Quantity IS Quality

On a mailing list where I hang out, a participant recently said (paraphrased): “He believes that popularity proves quality. I believe that there is almost no correlation between quality and popularity.”

We hear this sort of thing all the time. There’s an implication among self-appointed elites that “the masses” — i.e., everyone who’s not them — just can’t recognize quality. It’s assumed that “popular” is proof that something is bad. You see this attitude in film snobs who insist that an Oscar nomination for The Return of the King is some sort of travesty, because the film is a popular fantasy and not some art house flick or some historical epic. To be fair: you see it in Lord of the Rings fans who for years have been telling others who didn’t like the books that they just didn’t appreciate great literature. And before the films, you could see it among the literati who snubbed Lord of the Rings because it’s a popular fantasy rather than a dreary, post-modern, self-referential, obscurantist yawn. You see it in opera buffs who assume the rest of us are subintelligent because we don’t share their passion for opera. You see it in young rebels who look down on the lives of the conformist “sheeple” and who demonstrate that they are individuals and not “sheeple” — by all dressing and talking and acting and piercing alike. And you even see it in gourmets who extol the virtues of French food over more pedestrian fare like food from McDonald’s.

But the truth is: they’re wrong, every single one of them. They proceed from two clearly false assumptions: that there is one clear, objective, inarguable standard of quality; and that of all human beings, they somehow have been born with/been granted/achieved the unique ability to pronounce what the standard is.

But the fact is just the opposite. If I can avoid butchering the Latin too poorly, de gustibus non disputandum: with taste there can be no dispute. Or in the modern vernacular: there’s no accounting for taste. When someone tries to tell you that his tastes are objectively correct, he’s demonstrating how self-centered he is or how shallow his thinking is.

Does that mean there are no things that are objectively better than some other things? Can’t we all agree that Shakespeare is better than “The Simpsons”? Nope: I could gather up quite a debate on both sides of that issue; and the pro-Simpsons side would be every bit as educated and erudite as the pro-Shakespeare side.

Can’t we all agree that French food is better than McDonald’s? No, for multiple reasons: many people dislike new tastes, and prefer comfort and familiarity; not everyone likes the spices in French food; and if you grew up with French food every day, you might see it as “normal” and McDonald’s as a new experience, where novelty makes it attractive.

And so on, and so on, and so on. If you take any “objective” measure of general quality (as opposed to quality for a particular purpose, which may be assessed much more precisely) and examine it all the way down to its roots, you find personal tastes, past experiences, biases, and other responses that aren’t objective at all. There’s no objective measure of quality.

Except one. See, like many things that are immeasurable in the small, quality is measurable in the large, through statistics. No one person can absolutely proclaim that a certain thing is a quality product; but we can measure with reasonable precision how many people accept and endorse the quality of a product, by virtue of their purchases. In other words, the list writer I paraphrased has it exactly wrong: the closest thing we have to an objective measure of quality is popularity. If a significant number of people enjoy a product, then the odds that you will like it are higher. We’re all individuals, not ruled by statistics; but statistics are a useful piece of information to help you find products to try. Quantity purchased is a valid measure of quality. The market identifies products that the largest number of people accept as quality products.

And before anyone chimes in about betamax, QWERTY keyboards, CDs vs. albums, Microsoft, or any other oft-cited “evidence” that the market can produce the “wrong” answer: go reread my post, because you still missed the point. Don’t force me to go haul out the evidence that shows the conventional wisdom is wrong in every one of these cases, or I’ll produce so much it crashes the server.

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