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79 million views and counting

If I made cat videos, this blog might actually be popular...

I have two cats. Butters and Toto. When I look at the 80 million-odd views this adorable little shit gets, the kind of views economists can only dream of, I wonder if I should have turned them into internet superstars when they were kittens. Realistically though, asides from my lack of filming ability, I don't know if they could handle the competition. So here is an economics/politics article, back by unpopular demand.

The economy, or should I say the people in it, routinely divert massive resources towards stuff that people think is popular. Popularity breeds profit, votes and demand. Popularity can be created. Massive effort is exhausted trying to identify stuff that could be popular. Marketers will go to great lengths to make things popular. In economics, "demand" is basically just another way of describing the level of popularity.

Woman purchasing sneakers that will make her more popular

Demand can be highly concentrated or shared among a wide group

High demand starts with something that has the potential to be appealing, which could be anything. An idea. A design. A style. This article considers two ways demand is created:

  • Appeal to widely-held interests shared by many people (eg sex, drama and adventure).

  • Appeal to the niche interests of a specific group (eg a tennis magazine for tennis fans).

This pattern of appealing to the masses versus targeting something specific plays out all the time in marketing, strategy, politics and even in our attraction to one another. Content of a semi-niche nature like an economics blog will never have the broad appeal of the Kardashians. Typically people don't sit back, relax and watch "Keeping up with the Krugmans".

Of course, people may deliberately look for stuff that isn't popular so they can have an authentic experience. Tourism sometimes relies on this - obviously not with trips to the Eiffel Tower, but perhaps camel trips through the desert.

Popularity has its own gravity

Demand leads to more demand. It's a feedback loop. When something is popular it leads to others liking it too. So demand is reinforcing. Think of those horrifying school cliques for instance. Search engines are another example. The websites at the top remain at the top by virtue of the number of people that see it, like it, and link to it. We see this type of gravity with people too.

People devote considerable resources to whatever it is that is seen as popular. That resource could be money - people purchase the latest fashion. So demand leads to profit. People may also spend time and mental energy, for example, if a particular physique is seen as ideal because of Hollywood movies people may devote considerable time to the gym. You'll notice that all of this is just perception, and perception can be shaped.

If people can be convinced something is popular, it can actually become popular. Marketers use this psychology as part of promotional messaging - "everyone is loving the latest...whatever". The illusion of high demand can be created until it becomes real. Fake it till you make it if you like. I'm pretty sure this is why there is a market for purchasing Twitter followers. That probably sounds like a form of manipulation. It is. There is a risk of creating the wrong type of demand though if it is unauthentic.

Politicians can create their own center of gravity

It's not unusual for single-issue parties to become popular through policy targeted towards a specific issue that people care about deeply. The Green Party in New Zealand is a good example of this. They had instant appeal by virtue of their environmental policy at a time when climate change wasn't being properly addressed. The idea that climate change wasn't a priority seems ridiculous now, but this was the 90s. New parties may need to focus intently on a single or small number of issues to gain ground from major centrist parties who already have broad appeal on issues of widespread concern like the economy.

I have a theory on the 2016 United States Republican Primaries. Trump wasn't initially the most popular candidate among Republicans but snowballed to the presidency through his niche appeal among a few becoming widespread among many. Trump and his team created a positive feedback loop on his initial popularity among mavericks who wanted to vote for someone seen as a Washington outsider.

Trump initially had extremely high appeal among mavericks but, I suspect, low broad appeal among moderate Republicans. So with a divided field, it looked like he was the most popular candidate. In mid-2015, in a two-horse race with other republicans, I doubt he would have won. As time went on and he had more opportunities to be seen, his message heard, accepted, and normalised. This is an important point because Trump dramatically shifted what was considered plausible and acceptable policy in the United Stated. As he continued to appear as the front runner because of his popularity in a niche, Trump became the most popular in a two-horse race.

The counter-argument is that his popularity grew as other candidates dropped out, and he won against other Republicans and Hillary Clinton (though of course not in the popular vote). However, I think this is because he had the impression of legitimacy through his initial niche appeal which carried on such that when Trump contested the primaries and election, he was actually popular. I am sure there is more to the story than this. Perhaps I am still looking for answers.

Challenge the incumbents

Popularity may not accord with what we really think and feel. It is important to recognise that with upcoming elections both in New Zealand (NZ) and the United States. If we were to vote based purely on policy, blind to the political party, would the dominant parties still be the most popular? It can be so hard to shake an incumbent. What if it were possible to hit reset on a political system? The system could look very different.

In NZ, Labour and National are clearly the two most popular parties and have been so for the better part of a century. I wonder if they are only in that position because of their incumbency with voting being "inherited" from one election to the next and passed between social groups and relationships. In the United States, it appears even worse with limited room for contest outside of the Democrats and Republicans, though I appreciate there is a plurality of views within each party. Elections need to be more than a popularity contest and truly represent people's views. How to do that properly without politics becoming a majoritarian mess is a question for another time.

Perhaps I should start publishing cat videos and sneak in the odd economics article to reach more people. However, this is a serious economics blog, that takes itself very seriously indeed, with nothing of a frivolous nature. So, much as Butters and Toto would love to become superstars, there will be no cat videos on Byte Size for the foreseeable future.


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