I don’t like anything
Miller: A lot of people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Give you an example, show you what I mean: Suppose you’re thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say, like, “plate,” or “shrimp,” or “plate of shrimp,” out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It’s all part of the cosmic unconsciousness.
Otto: You do a lot of acid, Miller? Back in the hippie days?
—Repo Man (1984)
I like Repo Man. I’ve seen it a million times. Repo Man is what we used to call a “cult film.” Remember those?
Cult films were very good in some ways, weird or flawed in pretty much every other. Cult films were “not for everybody” even though, by definition as expensive feature films, they were intended to be. However intensely they pleased a few, they failed because they alienated the many. Blade Runner. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Army of Darkness. These were major motion pictures. Regardless of their creators’ intentions, their producers and investors certainly intended them to be “for everybody.” Yet “everybody,” for whatever reason, shrugged and moved on.
Unlike most failures, however, stalwart fans saw something in each of these works that spoke to them. They rallied around these movies, keeping the flame alive by forcing friends to watch the VHS endlessly, by joining fan clubs, by attending raucous midnight screenings. Some cult films, like Blade Runner, eventually saw their stars rise, their excellence universally acknowledged. Others, like Buckaroo Banzai, well…I still like it.
Cult films brought people together. Twenty years ago, if you liked Repo Man and I liked Repo Man, there was a good chance we’d end up friends.
Social media should have made that process easier. Suddenly we could easily share our favorite movies and bond over mutual interests. The problem was, it became too easy to like things. It doesn’t really mean anything anymore to say you like Brazil or A Clockwork Orange. It’s too easy to see them. Too easy to find someone who’s written a brilliant defense of their artistic merits. It doesn’t cost anything to admit to liking a film most people hate (or have been told to hate, like the under-appreciated Ishtar).
Anyone who thinks it didn’t cost you to like Repo Man back then never told someone they were interested in that they liked Repo Man.
Today, it’s too easy to like stuff. We like everything.
(Everything middlebrow, anyway. If we like something lowbrow, like The Big Bang Theory, we’re idiots. Highbrow, like ballet, we’re snobs. Middlebrow—Breaking Bad—we’re hipster geniuses.)
James Somers writes in The Atlantic that, in our quest for “engagement”—embodied by the “like” button—we’ve drained our work of life and vigor:
When you are writing in the absence of feedback you have to rely on your own judgment. You want to please your audience, of course. But to do that you have to imagine what your audience will like, and since that’s hard, you end up leaning on what you like. Once other people start telling you what they like via Like buttons, you inevitably start hewing to their idea of what’s good.
I’ve said it myself. According to Somers, David Foster Wallace said it better than either of us a while back:
People tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interest.
John Mulaney, discussing Donald Trump’s surprising success during the election, came at the same idea from a different angle:
You start to think that the people who are good at Family Feud are smart. They’ll be like “name a vehicle that would come to a fire” and they’re like “fire truck” and you’re like “whoa, this guy’s good”…[Donald Trump] is not good at running for president, he’s just good at Family Feud and these other people are terrible at Family Feud. So when the Steve Harvey of this election is like “name something that is bothering Americans” and Ted Cruz is like “Benghazi.” Then Trump is like “all the problems” and that’s the number-one answer on the board.
Being popular in today’s world, getting “likes,” is about being good at Family Feud. It’s not about the right or best answer but about the most common one, even if it’s the most common mistake.
Thus, writing online copy successfully doesn’t make you a good, thoughtful, persuasive, or interesting writer. It means you’re good at Family Feud writing: crafting the sentence most likely to get most readers to read the next one.
This is not to knock copywriting, merely to put it in its proper place. As writers, we tend to conflate our work as thinkers, communicators, and storytellers with the copywriter’s role in driving engagement and aggregating likes. With copywriting, it doesn’t matter where the reader ends up as long as he keeps going.
This is the beautiful thing about books. No like buttons. You have to, as Somers writes, “imagine what your audience will like.” Which is “hard.”
Likes and page views and clicks are phantom currency. They cost the reader nothing, yet nothing in life is free. If it costs nothing for someone to like your work then what is it worth? Perhaps, if we want readers to love our work, we need to start asking for more from them than likes.