What Causes Public Taste?

Reflecting on the Emmy’s last night, I was suddenly hit with a simple question: are these shows good because they’re inherently good, or because we as a society have decided to define “good” by these shows?

That came out confusingly. Let me try again.

Is “good” something absolute, or is it something that based on societal nuances?

I’m not talking about morals here. I’m talking about quality of art–or at the very least, quality of pop culture.

After having some time to think on it, I’ve decided (for the moment, at least) that the answer is a simple, “Both.” Take dramas as an example. I can watch two different dramas, and one can be lame, and the other can be great. And I tend to think that lame dramas will, on the whole, be deemed lame by the rest of society, too. (Sometimes I’m wrong on this. Let’s at least say “by the rest of critics,” and leave the rest of society to enjoy whatever the heck kind of garbage they like to consume when it’s awful. Two and a Half Men, perhaps? My favorite punching bag show du jour.)

But don’t we like these shows because we’ve been trained to like them? Is our taste something inherent that we’re born with, or something we develop over time?

This is related to a different conversation I was having today. Comic Sans. It’s the red-headed stepchild of the design industry these days, but why is that? Is there something in the font itself that’s just awful, or do we think it’s awful because we’ve been trained to think that?

I’m reminded of a study I read a while ago about how pop culture develops. The researcher created a bunch of small internet groups, and gave each group the same set of songs to download and listen to. If “good” were something inherent, it would stand to reason that the same songs would rise to the top when it came to popularity.

But that didn’t happen at all.

Instead, each group grew in its own way, as different songs became popular merely because more and more people were listening to them. If that happens in a single study, imagine how it plays out over entire societies, over decades or centuries.

Clearly, I’ve had too much time to think today. Time to go back to revising . . . (And if you can get the connection between this post and the picture I chose to accompany it, then mega nerdy bonus points to you.)

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