Back in the old days, I took someone to a local Italian restaurant for dinner.
As we looked over the menu, complete with regional specialties and handmade pastas, he started to sulk. With a sullen look, he said, “I want a hamburger and french fries.”
Somehow, the patient kitchen staff figured out how to produce this out of thin air, and a tantrum was narrowly averted. But I’ve been thinking about that interaction a lot.
In his mind, “restaurant” meant, “a place where I can get a hamburger and french fries.” If you look at many 1 star reviews (of books, of music, of restaurants) this is precisely what you’re going to see. A mismatch of expectations. A mismatch that is blamed, completely, on the person who created the work, not the critic.
It doesn’t matter that the thing was clearly marked. It doesn’t matter that the thing was extraordinarily well-produced. And it doesn’t matter if just about everyone else experiencing it was thoroughly delighted.
Because for this spoiled, under-informed and impatient patron, it failed.
This failure comes from a few contributing factors, all amplified by our culture:
First, you can’t know if you’re going to like an experience until you experience it. All you know is your understanding of what was on offer. And because there are so many choices and there’s so much noise, we rarely take the time to actually read the label, or we get carried away by the coming attractions, or we just don’t care enough to pay attention until we’re already involved.
[And marketers are complicit, because in the face of too much noise, they hype what’s on offer and overpromise…]
Second, because many people are afraid. They’re afraid of the new and even more than that, afraid of change. Most people in our culture would like to be entertained not transformed, lectured at instead of learning.
Third, the double-edged sword of giving everyone a microphone means that we’ve amplified the voices of dissent at the same time we’ve given people a chance to speak up about their desires. This means that mass culture is far more divisive than it ever was before, and it also means that bubbles of interest are more likely to be served.
And so the fork in the road:
You can either turn your operation into a cross between McDonald’s and Disney, selling the regular kind, pandering to the middle, putting everything in exactly the category they hoped for and challenging no expectations…
Or you can do the incredibly hard work of transgressing genres, challenging expectations and seeking out the few people who want to experience something that matters, instead of something that’s merely safe.