An Appreciation of Popularity

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The correlation between popularity and quality is tenuous at best. How often have excellent products died in the marketplace, while competing products of lesser quality have succeeded (I’m thinking BetamaxKodak, and TiVo, to name a few)? How often, too, have movie stars achieved enormous popular success despite possessing little in the way of acting ability (my apologies to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone)?

Popularity isn’t just a poor analog for quality, but as a goal it is notoriously difficult to achieve. Striving for it is a fool’s errand, as the public’s approval has as much to do with luck as any other factor. Better to strive for excellence, and let The Universe figure the rest out.

Yet popular approval is just another term for the democratic process, the principle upon which our county was founded. And unlike quality, popularity is incredibly easy to measure. In today’s digital world, it is enumerated everywhere, from Twitter followers to web site click-through rates, from Nielsen ratings to global revenues. The data may be parsed differently, but it it still just that: data. Quantitative vs. qualitative, a decent indicator of success, and something one should be grateful for if it materializes.

All of this is to preface the fact that I am pleased and grateful that three of my stories for Mobility Lab made their Top 10 Most Popular Stories list for 2015. In descending order, they are:

2. Slow Down! And Four Other Ways to Make People Love Cyclists. This story was the second most popular story on Mobility Lab’s site last year, but not necessarily for a “good” reason. Intended to (somewhat playfully) challenge the sense of entitlement permeating bike culture, the story was lambasted for levying criticism against cyclists on a web site that had heretofore only published pro-cycling (i.e. biased) content. Perhaps ironically, I still believe this was one of my strongest stories of the year, because it started a conversation. I feel vindicated also that the opinions I expressed have been backed up by new research (discussed in CityLab) about perceptions of cyclist behaviors across all modes.

3. Uber’s Plan for Self-Driving Cars Bigger Than Its Taxi Disruption. I wasn’t the first, but I was definitely one of the first to write about Uber’s plan for self-driving cars, then in its infancy. Mainstream newspapers picked up the story a couple of months after mine ran, and TV news programs just started to circulate the story recently. It’s nice to see stories and be able to think, “Suck it, Brian Williams.”

10. Major U.S. DOT Study Emphasizes Need for More Transit, Biking, Walking. I don’t recall this story being incredibly entertaining, to be honest, but it was about a report essentially nobody else had covered. If you’re the only one out there writing about a topic (unlike, for instance, Uber, a company everyone wants to report on), that’s one way to attract eyeballs.

Mobility Lab may not be the New York Times, but to many of us who work there, we treat it as though it is. And so, while my stories’ appearance on their Top-10 List may not hold much meaning, I appreciate it nonetheless. After all, what writer doesn’t want to be read? A well-read story, by definition, is one that strikes a chord, resonates with the public, starts a dialogue, provides valuable information, or entertains. Any of these are worthwhile goals, in my opinion. So… Popularity? I’ll take it.

Crowd photo by Paul Devoto

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