I want to take a moment to draw a very important distinction between blind, sheep-like following or zealotism and true enthusiasm. I think we’re killing the latter in favor of quashing the former.
Emotion matters, dammit.
Passion and emotion are critically important, even in the cold, clinical world of business. Passion is what drives people to focus attention on what they love. Enthusiasm is what keeps people coming back to an interest or a cause, even in the face of challenges. I think we can probably all agree on the role of these elements in doing something well.
But we’re establishing a bit of a bad habit in lumping in those that are passionate about something into a pile of “Kool-Aid Drinkers”. Most especially, once someone becomes known for their field of expertise, applies their knowledge with passion, and develops a following of enthusiasts, we’re awfully quick to label their fans as those who’ve sipped the intoxicating beverage, and implying by default that their enthusiasm is based on something lacking substance. As if the person or thing they’re excited about loses their value the minute more than a handful of people discover what they’re doing.
It’s the indie band analogy I’ve heard a few times: you love your obscure little band until they hit the mainstream. Even though the music is the same, being popular suddenly makes them uninteresting. Huh?
The Blind Following the Blind?
Okay, I completely understand the Lemming Principle. There will always be a contingent of folks that blindly latch on to something, either because they lack the originality to come up with something of their own, or because they want to belong to something bigger, or simply because they understand something on the surface and it sounds like an okay idea.
Perhaps they’re impressionable. Perhaps they’re lost. And yes, sometimes they’re misguided, easily turning from a follower into a zealot preaching off of someone else’s notes (and notes that are either lousy to start with, or that they may not understand).
But what the heck says that just because I like something or someone that’s popular, I’ve somehow sold out? That I’m basing my enthusiasm on “being cool” or chasing something mainstream when, in fact, I may really and honestly like and be passionate about what they represent?
I’m Cool with Kool-Aid
I like and am enthusiastic about a lot of popular things. I’m a fan and an advocate of Apple products, regardless of their clever advertising. I think Chris Brogan does incredible work – and he did that kind of work long before anyone knew who the hell he was. I think David Armano is gifted, and Seth Godin has an amazing ability to articulate true marketing better than anyone I’ve ever read otherwise.
I listen to and love big ticket bands like Rush, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and even Kelly Clarkson (though you can keep your Coldplay). I drive a Honda, and I love it. I read New York Times bestsellers. I shop at Target. (And to bring this full circle, I still utterly and completely believe in the power and impact of social media and yes, Twitter. I don’t give a rip if Oprah showed up and CNN won’t shut up about it.)
And the key? I think all of these people, companies and concepst have retained their value even once they hit the mainstream. I’m proud to be a fan of their work.
Sometimes, products or people become well known because they’re of high quality. They’re good. They’re helpful. They’re compelling or interesting or fun to be around. And whatever the tipping point for moving from unknown to well known, I don’t think that progression negates the quality that’s there in the first place. In other words, just because something’s popular, it doesn’t mean it’s automatically without value.
Is the sticking point that we think with popularity comes less of a focus on quality? Is it that we believe that true quality doesn’t scale? Does someone or some other business’ mainstream success make us envious, so we rail against it because we can’t duplicate it? Do we think we’re less unique individually – less likely to stand out ourselves – if we join a mass following?
You can call me a Kool-Aid drinker if you want, I don’t mind. I’m still passionate and enthusiastic about things that lots of other people like, too. Because to me, value begets popularity and attention. Not the other way around.