Why Originality – and Unoriginality – May Not Matter To Media Success

(Tamara had a great post last week on the paradox of originality versus people seeking original works.  Spinning off from that, I think I've got a bead on why originality is sometimes rewarded in media – and as well why sometimes stunning unoriginality is not).

Are you getting tired of vampires?

I've been tired of vampire fiction, movies, what have you for quite awhile.  i've seen it all, heard it all, and by now I have nearly no interest whatsoever in the whole vampire genre and its spawn.  I started getting tired of it around Anne Rice's heyday, and most young people reading "Twilight" today probably think Anne Rice is a cajun dish.

I can't be the only one tired of vampires in every media known to man.  Yet they're everywhere.

Vampires.  Zombies.  The constant use of World War II as a video game setting.  Fantasy tales derived from an alchemical mixture of toned-down Tolkein cut with Dungeons and Dragons.  These and many other things that keep showing up in our media over an over again.  We complain about their omnipresence and unoriginality – and then we (and others) keep reading, watching and buying.

Yes, even me.  I have my own always-the-same-habits, usually involving video games.

Our media seems to be the same thing over and over, with slight variants . . . except when there's the Attack of the New.

Remember when Lost was the greatest thing ever – for about two seasons?  Remember the first season of Heroes?  Remember all those times something new came out and it just came on like an onslaught – and produced almost cult-like behavior?  If you think about it you've probably seem quite a lot (even if some were extensions or remakes of foreign properties).

It's new!  It's different!  Watch it!  Read it!  Love it!

Yeah, we've had people try and shove the new down our throat to the point we're sick of it.  It makes us want to go back to reading about the vampires fighting Nazi's in World War II with magic based on Dungeons and Dragons.  That of course is unless we're the ones promoting the new thing, and in that case we miss how far we're gone because we've drunk the Kool-Aid so deeply.

When I look at the media these days I see extremes.  It's either the same-old-same-old or the Hot Cult New Thing.  Yes our media is too often skewed to the same-old-same-old, but the Hot Cult New Thing is a powerful phenomena; when Harry Potter was new I was so sick of hearing about it I didn't want to read it (which was a mistake on my part, I believe)

These extremes actually tell us a lot about the media and issues with developing media properties – namely how do you get people to pay attention, and why some things that are, frankly, kind of lousy get attention.   How to get your work the attention you want torments authors, artists, marketers, publishers, and handsome devil-may care bloggers with awesome names.

And I'm here to answer . . .  that I actually don't think that "quality" or "originality" or anything else about the ideas and contents are directly important to mass interested in your creations.  I'm starting to come to the conclusion that looking at things like innovation or classic tropes or what have you is missing the boat entirely, leaving us holding the boat ticket of confusion, standing on the sea of possibility, with the water of bad metaphor lapping around our ankles.

There are many reasons we consume media, from boredom to titillation.  But a focus on why an individual consumes media misses the fact that we humans do not function as individuals, we function as members of a collective web of people, groups, societies, and so on.  The person with no human connections is a vast anomaly, and usually a pathological one at that.

When we look at what media is popular, its innovative nature is not the first thing we should be looking at.  It's the human connection people experience with consuming and sharing the media as part of their larger society.  It is what we consume as part of our society that helps us connect – and humans like to connect with each other.

Media is how many of us socialize.  Humans have always been telling tales and singing songs, but in an age of mass media, media is perhaps an even larger part of how we connect than ever before.  The shows we watch, books we read, stars we follow all give us a shared sense of community.  You can argue if this is good or bad, but all it takes is looking at how people come together (and apart) over sports, fanfic, and movies and your realize the important role media plays in producing social cohesion.

Simply, media consumption is a way of having shared interests that draws us together, part of our normal human instincts.

I have come to the conclusion that it a given that the ability for a media to draw us together is a major component of its success.  How many times did you read something that someone else suggested?  How many times have you told a joke derived from a media source – and people got the reference?  How many times did you enjoy time at a convention because of shared interest?

Thus I'd say a large part of a success of a piece of media is the social factors – does it draw people together, can it be shared as an interest, can it play on interests to draw others in?  This is what I've called "socializable media" in previous work.

Note however that in all of this originality – or unoriginality – are not factors.  The appeal of the brand new idea or the redone stale old idea, I postulate, are largely (but not totally) due to the social connection people experience as part of consuming the media.

This is why relative unoriginality will rule for many people – because human society and socialization has an inherent, entirely understandable conservative element.  We want stability and similarity in our lives and day-to-day activities.  Sure we crave excitement, but we also want the stability that keeps excitement from becoming constant chaos.  Thus in our media we will want some level of similarity to the past both for our own comfort, and because it means we can keep sharing media experiences with others.  If we were to step outside out media bounds too radically, we would both disrupt our own familiar behaviors and possibly disrupt or not maintain our social bonds.

In short, the endless vampires promise some stability and familiarity of what we can share with others.  Knowns are comforting – and knowns can be shared easy.  Sorry people, the bloodsuckers, endless rehashing of WWII, and D&D derivatives are gonna be with us for awhile.  Our complains about originality are useless as it doesn't matter.

Of course, total unoriginality isn't going to be appealing in most cases, so this leads to media that is "the buts."  It's like Harry Potter . . . but with psychic powers!  It's a vampire story . . . but in idaho!  It's a superhero story . . . but no one dresses up!  You get the idea.  Enough difference to make the media you purchase worth it and interesting, but enough similarity to share, to maintain social connection, and to communicate.

Sorry, but the unoriginality we all decry?  That's part of human nature.  It's part of your nature too.

The flipside of the unoriginality is the sudden Cult Hits, the vast original things that storm onto the scene, seize people's consciousness, and frankly become things we're sick of hearing about.  How does this fit into the socialization view of media?

Because the New Cult thing's very newness means it has a social element – so many people become interested in it because it is new.  The counterpart of the same-old-same-old shared experience is the shared "wow" experience of something achingly new and interesting.  This is usually followed by everyone getting into it, and some of us getting tired of it.

This is where unoriginality and originality meet – that in the right circumstances they draw us together socially and we are interested.  That hot new original thing has the right "wow" factor, the right social factors, to become a Big Thing.  People are drawn in by their interests, but many more are drawn in due to social connections, and in a world of all-to-often unoriginal ideas, the original thi
ng is suddenly big and dominant.

This happens less as a percentage of overall media in my experience, but it is there.  Admittedly "original" is a bit of a relative term, so I'd say this is original in contrast to the overall media available to people.  A lot of superhero films seemed "original" to people but really they weren't – they were just new to being very mainstream.

Note out of all of this original or unoriginal isn't a factor so much as the socializability of the media itself.  It's not if you're original or unoriginal, it's if people can have a shared experience.

The upshot of all of this?  The upshot is remembering that social factors are going to be a part in the success of media.  Everything from endless re-tellings of the same story to the big new thing have a big social factor.  I am not sure how much this factor plays in success as a percent, but it's big enough to pay attention to.

As you create your next big thing, you'll need to figure ways to build the social momentum: if you're recycling the old or introducing the new, that's a factor you can't avoid.  You've got to draw people in and make sure your media is the kind that people can socialize with, and that socializing is encouraged.

Steven Savage

(I was probably getting close to some of this in my post on "Socializable Media")