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Hit Makers

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Hit Makers

The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction

Penguin Press,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

All hugely popular cultural products – songs, movies, TV shows, books, works of art – have elements that are bold yet familiar.

Editorial Rating



  • Applicable
  • Bold
  • Engaging


Atlantic magazine senior editor Derek Thompson investigates the science, psychology and economics of “hit making” – the process of gaining mass popularity in this chronically distracted digital age. Culturally omnivorous, Thompson explores painting, music, film, television and even websites. He reaches back in history to enduring “hits” like Johannes Brahms’s beautiful lullaby “Wiegenlied” and Claude Monet’s sumptuous oil painting “The Japanese Footbridge.” Thompson argues in detail that in the cultural marketplace, mass popularity isn’t a function of quality but of a combination of social context, economics and ancient human psychology. The only major flaw in Thompson’s approach is his diffuseness. Offering a handful of theses, Thompson roams through and reports on pop music, rock, rap, politics, film, television, the media and the Internet, shifting historical eras as he goes. His plethora of facts and ideas may inundate you. getAbstract recommends this well-written, entertaining overview to people in the culture industry and those fascinated by how a song, a movie, work of art or website becomes a blockbuster hit.


Products Everyone Likes

Some songs, television series, films, games, websites and smartphone apps achieve astonishing levels of commercial success. Their creators become wealthy and famous. Why do some cultural products become gigantic “hits” while others remain obscure? Commercial success in the contemporary global marketplace can bring vast and unprecedented monetary value. But hits aren’t a recent phenomenon. Nineteenth-century German composer Johannes Brahms’s lullaby “Wiegenlied,” for instance, was a tremendous success in Germany in its day. Emigration led it to become beloved throughout the western hemisphere.

“Neophobics” and “Neophilics”

Culture draws two types of consumers. Neophobics strongly prefer familiar culture; neophilics gravitate to the exciting and novel. The comfort of the familiar draws consumers, which is why music and film often allude to earlier work: The melody in “Wiegenlied” derives from a folk song. The blockbuster Star Wars movies are basically westerns that take place in outer space. Consumers like innovation and surprise. Hits typically combine the familiar and the new, and thus...

About the Author

Derek Thompson is senior editor at The Atlantic and a weekly news analyst for NPR’s Here & Now radio program. He has appeared on Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” list and Time magazine’s 140 Best Twitter Feeds.

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    D. P. 2 years ago
    "He also put the phone numbers of powerful people in the music world – such as Kanye West and Ludacris – on his phone." Wait what?
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    J. M. 6 years ago
    Great summary!