That’s because being interesting is usually the direct result of consciously deciding NOT to be mainstream. In other words, to be interesting, you have to stand out.

Standing out takes work. And risk. And it means that some people won’t like you. Or they won’t “get it.” And they may even try to shout you down.

Being interesting isn’t easy.

And yet, paradoxically… it’s also how you become popular.

Marketing Is Really Just Mean Girls

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

Popular things aren’t popular because they’re boring and safe. They’re popular because they’re just unusual enough to present an alternative to what’s already become “the norm”…

… which, ironically, is the point at which they simultaneously cease to be interesting.

To explain this, let’s flash back to high school.

At one end of the popularity spectrum, you have the outliers. These are the kids who intentionally don’t fit in — your punks, goths, skaters, etc.

Outliers strive to define themselves as being apart from the norms of society, so their art, fashion, etc., is intended to be a rebuttal to the mainstream. But they don’t get to decide what’s cool — partly because they claim they don’t care what other people think is cool, and partly because they don’t have the power to achieve critical mass with their disruptions anyway.

Who does?

The cool kids.

The outliers invent, rebel and deconstruct, but the cool kids get to pick and choose which of those innovations they’d like to appropriate for themselves.

Say the outliers start wearing kilts and mohawks. The cool kids will see that and decide that mohawks are a bit too impractical, but kilts are just unusual enough. So the cool kids start wearing kilts… and the moment that happens, “kilt” stops signifying “outlier” and starts signifying “cool new trend.”

Who notices that? The early adopters.

These are the gatekeepers of the mainstream. They want to be popular, but they aren’t, so they settle for being the acolytes of the cool kids. This means they don’t get to set the trends, but they do get to adopt the new trends and popularize them to the rest of the mainstream.

And as the early adopters start wearing kilts, four things happen:

  • The mainstream — which is the largest market segment — starts taking kilts seriously. By next season, everyone will be wearing one.
  • The laggards — who are the late adopter opposites of the early adopters — finally notice that kilts are becoming a thing, and they deride them… for now.
  • The cool kids start phasing kilts out of their repertoire because they can’t be seen wearing what the downstreamers are wearing.
  • The outliers have purged all kilts from their wardrobes and are desperately searching for the next signifier that they aren’t mainstream.

This is a cycle.

By the time kilts hit the mainstream, there’s a ticking clock on supply vs. demand. As demand dwindles, supply prices get cut and kilts head to the downmarket retailers and overstock shops. This is when budget-minded, risk-averse laggards finally say, “Hey, overstock kilts? Now there’s a deal!” And at that point, the mainstream starts phasing kilts out of their wardrobes too. Every market has to stay a step ahead of the one looking over their shoulder.

Of course, it’s all a moot point, because by the time your laggard uncle is wearing last summer’s kilt to a family reunion, the outliers are already on to facial piercings and astronaut pants, the cool kids are debating which look they’d rather lift, and the cycle is restarting itself.

The point is, being interesting can only happen in comparison to being popular, but being popular can’t happen unless you’re already interesting.

The Business Conundrum: Cool or Safe?

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 need to produce something popular that everybody trusts and wants… but that only happens if people notice it in the first place.

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

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 it’s a trap.

Because, as magsg tweeted:

Popularity is fickle and a burden.

Being on top today doesn’t mean you’ll still be there tomorrow. There’s always an early adopter waiting to scoop you and take your place.

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.

Attraction vs. survival, ladies and gents. 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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