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Here’s the secret to making things popular (hint: It’s not ‘going viral’)

In his new book, “Hit Makers,” Atlantic Senior Editor Derek Thompson challenges common misconceptions like “content is king.”

In his new book “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction,” Derek Thompson busts some big myths about how popular stuff gets popular. Myths like: “Content is king,” i.e., good stuff rises to the top because it’s good.

“Distribution is more important” than content, Thompson said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “You can say that a song is the best song in the world, you can say that an idea is the best for people’s welfare, or a movie is the best documentary of its kind. But without a distribution strategy to reach people, nobody hears it.”

Thompson, a senior editor at the Atlantic, challenged the idea — popularized by other pop-sociology writers like Malcolm Gladwell — that ideas can go viral, spreading and reproducing in a biological way. Instead, he said, everything from memes to tech companies can “piggyback” on existing social networks.

“Facebook initially went ‘viral,’ not by building a product that every person might share with five other people, like a disease, but by using networks that existed,” he said. “They digitized the Harvard network that existed, and the Ivy League networks that already existed.”

Thompson said that to make things go viral, existing “broadcast platforms are even more important than we thought.” However, he weighed that against the struggles of ESPN, once the darling of the cable TV world, which can no longer bank on its traditional broadcasting model, blamed for falling revenues at Disney’s cable networks segment.

“Traditional TV minutes have fallen something like 40 to 45 percent among viewers between the age of 18 to 35,” Thompson said. “That’s a bloodbath.”

But that doesn’t mean they can’t still wring new value out of the network they’ve built.

“They have unbelievable reach to audiences that care voraciously about their favorite teams, their favorite story lines,” he added. “There’s a stat in the book that says that every single time they want to send a news alert about the Golden State Warriors, a phone vibrates in more pockets than the combined metro populations of San Francisco and Oakland. ... I would encourage them to build beginning with that, understanding they have a lock-hold on the lock screen of tens of millions of people around the country.”

You can listen to Recode Media in the audio player above, or subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge's Lauren Goode, answers all of the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.
  • And finally, Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, such as the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on iTunes — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Peter. Tune in next Thursday for another episode of Recode Media!

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