101,717 & 2,215,293 & 644,558 & 125,083. Every few weeks I receive an email from Robert Fripp which contains just a series of numbers in the subject line. These are not the likely winnings on the various lotteries around the world. They are the viewing figures for four King Crimson videos recently uploaded to Youtube. And the regular email thread tells a simple predictable tale of how “popularity begets popularity” : the higher the viewing figures, the faster those figures grow, a function of the way that search engines and viewers use “what is most popular” as a shortcut for “what is best”. This is, of course, the reason why there are apps to generate fake clicks or why people buy followers on Twitter. It is the modern manifestation of “hyping your single” – Brian Epstein reputedly bought many of the copies of The Beatles first single in order to make it a hit, thus generating the interest that makes it a larger hit. Students of literature (yes, that would be me) will also know that it goes back even further. In France (and no doubt elsewhere), playwrights would pay the “Claque” to clap and cheer on opening nights to ensure the popularity of a play. It plays on our herd instinct. If everyone else appears to like it, then it must be good. (The Claque had a threatening downside – if you didn’t pay them, they would turn up anyway and boo).
But surely none of us really believe that the value of Art can be judged by such metrics. I personally refuse to believe that cat videos have greater value than Beatles videos, for example. Viewing metrics can only measure quantity of viewing, not quality. And even then, there can be great Art with relatively small audiences.
There is a counter argument that the size of the audience – mass culture – does matter. When Art moves out into mass culture, it changes. The notes of a song that has been used for a powerful scene in a movie, or been the soundtrack to a relationship gain an extra patina. You can adore such a song, while half-knowing that you don’t think it’s that “good”. It is difficult to view the Mona Lisa without feeling the weight of history.
So we all live this strange dichotomy. I steadfastly do not believe that what is most popular is necessarily best – while I will be carefully monitoring the “likes” on these latest late-night musings to see if they are ‘better’ than the others.