Jan 072012

Some years ago I watched an old interview with Jacqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls. There was a literary reviewer in the audience, and he offered his opinion that he didn’t think much of the book. This led to some jeering, and Susann seemed somewhat caught off guard. She responded by asking if he had read the whole book, and he admitted that he had not. Zing, got him! So it seemed, until he added something to the effect of “how much soup do you have to taste to know it’s bad?”

Frankly I rather liked Valley of the Dolls, but the analogy stuck with me. It’s valid for things like soup, which are by and large homogenous. As time went on I began to think that many things in life are homogenous, at least human behaviors and esthetic productions. Certain things like the output of performers or favorite TV shows have remarkable and very public declines. A few things have remarkable advances. I remember in the mid 1980’s when I first encountered the RE/Search books. I was sort of shocked to see the humble beginnings of RE/Search as a tabloid magazine. I was amazed at how much the production values and depth of research had increased. Did they sell their souls to the devil to get that good?

I think people naturally use the soup metaphor even if they don’t know it, especially on the Internet. There is so much information generated daily that to even sample a day’s content one has to give things a “taste test” before consuming the entire thing. If you have a YouTube account you can see how long a particular video of yours was watched before the audience departed. Popular websites like Reddit commonly post stories from users that are a few hundred words long. These are later edited down to a sentence or two with the obligatory “TL;DR.”
Long before the Internet people understood the power of a “first impression.” Again, this follows the “soup” analogy, as it assumes that an individual’s long term behavior is relatively homogenous. At the opposite end of this homogenous model of human behavior is the fantasy of domestic violence victims who believe their abuser is “turning the corner” or “getting better.”

You can see the tacit acknowledgement of the soup metaphor when people admonish others to “wait for it” when posting videos. If it’s not happening in the first 10 seconds your instinct tells you it probably won’t get better.

It’s popular these days to claim the Internet is killing our attention spans. There may be truth to this, but I believe we are simply doing a lot more sampling now before deciding to assimilate the whole thing.

Obviously there are things of value that grow on us. It would be foolish to make long term judgments about everything in life from initial reactions. There is a huge class of things that are “acquired tastes.” But over time, I tend to thing that there are many more soup-like things in the world than there are acquired tastes.

 Posted by on 01/07/2012 Opinion

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