Has anybody ever done a study on why some things are popular?

and other things aren’t?
This is a subject I’ve been interested in for some time. It doesn’t seem to make sense. If you accept the theory that ideas are like viruses (memes) it still doesn’t explain why why some survive and others fail. It seems to me that the prefect ad campaign would be to create the perfect meme. Then everybody rush out ot buy the product.* So you’d think that advertising companies would have made studies.

[sub]*Maybe this explains Bill Gates.[/sub]

They do do studies on this all the time, but many are private because the information would be just as useful to their competitors. A good book about this subject is called **The Tipping Point ** by Malcolm Gladwell. It may not answer all your questions, but it does provide some good insight

I’ll do you one better: this article from his archive about “coolhunters”.

The concept of Zeitgeist, which I think translates to Spirit (ghost) of the Times, is a direct confirmation that the prevailing fads and fashions exist, and the ability to read, better yet predict, those things is the mark of a successful venture, be it in the arts, sciences, or business.

What’s as fascinating to me is to see the cyclical nature of those things and to try to predict when the cycle (call it pendulum if you like) switches back to an antithetical position.

What goes around comes around. Everything comes back into fashion, but it may take a few generations or centuries to happen. That probably helps to explain why human beings have such relatively short life spans, so they won’t be able to beat the system.

My .02

Then everybody rush out ot buy the product. *

I don’t know if it was what you were thinking of, but there is a recently published book that has a answer to why every Christmas there is an “it” toy that every kid must have.

Gladwell’s book, Tipping Point, is worth a read if you’re interested in this subject, but read it twice. The first time, you’ll be quite impressed and enjoy the ideas. The second time, you’ll read between the lines and Gladwell’s seductive style and realise that there’s precious little actual substance there. He flaps a lot trying to analyse the cause and effect of popularity, but at the end of the day all he can do is offer up specific examples and say ‘This happened and then this happened’. But you could find just as many counter-examples, just as many times when all the same factors seemed to be present but nothing happened.

The counter-balance to Gladwell’s book is ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ by William Goldman. He presents his basic thesis: nobody knows anything. And then he proves it. OK, so he’s talking specifically about the populariy of movies and stars, and why some projects work and others don’t, but you can tae his words and apply them to almost any other sector or business, and they would still be true.

Short answer: we don’t know. Some things take off, others don’t, and nobody has any good answers. Professional people in sales, marketing and market strategy make a living by pretending they know, but they don’t. Not really. If they did, they could devise a formula that would guarantee popularity and high sales. They can’t. Most of these professionals will spend most of their lives working very hard on projects that fail and get a big ‘Get lost’ from the public.

Popularity is ineffable, ineluctable.

You can do a limited study by looking at the history of the SDMB itself.

In the 5 years I’ve been posting and 6 years reading there have been numerous fads, fashions, and manias that have swept across the SDMB for reasons that looking back seem silly, ignorant, and absolutely stupid at times.

Some of the manias on the SDMB, for instance, that one could study could be:

  • People - certain individuals over the years have risen to “popularity” just like a “celebrity” or such. But when you try to find out why - why someone suddenly became “the” person to know, why people suddenly came out of the woodwork to post “LOL!” at everything they said, and why when they entered off-board forums they were treated like royalty, is bizarre.

  • People2 - over the years cliques have formed, just like the high school jocks, the cheerleaders, and the other useless little societies of snarky and backbiting dingleberries. Some cliques have been mostly positive and/or “open smile”; others have been hostile and/or exclusive. Many of these cliques rose and fell with the antics and behaviours of one or two members of them.

  • Sayings - whether it’s stupid jokes, Simpsons references, the inane “Kids in the Hall”, or whatever there are scads and scads of occurences of a word or phrase being overused and beaten into a pulp on the SDMB. Where they come from, why they take off, and why people become obsessed with them would make an interesting study. These range from the innocent “Batman, if he’s prepared” to the shopworn “I welcome our X overlords” to the truly baffling and disgusting ones like “munge” and “squick” and, everyone’s favourite for a couple of years, “fel(t)ch.”

  • SDMB Kewlieshunting - Many books, musical artists, TV shows, and movies that otherwise would be dismissed as crap in the toilet of life became popular over the years, because either one or more “popular” people started espousing them, or else an idea took hold and people started talking about them all the time. I could list many, but I think that gets too far out of GQ territory.

The SDMB as a “society” could be an interesting subgroup to study to see how, and perhaps why, people, groups, language, and ideas rose, fell, and sometimes rose again in popularity. It might be a way to limit some of the variables inherent in the study. I don’t think that’s something however that leads to an answer to a GQ. Plus, by focusing on specific people and/or groups one is likely to end up pissing several people off, and that definitely doesn’t belong in this forum.

So… it’s a sociology book? Big surprise there.

Look. The OP asked if anyone had ever studied it. Gladwell has, as far as such a thing is possible. Further, in the article I linked to he reports on people who study popularity for a living. Is it rigorous? No. Nobody ever said it was.

The Tipping Point is not a book on sociology, but a book on advertising. It is written in the grand tradition of business books: Somebody somewhere sometime was successful by doing this and if you do this you’ll be successful too. (And if you’re not, well then, you must have done something wrong, and maybe you better buy my next book to figure out what it was.)

The book is a series of business case studies and doesn’t really purport to be analytical. It is no more a work of sociology than The Guinness Book of Numbers is a book on math. As ianzin says, there is very much less to the book than meets the eye. Gladwell merely coined a name for a well-known phenomenon. All he can do is to point out when a tipping point has occurred. (Like when someone coins a popular name for a well-known phenomenon.) He is no better than anyone else at predicting them or causing them. Even the fad for using coolhunters is already a thing of the past. Turned out they don’t work all that well.

