Like So Popular

Popularity has a much bigger influence on my work than I’d like to admit. I try really hard to not let it bother me, but the truth is if something of mine becomes popular, it feels great, and if it doesn’t, then it feels crappy. The worst part is, it often feels random to me what’s going to become popular: I’ll spend weeks perfecting something I really care about and it goes nowhere; other times I’ll crank something out in 20 minutes and it becomes really popular.

This is frustrating. And it’s a big problem, not in the sense of how much it impacts me, but in the sense that there are a big number of interrelated parts to it. Like, why does popularity matter to me? what’s the point of my work? what are my real goals? what can I do about it?

I’d like to explore those in future posts, but for now I want to look at how I’ve learned to deal with (not) being popular.

(I’ll say right away, I’m proud of my work and I think I’m a good developer / writer, but I don’t think I’m amazing. I don’t think my work is always fantastic, or “deserves” to set the world on fire, but that it’s usually solid enough.)

The simplest way to make popular stuff seems to be to make it easy to catch on.

Give your stuff a click-baity title.

Make it catchy, give it a hook, etc.

Write about something very controversial.

People love lists and they love one sentence paragraphs, too.

That seems to be one way to make popular stuff (though I’m not entirely sure because I’ve never tried it myself), but that’s always felt kind of scammy to me. And it may very well be a way to make popular stuff, but I’m not sure it’s a way to make good stuff.

The other way to make popular stuff, we’re told, is to make really great stuff and then it’ll “just catch on.” That’s how the myth goes, at least, but I don’t really buy it. I’ve known lots of people who write or make truly awesome stuff but rarely does it catch on. Meanwhile, I’ve seen others make very popular but otherwise mundane stuff, too. Yes, it’s good to make great stuff, but it makes a huge difference if you have friends in high places, too.

But for me there’s a third option, and that’s to try my best to let go of the popularity urge. It used to really bother me, I’d obsess over it, I’d get jealous of other people whose work was popular but I felt they hadn’t earned it, and it was all really immature and never made me feel great. But letting go helped.

When I started obsessing a little less over the popularity of my work, I started realizing something really great: the few people who did really like my stuff were people I often super respected. Some of these were family members, some were close friends, some were even popular developers and writers whose work I tremendously admired. This core group of people who really like my work make a world of difference, and make “being popular” a lot less important.

I realize that’s kind of a cop-out (like when a company declines to hire you and you say “Oh that’s good, I’ve decided I actually didn’t want to work there anyway"), but that’s what works for me. Popularity affects me, of course it does, but I try not to let it get to me, and instead I focus on the people I respect who happen to really like what I do.

Speed of Light