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Viral Needs A Plan

I came across an interview Daniel Pink did with Derek Thompson, Senior Editor at The Atlantic where Thompson gives The 5 Rules for Making a Hit.

Now I want to say from the outset that the title is a bunch of baloney and I hope we all know enough to be heavily skeptical of anything the purports to offer a simple set of rules/tricks to success.

That said, there are some valuable points made. I wonder if Thompson actually packaged his answer in terms of five simple rules or if that was an editorial decision on behalf of Heleo which presented them.

The parts of the article I found valuable dealt with the tendency to equate economic success and public recognition with quality/talent/wisdom/authenticity/veracity, etc.

Rule #2: Virality is a myth — pay attention to dark broadcasts instead

People want to believe that their best work can go viral, because great ideas are self-distributing. You make something that’s inherently wonderful, and then you’re done! No more work. Just give it to a few people, they’ll pass it on, and eventually it’ll become the biggest thing in the world.

But the evidence from network science suggests that virality as most people understand it is a myth. Practically nothing goes viral, even the things that we call viral. Genius needs a distribution plan.
I see this sometimes at The Atlantic. When most readers see a video or an article go crazy online, they might say, “that thing went viral.” But our website has technology that can tell us exactly how all this information spreads. When an article has exploded, we can see that what’s often happened is that there has been one, or a series of, blasts sending traffic to the piece. Perhaps it’s hit the front page of Reddit, or Drudge, or lots of people are clicking on the article on our Facebook page. The article is going “viral” because of a broadcast.

You can get similar insight into what might be driving traffic to your website by using Google Analytics. ArtsHacker has a number of articles about how to set Analytics up to measure and report on various criteria. Social media services like Youtube and Facebook have their own analysis tools to provide insights into why a post or video is particularly popular.

While you can’t necessarily control what becomes popular with great consistency, you can gain a better understanding of what channels and methods can be effective for garnering the attention you want.

His other rule is:

Rule #5: Keep swinging

People want to believe that quality is destiny. They conflate “good” and “popular” in both directions. They think if somebody writes a great song, other people will inevitably find it and love it; or if a song becomes extremely popular, that means it was inherently worthy.


Understanding that hits are probabilistic argues for a gospel for perseverance. Sometimes people talk about luck as if it’s debilitating, that nothing you do matters — but if cultural products are probabilistic, think of it like batting. Even with the best batters, there’s a 30% chance they get a hit in every one at bat. As a result the key is to give yourself as many at bats as possible. There is an antidote to luck, in terms of personal effort. It’s perseverance. It’s the only answer.

This one is a little tricky because I think we can all cite examples where perseverance just isn’t enough and the benefits of connections, synchronicity and a good support network of family and friends make all the difference. On the other hand, there is a case to be made that you can achieve a high degree of success through perseverance but it may not conform to the degree success you believe you should have.

If anything, this is a better argument for the fact that failure is a more frequent occurrence in any endeavor than people want to admit. It is just that satisfaction of infrequent hits tend to drive out the recollection of the misses for everyone.

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The Gravity of Culture

Seth Godin made a post last week about maintaining a commitment to quality in your work. (my emphasis)

When you seek the mass market, there are two paths available:

You can dumb down your message and your expectations, and meet your audience where they stand. You can coarsen your lyrics, offer simpler solutions, ask for less effort, demand less work, promise bigger results…
Or you can smarten it up, and lead despite your goal of mass, not chase it.

The very fact that “dumb down” is an expression and “smarten up” isn’t should give any optimist pause.

Culture is a gravitational force, and it resists your efforts to make things work better.

So what? Persist.

My first impulse was to mentally acknowledge he was right about how the impulse to improve isn’t common enough to bring a term like “smarten up” into common usage. I read his comment about culture resisting efforts to make things work better as an indictment of a society that demands satisfying results that require little of them in return.

However, when I got to thinking about it, those who embrace and define high culture often don’t want practitioners of low/pop culture to transition upward. There are a fair number of examples of pop artists who decide they want to pursue a more rigorous path as they mature. They are criticized for lacking the excellence required or expected of someone who has dedicated decades training in some discipline of high culture.

Certainly, some of these people may lack the seriousness, nuance and general quality of a long time practitioner. There may be valid concerns that in their popularity, they are misleading their fans into believing they represent the higher levels of achievement when a perceptible gap exists.

But for others, after 10-20 years of sincerely trying to “smarten up,” they are probably going to be operating at least at or above a level of 80%-90% of achievable excellence. That puts them on par with a lot of people who, like them, have spent decades solely devoted to the high culture discipline.

Except that the latter group will be labeled an X discipline artist while the former pop artist will forever have a modifier like crossover-X discipline artist. Essentially, you get branded if you try to step out of the original lines drawn around you.

