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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The Rich and the Failures

Modern culture loves its celebrities. For many a year, our obsessions have been largely focused upon those who spend their lives in the public eye- sportsmen and women, film and music stars, and anyone lucky and vacuous enough to persuade a TV network that they deserve a presenting contract. In recent years however, the sphere of fame has spread outwards, incorporating some more niche fields- survival experts like Bear Grylls are one group to come under the spotlight, as are a multitude of chefs who have begun to work their way into the media. However, the group I wish to talk about are businessmen. With the success of shows like Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice, as well as the charisma of such business giants as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, a few people who were once only known of by dry financiers are now public figures who we all recognise.

One of the side-effects of this has, of course, been the publishing of autobiographies. It is almost a rite of passage for the modern celebrity- once you have been approached by a publisher and (usually) ghostwriter to get your life down on paper, you know you’ve made it. In the case of businessmen, the target market for these books are people in awe of their way of life – the self-made riches, the fame and the standing – who wish to follow in their footsteps and as such, these autobiographies are basically long guides of business advice based around their own personal case study. The books now filling this genre do not only come from the big TV megastars however- many other people smart enough to spot a good bandwagon and rich enough to justify leaping onto it appear to be following the trend of publishing these ‘business manuals’, in an effort to make another quick buck to add to their own long personal lists.

The advice they offer can be fairly predictable- don’t back down, doggedly push on when people give you crap, take risks and break the rules, spot opportunities and try to be the first one to exploit them, etc. All of which is, I am sure what they believe really took them to the top.

I, however, would add one more thing to this list- learn to recognise when you’re onto a loser. For whilst all this advice might work superbly for the handful of millionaires able to put their stories down, it could be said to have worked less well for the myriad of people who lie broken and failed by the wayside from following exactly the same advice. You see, it is many of those exact same traits – a stubborn, almost arrogant, refusal to back down, a risk-taking, opportunistic personality, unshakeable, almost delusional, self-confidence – that characterise many of our society’s losers. The lonely drunk in the bar banging on about how ‘I could have made it y’know’ is one example, or the bloke whose worked in the same office for 20 years and has very much his own ideas about his repeated passing over for promotion. These people have never been able to let go, never been able to step outside the all-encompassing bubble of their own fantasy and realise the harsh reality of their situation, and indeed of life itself. They are just as sure of themselves as Duncan Bannatyne, just as pugnacious as Alan Sugar, just as eager to spy an opportunity as Steve Jobs. But it’s the little things that separate them, and keep their salary in the thousands rather than the millions. Not just the business nous, but the ability to recognise a sure-fire winner from a dead horse, the ability to present oneself as driven rather than arrogant, to know who to trust and which side to pick, as well as the little slivers (and in some cases giant chunks) of luck that are behind every major success. And just as it is the drive and single-mindedness that can set a great man on his road to riches, so it can also be what holds back the hundreds of failures who try to follow in his footsteps and end up chasing dreams, when they are unable to escape them.

I well recognise that I am in a fairly rubbish position from which to offer advice in this situation, as I have always recognised that business, and in some ways success itself, is not my strong suit. Whilst I am not sure it would be all too beyond me to create a good product, I am quite aware that my abilities to market and sell such an item would not do it justice. In this respect I am born to be mediocre- whilst I have some skills, I don’t have the ambition or confidence to try and go for broke in an effort to hit the top. However, whilst this conservative approach does limit my chances of hitting the big time, it also allows me to stay grounded and satisfied with my position and minimises the chance of any catastrophic failure in life.

I’m not entirely sure what lessons one can take from this idea. For anyone seeking to go for the stars, then all I can offer is good luck, and a warning to keep your head on your shoulders and a firm grip on reality. For everyone else… well, I suppose that the best way to put it is to say that there are two ways to seek success in your life. One is to work out exactly where you want to be, exactly how you want to be successful, and strive to achieve it. You may have to give up a lot, and it may take you a very, very long time, but if you genuinely have what it takes and are not deluding yourself, then that path is not closed off to you.

The other, some would say harder, yet arguably more rewarding way, is to learn how to be happy with who and what you are right now.