The Myth of Popularity

WARNING: Everything I say forthwith is purely speculative based on a rough approximation of a presented view of how a part of our world works, plus some vaguely related stuff I happen to know. It is very likely to differ from your own personal view of things, so please don’t get angry with me if it does.

Bad TV and cinema is a great source of inspiration; not because there’s much in it that’s interesting, but because there’s just so much of it that even without watching any it is possible to pick up enough information to diagnose trends, which are generally interesting to analyse. In this case, I refer to the picture of American schools that is so often portrayed by iteration after iteration of generic teenage romance/romcom/’drama’, and more specifically the people in it.

One of the classic plot lines of these types of things involves the ‘hopelessly lonely/unpopular nerd who has crush on Miss Popular de Cheerleader and must prove himself by [insert totally retarded idea]’. Needless to say these plot lines are more unintentionally hilarious and excruciating than anything else, but they work because they play on the one trope that so many of us are familiar with; that of the overbearing, idiotic, horrible people from the ‘popular’ social circle. Even if we were not raised within a sitcom, it’s a situation repeated in thousands of schools across the world- the popular kids are the arseholes at the top with inexplicable access to all the gadgets and girls, and the more normal, nice people lower down the social circle.

The image exists in our conciousness long after leaving school for a whole host of reasons; partly because major personal events during our formative years tend to have a greater impact on our psyche than those occurring later on in life, but also because it is often our first major interaction with the harsh unfairness life is capable of throwing at us. The whole situation seems totally unfair and unjust; why should all these horrible people be the popular ones, and get all the social benefits associated with that? Why not me, a basically nice, humble person without a Ralph Lauren jacket or an iPad 3, but with a genuine personality? Why should they have all the luck?

However, upon analysing the issue then this object of hate begins to break down; not because the ‘popular kids’ are any less hateful, but because they are not genuinely popular. If we define popular as a scale representative of how many and how much people like you (because what the hell else is it?), then it becomes a lot easier to approach it from a numerical, mathematical perspective. Those at the perceived top end of the social spectrum generally form themselves into a clique of superiority, where they all like one another (presumably- I’ve never been privy to being in that kind of group in order to find out) but their arrogance means that they receive a certain amount of dislike, and even some downright resentment, from the rest of the immediate social world. By contrast, members of other social groups (nerds, academics [often not the same people], those sportsmen not in the ‘popular’ sphere, and the myriad of groups of undefineable ‘normies’ who just splinter off into their own little cliques) tend to be liked by members of their selected group and treated with either neutrality or minor positive or negative feeling from everyone else, leaving them with an overall ‘popularity score’, from an approximated mathematical point of view, roughly equal to or even greater than the ‘popular’ kids. Thus, the image of popularity is really something of a myth, as these people are not technically speaking any more popular than anyone else.

So, then, how has this image come to present itself as one of popularity, of being the top of the social spectrum? Why are these guys on top, seemingly above group after group of normal, friendly people with a roughly level playing field when it comes to social standing?

If you were to ask George Orwell this question, he would present you with a very compelling argument concerning the nature of a social structure to form a ‘high’ class of people (shortly after asking you how you managed to communicate with him beyond the grave). He and other social commentators have frequently pointed out that the existence of a social system where all are genuinely treated equally is unstable without some ‘higher class’ of people to look up to- even if it is only in hatred. It is humanity’s natural tendency to try and better itself, try to fight its way to the top of the pile, so if the ‘high’ group disappear temporarily they will be quickly replaced; hence why there is such a disparity between rich and poor even in a country such as the USA founded on the principle that ‘all men are created free and equal’. This principle applies to social situations too; if the ‘popular’ kids were to fall from grace, then some other group would likely rise to fill the power vacuum at the top of the social spectrum. And, as we all know, power and influence are powerful corrupting forces, so this position would be likely to transform this new ‘popular’ group into arrogant b*stards too, removing the niceness they had when they were just normal guys. This effect is also in evidence that many of the previously hateful people at the top of the spectrum become very normal and friendly when spoken to one-on-one, outside of their social group (from my experience anyway; this does not apply to all people in such groups)

However, another explanation is perhaps more believable; that arrogance is a cause rather than a symptom. By acting like they are better than the rest of the world, the rest of the world subconsciously get it into their heads that, much though they are hated, they are the top of the social ladder purely because they said so. And perhaps this idea is more comforting, because it takes us back to the idea we started with; that nobody is more actually popular than anyone else, and that it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Regardless of where your group ranks on the social scale, if it’s yours and you get along with the people in it, then it doesn’t really matter about everyone else or what they think, so long as you can get on, be happy, and enjoy yourself.