So like Godin says, culture can be a gravitational force. It can feel like you are constantly being pulled to lower your standards, but it can also feel like you are being pushed away from ever being recognized as having achieved your ambitions if you try to become more proficient.

Yes, ideally things could get to a place where people and their efforts could be fairly evaluated but will it ever really be possible to create truly objective evaluations that are free from these sort of judgments?

I frequently cite Jamie Bennett’s comment that people have an easier time viewing themselves on a continuum with famous sports figures than they do with famous artists. As I think about it, I wonder if people are getting a message that they shouldn’t try to see themselves on an arts continuum.

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What Are You Saying When You Say Diversity?

Australia’s ArtsHub site had a valuable piece on “diversity” efforts by arts organizations. I put diversity in quotes because the title of the article is “Diversity is a white word.”

Author Tania Canas expounds on that saying the word,

It seeks to make sense, through the white lens, of difference by creating, curating and demanding palatable definitions of ‘diversity’ but only in relation to what this means in terms of whiteness. Terms such as ‘diversity’, ‘multiculturalism’, and ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ (CALD) only normalise whiteness as the example of what it means to be and exist in the world. Therefore the diversity discourse within the cultural sector, has only created frames by which diversity is given ‘permission’ to exist under conditional inclusion.


Just because we exist in a space, doesn’t mean we’ve had autonomy in the process by which the existence has occurred. It is not about ‘giving a voice’, we already have one. It has been systematically silenced.

I should probably acknowledge at this point that anything I write on this topic is likely to flirt with offending someone either with poorly considered statement or condescension. That said, I can see her point that diversity goals and programs are often essentially a statement of intent to include the “not us.”

I found the Ladder of Participation image in the center of the article to be a helpful visual guide on the continuity of program characteristics from citizen participation to tokenism to non-participation.

I saw some truth in Canas’ statement that holding up an artist who has “made it” as an exemplar or creating Ambassador programs or Diversity officers is often a superficial gesture revealing the industry

“…has no clue about how to develop, nurture, support nor fiercely defend artists. The industry wants to ‘highlight voices’ without the responsibility of meaningly supporting them…appointments of a sole diversity officer or diversity ambassador can actually be an indication of the absence of a wider support for diversity throughout the entire institution.”

The constructive approach, she says, is to focus is on building community, not audiences. A good deal of what she wrote reminded me of Ronia Holmes’ “Your organization sucks at “community” and let me tell you why” which I wrote about back in November.

Holmes’ piece is worth reading for its blunt honesty, both in criticizing insufficient and half-hearted attempts to engage marginalized communities, but in its acknowledgment of the financial challenges arts organizations face. Between the two pieces, there is a lot of basis for introspection about organizational diversity and inclusion programs.

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First, Accentuate The Positive

I was reading Peter Drucker’s Managing the Non-Profit Organization. In a chapter near the end of the book he talks about self-renewal through change of perspective using examples like a musician who was asked to sit in the audience for a performance and a hospital administrator who ended up providing care in one of the wards. Each found new purpose and perspective through the experience and in some cases, continued to make it a regular practice.

One suggestion he gave intrigued me. I haven’t put it into practice for a long enough time to say if it yields the results it claims, but I thought I would share and see if anyone had observations one way or another.

“The most effective road to self-renewal is to look for the unexpected success and run with it. Most people brush the evidence of success aside because they are so problem-focused. The reports…are also problem-focused–with a front page that summarizes all the areas in which the organization underperformed…Non-profit executives should make the first page show the areas where the organization overperformed against plan or budget because that is where the first signs of unexpected success begin to appear…The first few times you will brush it aside…Eventually, though a suspicion may begin to surface that some of the problems would work themselves out if we paid more attention to the things that were working exceptionally well.”

One of the first thoughts that I wondered about for arts organizations is whether many board and staff members would have the mental discipline to discern between present success achieved due to highly popular programming and incremental success in the areas of impact and outcomes. The latter may not be financially rewarding in the short term, but might become so after a long term commitment to a shift of focus.

I am not saying the leadership in many arts organizations are so easily seduced that they can’t keep their eyes on the mission. There is the other side of the coin where a program fails by the measure of the project’s financial and attendance goals, but the staff feels something valuable came out of the experience either for themselves in lessons learned or for the participants’ excitement. Yet they also feel it is necessary to report to funders that everything went as planned, all goals were reached and nothing went wrong. This practice can also serve to perpetuate the pursuit of unproductive ends.

Has anyone had experience with Drucker’s suggested approach where you started paying attention to small victories and came to the realization your organization had a huge competence that you weren’t fully exercising?

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