We don’t get to choose what is popular

January 6th, 2015

Marco Arment had a rough day. He published a thoughtful, yet quick, post about Apple’s software quality. Most of us that follow and use Apple products nodded our heads in agreement as we read his post and moved onto the next one in our feed readers. Everyone who knows anything about Apple software knows that lately they’ve been slipping. So Marco’s post was simply affirmation that we aren’t alone in thinking this.

Well, the press got wind of the post and, like these things tend to do, it spiraled out and away from Marco’s original intent and was blown into sensationalism. This is what happens. He knows this. We all know this. The press takes a word or three and makes the entire conversation about those few words. Usually completely out of context and with even more emphasis than was ever intended. Presidential candidates have lost their races for far less words than Marco published.

But this situation is also a good illustration of the fact that we do not get to choose what is popular. Over the last decade I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard business people ask us Internet geeks how to make something viral. “Well, we can just make a funny video and maybe it will go viral?” — This isn’t how it works. Even the best in the business have no idea when or if something will take off and gain traction.

Casey Neistat, a YouTuber that makes his living off of making videos, has videos that range from thousands of views to tens of millions of views. He does this every day. If he knew exactly what it would take to make something go viral he’d likely repeat that every single time. Jonathan Mann, the “song a day guy”, he has songs that have less views than some of my blog posts (which is very few views) and he has others that get played by Steve Jobs during media events.

We don’t get to choose what is popular. We just keep writing or singing or recording, and most importantly, publishing and hoping they resonate. For me, I don’t care if my blog posts ever gain any traction but for those that make their living off of blogging or YouTube they really do care. I do care, however, that the things we make – like Barley or Unmark – finds an audience of people that love them and share them. It’s all the same thing.

I’ve had a few blog posts that went pretty crazy. My most popular post has had millions of unique page views. Before publishing it I would have never, ever guessed it’d be the most popular post. It seems this is exactly the situation Marco was in. He had no idea it would take off the way it did. I sincerely hope he doesn’t stop blogging or even back off a single bit. But it seems he’s a bit gun-shy now.