Footnote: I get most of these ideas from what is painted by the media as being the norm in American schools and from what friends have told me, since I’ve been lucky enough that the social hierarchies I encountered from my school experience basically left one another along. Judging by the horror stories other people tell me, I presume it was just my school. Plus, even if it’s total horseshit, it’s enough of a trope that I can write a post about it.

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Since when the internet become alive?

Looking back over my previous posts (speaking of which by the way: WOO DOUBLE FIGURES), I realised just how odd my way of referring to the internet is. The internet, by archaic terms, doesn’t really even exist- there is nothing physical to show its presence. One can argue about the billions of computers and servers which connect to and contribute to it, but that’s a bit like saying that the story of a novel exists by virtue of the book having pages- the story itself is something… more than that. The same is true for the internet which is, when boiled down, just one huge mass of information- nothing more, nothing less. And yet, from my first posts in which I introduced myself to the web, I referred to the internet itself. When you think about it, the level to which the internet community has made the internet itself seem human goes far beyond just normal personification- the internet does not just represent a figure, it has, over the years of its existence, managed to give itself a personality. It has clearly defined ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’, far beyond a simple average view of the human population. In my home country of Great Britain, for example, the majority of voters at each election vote Conservative, and such views are held by many people across the world, especially in America- the source of the main bulk of internet traffic. And yet, the internet’s political stance appears very liberal- it dislikes racism, is heavily supportive of freedom of speech and information, and dislikes privacy controls and regulations on itself. The internet also appears to like computer games, science, especially computing (and be of above-average intelligence in these matters too) and hate the likes of Stephanie Meyer, Justin Beiber and Rebecca Black, but one trait is predominant, and has almost become the defining feature of the modern internet- it likes to have a laugh. A large proportion of my Facebook traffic, for instance, is people sending me links of funny stuff from everyday life that other people have posted, and there is a recurrent joke that the internet could be basically split into two parts- porn, and pictures of cats looking simultaneously cute and hilarious. This set of priorities is very prevalent when studying the aims of internet groups such as Anonymous- quite a good description of them (and incidentally a link to a quality series of videos) can be found here: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/anonymous, and I recommend you watch it. Their aims appear based around a similar set of liberal and ‘for teh lulz’ priorities.
Now, just sit back for a second and absorb this simple fact- the internet, essentially a large collection of information contributed to in some way by the vast majority of the human, has managed to develop its own personality and opinions. Furthermore, these opinions are held, as a rule, by the vast majority of the internet community (excluding the people, if they can be called such, who comment below youtube videos), even though these represent the views of a non-majority group in the real world (although feel free to debate the extent of non-majority). Now, ask yourself this- HOW IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT’S HOLY DID THAT HAPPEN!?!?!?! The very concept of creating such a personality could never have occurred to the web pioneers, the likes of Tim Berners-Lee and the CERN team who aided the process, and yet it has happened. Swathes of the internet may be devoid of such views, and there are a series of internet counter-cultures (the conspiracy theorists, for example, or the ‘vast uninformed panics’ that erupt whenever there is a major health scare), but the internet as a rule appears to have predominant characteristics THAT ARE INCONSISTENT WITH THOSE OF THE VAST POPULATION OF PEOPLE WHO CONTRIBUTE TO IT.
Normally I like my posts to have a conclusion behind me, and several of my instincts are fighting to explain about the kind of bored teenagers who populate the web for much of the time etc. etc., but right now I really don’t want to. I honestly think that the way this has happened is truly amazing, and from a psychological/behaviouroligical/ sociological perspective it is certainly incredibly interesting- I could fill a paper describing it. But, for now, I’m just going to sit back and revel in what humanity has done with its greatest invention. And try and think of a suitable way to conclude this post…