Quality Is What People Say It Is

Have you ever heard somebody say that a show was an artistic success, but not a commercial one? Sure, you have. Recently, I even read about a show that was described as a critical AND commercial failure, but an artistic success.

What do you think about that? Is such a thing possible?

Sure it is. Because quality is what anybody — anybody at all — says it is.

That may sound absurd, but it’s not. Here are a couple of stories that help make my point:

Back in business school, I heard a story about a successful office furniture company that was famous for its incredibly well-built, durable filing cabinets. It was losing market share to companies making cheap plastic filing cabinets that cost a fraction of what this company’s cabinets cost, but were not nearly as well built. The CEO reached his boiling point one day and said, “How can people buy this garbage? Our cabinets are the best. You could throw one out of a third story window, and you’d still be able to use it!”

One of the VPs gulped and said, “Yeah, but boss, nobody does that.”

Here’s another story: This one is more recent and probably truer. You probably assume that that when diners evaluate restaurants, cleanliness is very important. You’d mostly be right, but not always. In the study described here, researchers matched up reviews from a “popular online restaurant review site” with Los Angeles County Health Department ratings. They also reviewed the written comments on the site, creating a score for the frequency with which reviewers called each restaurant “authentic.”

If your restaurant is “authentic” enough, being dirty not only doesn’t hurt your overall reviews, it may even help, according to the correlation. Something highly measurable, objective and potentially impactful on a person, like health and cleanliness, stops mattering when another consideration, like “authenticity,” takes over. Something disgusting that would drive a Yelp or Eater user out of one restaurant makes them feel like they’ve discovered a treasure if they find that restaurant to be “authentic,” whatever that means.

And I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m saying that in one restaurant cleanliness is important to quality and next door it’s not, for the very same person.

In live entertainment, quality is less about some objective standard of excellence and achievement, but more about who feels that it’s excellent and worthwhile, and how enduring that belief is.

So, it’s not ridiculous for somebody to say that something was hated by critics and audiences alike, but is still great. Fair enough. But is that audience of one important or valuable enough? Probably not. But maybe that one person is the world’s next great artist, and his or her work is going to change the world.

Is it enough that millions of people like an Ariana Grande song? Maybe, at least for now. If she wants an enduring career, possibly not. She’ll need more.

Don’t get stuck on the idea of quality. Try to do great work, definitely, but remember that people define quality however they want.

And they can be weird about it. Just ask the restaurant owners with high health scores and low online ratings.

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