"The Hype Cycle"

by Rob Horning

12 May 2008


I referenced this n+1 article about the “hype cycle” in the previous post, but it’s worth, well, hyping. Mocking the odious New York magazine-style approval matrices, the author compares the fluctuating social capital of cultural goods to asset bubbles, lamenting that media hype “transforms the use value of a would-be work of art into its exchange value.” In other words, we don’t judge art by its underlying fundamentals; instead we trade on their momentum. I’m skeptical that those things can be separated. The degree that pop culture is enjoyed privately isn’t going to be expressed in the public sphere, where opinions become hype because they become part of one’s identity posturing. The private enjoyment can simply be experienced; the direct pleasure of listening to a song need not be mediated to be felt. What does need mediation is the pleasure of being culturally relevant, being part of the zeitgeist or ahead of it.

So how we “use” culture depends a great deal on how we regard it contextually. Without context, there isn’t much there to consume—it’s not as though the intrinsic qualities are so deep and sophisticated. That private pleasure goes only so far, and if we were after that private pleasure alone, we’d consume something other than the culture that’s mainly relevant because it is contemporary. Rather, with pop culture, we are consuming context in object form; we are choosing to engage our times through an artifact, be part of the cultural conversation. This may be why most people don’t mind hype and, in fact, respond positively to it. Hype gives us a reason to consume, an opportunity to get something beyond the things’ intrinsic qualities. We can passively consume things that were once required activity: participation, a sense of belonging to something larger, a sense of being excited. Hype sucks primarily when you have a lot of free time to discover things to be excited about on your own—a luxury for most people who are not pop-culture connoisseurs. For everyone else, the vicarious excitement of hype is welcome—an efficient solution for not having enough leisure (or imagination) to become excited from scratch, entirely on our own.

The main use value of popular culture—what makes it popular—is its ability to signal one’s personality in the public sphere. (The n+1 article limits what one might signal through culture to the reputation of connoisseurship, but most people don’t seem to care about that. They want to belong, not be singled out as snobs.) What gives popular culture that capacity is its widespread distribution and its malleable substance, and often it’s made with that kind of negative capability in mind. It is intentionally indeterminate, or in other words, “shallow.” Hype, then, does reinforce the generic, insubstantial qualities of pop culture by expanding the base that can relate to it, creating network effects and magnifying the feelings of participation it conveys and communicating potential it has. A feedback loop is created: the shallower culture is, the more useful it is to us in the ways hype amplifies, and more hype proliferates and highlights cultural superficiality. This cycle tends to abrogate pop culture for those who want to experience it as connoisseurs (the brunt of the n+1 complaint). Hype makes us (happily, for many of us) have to consume culture as zeitgeist; it ceases to be an occasion to express our refined tastes. Instead, it liberates us from having to worry about tastes at all.

Of course, there is still public discussion of culture that is not hype, but it happens on a parallel track, only among parties that have established their bona fides with one another. Often, that means talking to oneself.

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