Tilting at Windmills: An Occasional Rant

A mild rant on the conflation of quantity with quality

Once again that font of all knowledge and social discourse – yes, I mean Facebook – has seen fit to display a perennial, persistent and, quite frankly annoying social trope:

The Hugo/Nebula Awards have become meaningless in the face of Amazon Sales Rankings.

I’ve tried the McDonald’s hamburger analogy:  do they really make the Best burgers, or do they just sell the most owing to their carefully researched grease and fat to protein ratio formulation?  Or maybe because they’ve got nearly 14,000 outlets across the country and spend an inordinate amount of money advertising and promoting their intestine-destroying, heart-clogging monstrosity?

Don’t get me wrong:  I know it’s un-American to find fault with McDonald’s.  That’s just the analogy.  This is not an argument against the unhealthy fast food market, nor is it a rant against the pernicious influence that mindless advertising has on the minds of the population.

The analogy illustrates that quantity and quality are not the same thing.  Ikea sells a lot of furniture.  None of it is Queen Anne antiques.

However, the conflation of quantity and quality are not the only problem that is feeding into this confusion.  Somewhere along the line, enough of our vocal population has come to regard everything external to themselves as internal to themselves.

Your favorite not winning is not seen as the result of voting results, but is instead received as a rejection of the individual’s tastes, preferences and self-worth.  In order to effectively counter that rejection, the individual has to find fault with the underlying institutions.  That individual is not wrong in their preferences, the system is wrong, and flawed and corrupt.  How else can one explain the fact that seemingly everyone else (actually, the plurality whose picks did win) disagreed?  Either the individual is wrong, or everyone else is.

Clearly, everyone else is wrong.  Otherwise there must be a flaw in the individual and that is simply not possible – every thought in their head, by virtue of taking place in their head, must necessarily be the right, correct, proper take on the subject.

The flaw in this logic is obvious but bears detailing.  The awards are not about YOU.  Someone voting for their personal preferences is reflecting their own tastes, they are not rejecting or criticizing or finding fault with the votes of others.  This is not a zero sum game.  In many cases, more voters are “wrong” than those who are right.  When it comes to the Hugo Awards, winners are based on having the largest plurality, not necessarily the majority, of votes.  It’s just like that quip about the antelope and the cheetah:  no antelope has to be faster than a cheetah, they just have to be faster than the slowest antelope.   Winners who received the second to least number of initial round votes have won, owing to the preferential nature of the voting system.  (This is because during each round of voting, the Finalist with the least number of votes is thrown out and their votes are redistributed to those voter’s second preference, and so on until a winner is declared.)

The award results, the voting not in alignment with your own preferences, the obvious fact that more voters preferred the winner to your preference ARE NOT directed personally at YOU.  (Think about it:  every other voter who did not vote for your preferences would have had to find out who and what you were voting for in order to be able to vote against you.  Wow.  You really are important, huh?)

Now lets talk about popularity and sales.  With a brief reminder that it’s called “Popular Culture”, not because it is really culture, but because it is so fleeting.  The most popular songs today are not the most popular tomorrow.  Last week’s blockbuster is now being outsold by this week’s.

Think about what makes something “popular”.  It has to have wide appeal.  Which necessarily means that compromises have been made in order to achieve that wide appeal.  Want to grab the kids?  Gotta have something that appeals to kids.  Want to grab the baby boomers?  Gotta have something that appeals to them.  And so on down the line and, while it is possible to create something with wide appeal that is also high quality, in general, corners are cut in order to appeal to “the masses”.  You know those stories you hear about “the suits” insisting on changes to a film that go against the director’s preferences and usually turn out to be the things in the Director’s Cut that really make the movie what it should have been on original release?  That’s “popularity” interfering with “quality” (or, at the very least, artistic sensibilities).

I hope I’m not insulting Gene Wolf with this one, but – Pringle’s are designed to be mass appeal potato chips.  Are they as good quality chips as home made artisan chips?  No, they’re made with a freaking cookie cutter, (check out this “How It’s Made” video), out of potato flakes, corn starch and water.

They’re popular, they’re called “chips”, but they really aren’t.  They’re an artificial construct reflecting the twin desires of commerce – inexpensive to produce and can appeal to a very large market.

When you suggest that sales figures should be the basis upon which awards are handed out, what you’re really saying is, I want mass produced, artificial potato chips to win – let’s increase the popularity of sour cream and onion flavored this year and vote it in as a winner.

You buy popular art at the Spencer Gifts poster display.  Big eyed cats on velvet, dog’s playing poker.  If you want to see quality art, you go to an art gallery.

The Hugo Awards and Nebula Awards are not determined by Spencer’s Gifts.  YOU are not the focus of the awards.

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3 Comments

  1. You asked: “do they really make the Best burgers, or do they just sell the most owing to their carefully researched grease and fat to protein ratio formulation? Or maybe because they’ve got nearly 14,000 outlets across the country and spend an inordinate amount of money advertising and promoting their intestine-destroying, heart-clogging monstrosity?”

    How do you think they amazed the fortune to build nearly 14K outlets across America? Hello McFly! 😉

    1. You are conflating quality and popularity, exactly the issue I am pointinig out.

      They are not mutually exclusive, nor are they interchangeable qualities.

      They created an international franchise based on sales. That does not mean they make the “best” hamburbgers. Ghe amassing of dollars is usually indicative of low quality, high sales, not the other way around.

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