The Numbers Game

We are rapidly reaching the point where majorities as we know it will no longer exist.  Heck, we’re probably already past it.  We live in a world where more people have a voice than ever before, and the resulting din can sure get confusing.  But there’s really no going back, and while the future is fraught with peril, it’s not like the past was a utopian wonderland.

As a species, we wrestle with the limits of our own instincts in this new world.  And nowhere is it more clear to me than in the perception versus reality of the numbers game.  One Million Moms is a group of citizens who think gay Archie characters shouldn’t be sold in Toys R Us stores. Putting aside the right or wrong of their opinion, the group is far less then a million moms.  But even if it were a million strong, it would mean almost nothing.

According to latest census information, the U.S. has about 311 million people in it right now.  For those of you bad at math, that means one million citizens make up less than 1 percent of the population.  So a million people is statistically insignificant.  That’s not to say I don’t think they shouldn’t have a voice.  They should.  And they’re certainly allowed to share their opinions with the world, but what does it really mean?

For my own career, if I sold a million books, I’d be incredibly successful, beyond my wildest dreams.  And it would mean that less than 1 percent of the population bought my books.  That’s the numbers game, folks.  That’s the way it works, and the truth is that we are all little fish swimming in a great big ocean.  Some of us get to the biggest little fish in our portion, but then we swim into the wrong territory and are quickly gobbled down.

Rush Limbaugh has said a lot of terrible, obnoxious things over the course of his career.  Most of these things don’t get noticed by anyone outside of his audience.  But occasionally, some remark garners greater public attention and the backlash comes.  I get why Rush is surprised by this.  He daily speaks to millions of people who are hungry to hear what he has to say, and who will cheer him on.  So when he suddenly finds himself adrift in the larger current of popular culture, he doesn’t understand what has changed.  After all, he talks to millions of people every day, and they love him for his opinions.  So something must be wrong when that changes.

I’m not interested in debating the merits of Rush Limbaugh (or anyone else right now).  It’s obvious at this point that for every point of view, there’s an audience out there somewhere.  Yet something can be “popular” in our world and remain niche.  And this seems more and more the case.  I’ve never seen a full episode of Walking Dead.  Haven’t seen an episode of Game of Thrones.  I’ve watched exactly a minute of Jersey Shore. Yet all these things are undeniably popular.  I’m a semi-successful novelologist, and the vast majority of people have never heard of me, and if I have a long and successful career, most people probably never will.

That’s the numbers game at work, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that, even if you can get a million people to agree with you, it doesn’t add up to much.  People should feel free to share their opinions and otherwise contribute to and / or criticize the world they live in.  They just shouldn’t be surprised that, even with an army of supporters behind them, they’ll be eclipsed by a universe far more vast and unforgiving than they generally realize.

We aren’t designed to view one million as a small number, but it is.  And it gets smaller every day.

But I’d still settle for selling half-a-million books because I’m humble like that.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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One Comment

  1. VultureTX
    Posted March 9, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    sales wise you are correct, that is why talk show hosts write books, because a million hardback sales is a million+ dollars, and that is usually their main source of actual profit.

    As for a million moms, well the rule is ten silent for each vocal one and they represent a specific buying group, thus they are magnified. The question becomes of the group that might buy how much of a percentage will million angry moms detract. Thus 330M americans is not actually part of the calculus.

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