Is is possible to manufacture popularity? Yes, in a limited way. Lou Pearlman was the svengali behind 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and O-Town. I haven’t heard much about him lately, though. Popularity is tied to a moment. Either the stars align or they don’t.

I didn’t say it was a book about sociology, I said it was a sociology book. That is, it is itself sociological. I don’t see that it purports to tell the reader how to succeed like a business book would.

No, it’s not an academic text. I would say that the compilations of Ian Stewart’s columns count as “math books” even though they aren’t aimed at professionals. Just because it’s aimed at a lay audience doesn’t mean it’s invalidated.

Again, did I say that it worked? What the OP asked is if anyone studied it. Gladwell does, informally, and the “coolhunters” he talked about tried making a living off of it. Whether they were right or wrong is entirely beside the point.

And, just to be clear, my point in saying it’s a sociology book is that as far as I can tell, all sociology books are as fuzzy as Gladwell’s work. Taking a sociology book and saying that all it does is cite examples from the past and tries to extrapolate a pattern from that is like warning someone that the thing you have to be careful about horses is that they have four legs.

Well, that indeed is what I was complaining about. Good books of sociology by sociologists (who today can be part of any number of academic specializations) are not fuzzy, but are instead insightful studies into how masses of people act and interact. Yours is a ridiculous overgeneralization and I’m protesting it.

Such as? I’m sorry, I’m not aware of a long-standing tradition in sociology of precise emperical investigation, but perhaps I’m in need of fighting some ignorance.

The subject of popularity in general is well beyond my understanding, but my longtime lurking status on the board means that I’ve seen many of the (currently) most popular expressions come and go. Generally, the reasons for this happening were relatively straightforward. And ahead of time, forgive the lack of links, I can’t figure out where the “search” is, or if guests even can.

“Penis ensues”, “1920’s-style death ray”, or anything related to initiation (such as the “squck” all have one vital thing in common: the threads in which they were introduced became very, very long. The first two examples were rooted in simple mistakes: a possible freudian slip, and a triple-post, respectively. All three examples gave an enormous opportunity for posters to make witty responses. This is the Straight Dope- the responses were forthcoming. In the case of the “1920’s-style death ray”, the moderator closed it after more than 1000 posts. The last initiation thread was at 18 pages, last I checked. As such, they were all near the top of the boards for a long period of time, so that everyone saw them. Making threadspotting like the “for 20 minutes. In the 1960’s” post doesn’t hurt either. If everyone on the SDMB sees an expression, that expression becomes a way of saying “I belong”, and a very friendly inside joke. The expression is a rough microcausm of a pop icon, famous/popular because it’s famous/well-known.

The point here is that volume matters. How common an icon, saying, or product is can’t make up for a bad idea (read: the heavily-advertised Ford Edsel) but a lack of initial volume cannot be overcome.

There. Instead of answering the question, I partly answered the question.

Show me a sociology text (article or book) that is (a) not essentially a listing of cases which is then generalized or an indication of correlation which is then elevated to an assertion of causation and (b) not so loaded with jargon that it is impossible for the uninitiated to tell whether (a) is true or not. Provide me one sociological proof.

The complaint is that Gladwell makes a bunch of observations, proposes an explanation, but cannot predict the phenomenon (he can only label it in hindsight). Frankly, I don’t recall Gladwell ever saying that tipping points could be predicted, so I really see this complaint as being over a failure to do what was never attempted.

Further, compare the natural analogue: mathematics articles aimed at a lay audience. Stewart, Hofstadter, and Gardener (among others) never pretend they’re laying out rigorous mathematics. This doesn’t invalidate their work at all, though. The intent is simply exposition. Comparing The Tipping Point to academic sociology is like comparing Game, Set, Math or Gödel, Escher, Bach to Lang’s Algebra. It’s simply unnatural and inherently unfair.

eustachian≠fallopian, I like your observations about things becoming popular here at SDMB. I had considered a new thread on the associated topic of how peer pressure might assist in forming one’s tastes. I believe this notion might be among the factors underlying the OP’s concerns.

I realize the basic question is whether someone/anyone has studied how/why things become popular, and I suspect the answer must be a timid “yes” until someone can produce a clear example of such a study. I think the ongoing debate about what form that “study” must take to be allowed as “official” is of value. But I would hope the underlying issue in the OP is more along the lines of what the outcome of that study would be.

Since this isn’t a new topic for my own thoughts, and is something I wonder about often, especially when fads and “in” notions are so against my own preferences and tastes, I’m more curious about what the answers are than whether whoever found them was qualified to do so.

I had a basic Sociology course and a few follow-on courses back in the 60’s and I must agree that the “science” is soft and hardly more than economics or political science. Nevertheless, there are serious people, accredited by universites, who do think what they’re doing is legitimate science. I suspect there are some astrologers who have similar convictions. But I’m less interested in whether Sociology is a viable “science” than in some of the “theories” that sociologists may produce.

As far as that goes, I’m rarely convinced that the “findings” of archaeologists and anthropologists are any more ironclad than those of psychology and sociology and the other -ologies others take seriously.

The probability that some hypothesis (such as those already mentioned in this thread) might bear on the truth behind the OP’s question, would satisfy my own curiosity for what it’s worth. I’m not trying to speak for the OP.

FWIW, I do believe that it’s something more than random chance and the alignment of planets that underlies why some things become popular and “in” just as there are similar reasons why things go “out” and become passe’.

Carry on.