The Secret to Popularity

All of us have heard of this, if not watched it- the cast of the popular TV sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S filmed a reunion episode after 17 years. According to a study, almost 75% of those in Great Britain between the ages of 18-24 have watched at least some episodes of the show. These viewers were either just born or were toddlers when the show ended in 2004. How is a show that is so old ( where pagers were still a thing and phones were not) popular even today?

The science behind determining what remains popular has been outlined by Professor Jonah Berger in his book, Contagious. According to Berger, the underlying principle behind something going viral has to follow the STEPPS framework.

S=social currency




P=practical value


But time and again we have seen some products going off the charts in terms of popularity and others that are comparatively less famous even though they have all six components. Let us try to break down a few additional elements that contribute to this X-factor.

The role of product differentiation

One would imagine that a unique product would do the trick-more R&D would lead to more efficient ideas and a better product. However, if the market is too heterogeneous, then the consumer will face a paradox of choice, which creates confusion in the decision making process. With a plethora of product options, a consumer can switch between products the minute she finds something better to consume. So, once the sunk cost fallacy hits the consumer,i.e when she realizes that continuing to watch a boring show will only add to the already wasted time, she is free to switch to another show. This process becomes faster as more options become available, which makes time more valuable to the consumer as she could spend her time watching different shows at the same cost. (basically, there is an increase in the opportunity cost). This is why, nowadays, the onus of entertainment lies on the book or movie whereas this was the other way around a few years ago making apparent the shorter attention span of the consumer.

Thus, we can surmise that the market should be competitive (within a limit) for the product to remain novel. More the competition, the more the chance that the product will be forgotten in the long run.

What is the Lindy Effect?

Lindy effect is a phenomenon that explains how long non-perishable items will stay relevant.

Image credits: Atlas Geographica

Developed by some comedians in front of Linda deli to gauge whether their show/program would be successful or not, this effect states that the older an item, idea or concept is, the more likely it is to be relevant in the future. This concept is in stark contrast to humans whose life expectancy reduces as they age. As Nassib Nicholas Taleb puts it in his book Antifragile,

“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print for another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “ageing” like persons, but “ageing” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy.”

This is exactly why Aesop’s fables are still relevant and will continue to be relevant, as compared to a book that was released last year.

This effect is important as it gives us hope in uncertain times. Humans have a penchant for exaggerating or overestimating the future. With the lindy effect,  we can have some confidence that theatres, for example, which have existed since the 6th century BC, won’t become completely redundant because of COVID-19. A formula that has worked will continue to work ( exhibit A: sitcoms with a group of friends). As put by this article,

“While innovation and entrepreneurship might look like a race where the business or the idea at the right time in the right place wins—it’s however not true. The winner is the one who finishes last—one who has the last mover advantage.”

The long-run matters, because even if we are dead in the long run, we ought to ensure that our ideas outlive us.

The Mainstream

Lastly, it is imperative to understand this- who decides what remains popular? What is deemed as popular has always been in the hands of people in positions of power. It is their views and opinions that are reflected throughout society. Throughout history, those in power get to decide what gets remembered.  According to this article by the oxford university press,

People, brands, and styles become popular because the right people have adopted it — rich people, celebrities, opinion leaders, hipsters in subcultures — and we copy them in the eternal human quest to be fashionable and admired. Or through the emergence of cultural icons who emerge because they express a particular ideology that society demands at a particular historical moment”

-Nidhi Harish

SY B.Sc.

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