Motivations of Popularity

Yesterday I wrote a bit about popularity and how I deal with (the lack of) it. Today I want to dive a little deeper into why I even care about it. Despite me writing about it this week, I don’t normally spend a whole lot of time consciously thinking about popularity or being liked or well known or respected. But it obviously matters to my brain at some level.

At the core, I think it’s part of being a human: we’re innately social beings and generally speaking, that’s a good thing. It feels good to our brains to be liked, to be a part of the group, to communicate with our friends, and, I suspect, our enemies, too.

Today’s online “social networks” definitely exploit this though. We’ve had this innate social ability for hundreds of thousands of years, and suddenly things like Facebook show up and majorly amplify our social tendencies to an extreme degree, and that makes us behave strangely.

What used to be a joke told to a physically present group of friends is now shared with hundreds of people on Twitter. Where I might expect a few in-person chuckles over the span of several seconds before, on Twitter I feverishly refresh to see if anyone has “hearted” or retweeted my quip. Did anyone like it? Does anyone think I’m funny?

Maybe I’m more socially obsessed than I’d realized. But I feel like today’s online social networks severely subvert what it means for humans to be social, in ways we haven’t adapted to yet.

(See also danah boyd:

i started wondering if social media is dangerous. Here’s what i’m thinking.

If gossip is too delicious to turn your back on and Flickr, Bloglines, Xanga, Facebook, etc. provide you with an infinite stream of gossip, you’ll tune in. Yet, the reason that gossip is in your genes is because it’s the human equivalent to grooming. By sharing and receiving gossip, you build a social bond between another human. Yet, what happens when the computer is providing you that gossip asynchronously? I doubt i’m building a meaningful relationship with you when i read your MySpace CuteKitten78. You don’t even know that i’m watching your life. Are you really going to be there when i need you?


Kottke recently linked to this video about creating and popularity that I really enjoyed:

Adam Westbrook talks about Vincent van Gogh and the benefit of doing creative work without the audience in mind.

It’s a wonderful video discussing van Gogh’s prolific work, even when nobody was buying his work. Westbrook argues van Gogh wasn’t motivated by onlookers or social success, but was instead motivated by autotelic goals:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes people who are internally driven, and as such may exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity, as autotelic. This determination is an exclusive difference from being externally driven, where things such as comfort, money, power, or fame are the motivating force.

The video doesn’t really address today’s social landscape. Yes, van Gogh theoretically could have had a physically close social group (or a distant social group, as with his brother), but he couldn’t have had a social group with thousands of people like we have today. He wouldn’t have seen likes and favs and retweets whirl by him every day, and he wouldn’t have felt the same social pressures we have today, either.

I think internal motivation is ideal, and it’s something I strive for myself (make awesome shit that I’m proud of, and don’t care so much what others think), but I think it’s unfair to feel bad about caring what others think, too. I also think it’s important we examine why we feel so socially overwhelmed online these days, too (or at least, why I feel that way; I don’t wanna drag anyone else in with me), and that we demand better from social networks like Facebook and Twitter (like, for example, the work of Joe Edelman).

Speed of Light