What makes an Ideas story blow up? We have some theories. For our last issue of the year, we’re drawing back the curtain on the articles that you, our readers, turned into 2014’s top 10 most popular online hits. Together, these stories reflect both some of the central preoccupations of 2014, and the interests of a very curious audience.
From the real puppet masters in Washington to the psychology of amusement parks, from America’s tortured racial past to the mysterious document that’s lured scholars to “academic suicide” for a century, here are the stories you and your fellow Ideas fans flocked to read—and, with hindsight, here are our theories about what made these particular pieces so popular. See you in 2015!
1. Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change, by Jordan Michael Smith (10/19)
What: An interview with Tufts political scientist and Washington insider Michael J. Glennon, who argues in “National Security and Double Government” that it’s the unmoving bureaucracy or “double government” behind our elected officials that really calls the shots.
Key quote: Glennon: “The ultimate problem is the pervasive political ignorance on the part of the American people. And indifference to the threat that is emerging from these concealed institutions.”
Why it blew up: From the far-left Occupy movement to the far-right Free Republic forum, everyone complains that nothing ever changes in Washington. Here’s an explanation—which would sound like a cynical conspiracy theory if it didn’t come from a respected, authoritative source. This hit interview allowed frustrated readers to shout in chorus: “See, I was right!”
2. Why Massachusetts should defect from its time zone, by Tom Emswiler (10/5)
What: A case for ditching the Eastern Time Zone—which works for the more western New York, but which meant Boston lost daylight at 4:11 p.m. on the earliest sunset this month. Instead, we could keep our clocks as they are in summer, and never fall back at all.
Key quote: “More evening daylight could be part of a broader solution to retain the bright young people who come to New England...[but then] find themselves with options in New York, where the shortest day extends to 4:28, or Palo Alto, where it’s 4:50!”
Why it blew up: You guys sure do hate the endless darkness of the New England winter. Late risers embraced this idea passionately; early birds were less impressed, noting that Atlantic Standard Time would mean it was dark until 8:14 a.m. some days. The dirty truth: We can’t extend the sunshine, only adjust the clocks.
3. The poor neglected gifted child, by Amy Crawford (3/16)
What: A long-running Vanderbilt University study found that ultra-high-scoring 12-year-olds really do become exceptional adults. The problem: Many schools don’t do much to support these brilliant kids, so some don’t live up to their potential—effectively depriving our country of an important resource.
Key quote: Researcher David Lubinski: “These are the people who are going to figure out all the riddles....But they are not given a lot of opportunities in schools that are designed for typically developing kids.”
Why it blew up: There are a lot of smart kids out there—and a lot of parents concerned that theirs won’t get the support to live up to their potential.
4. An uncommon household: The history of an early American same-sex marriage, by Rebecca Onion (6/13)
What: An interview with historian Rachel Hope Cleves, who in “Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America” wrote about a Weybridge, Vt., couple who fell in love in 1807.
Key quote: Cleves: “Charity and Sylvia...were able to create a publicly recognized marriage and gain the toleration of their community, many of their family, and many of their friends. But their relationship was always vulnerable, because it wasn’t a legal one.”
Why it blew up:In 2014, 18 new states began performing same-sex marriages, while Massachusetts marked the 10-year anniversary of its own law. Charity and Sylvia’s story struck a chord by attesting that similar partnerships existed in New England as long as two centuries ago, just without a license.
5. Hiking while black: The untold story, by Francie Latour (6/20)
What: An interview with University of California Berkeley geographer Carolyn Finney about her book “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.”
Key quote: “If African-Americans don’t figure in our notion of America’s great outdoors...it is also because of how the story has been told, and who has been left out—black pioneers and ordinary folk whose contributions to the land have long gone ignored.”
Why it blew up: As summer dawned, one group of Americans wondered why they are stereotyped as non-outdoorsy, while proponents of the great outdoors wondered how they could bring everyone into the tent. Finney had the backstory (and counterexamples).
6. Gentrification: White people following white people, by Kevin Hartnett (8/6)
What: A Brainiac post on a Harvard study that used Google Street View to track gentrification and found that white people tended to move into areas that were already 35 percent or more white.
Key quote: “Money and advantageous policies tend to flow to areas that already have a critical mass of white people. As a result, gentrification may be remaking cities, but only along the social contours that already exist.”
Why it blew up: Harvard, Google, the ambiguously disturbing idea that even gentrification follows racial lines: a recipe for success (or outrage).
7. What is YOLO? Only teenagers know for sure, by Ben Zimmer (8/26/12)
What: A Word column from two years ago, about a slang acronym for “you only live once” popular with young people but (then) unknown to their parents. You may only live once, but the YOLO column lives forever.
Key quote: “If you are over 25, YOLO likely means nothing to you. If you are under 25, you may be so familiar with YOLO that you’re already completely sick of it.”
Why it blew up: Because, somehow, there are thousands of people who still haven’t heard.
8. How amusement parks hijack your brain, by Leon Neyfakh (6/22)
What: Fear! Novelty! Anticipation! Corn dogs! Over decades, amusement parks have been finely honed to make you love them, spend all your money, and come back for more. Leon Neyfakh talked to scientists, historians, and even a signage expert to find out how.
Key quote: “Step right up and enjoy the ride, as we take you inside the anatomy of a typical amusement park: a machine engineered for your conscious and subliminal delight, surprise, and excitement.”
Why it blew up: Because reading about the joy of the amusement park, with experts and colorful graphics thrown in, is the next best thing to going to one.
9. Where slavery thrived, inequality rules today, by Stephen Mihm (8/24)
What: Economists have found that both whites and blacks have less upward mobility in areas where slavery was prevalent—and started to piece together an explanation.
Key quote: “In lands turned over to slavery...there was little incentive to provide so-called public goods—schools, libraries, and other institutions—that attract migrants. In the North, by contrast, the need to attract and retain free labor in areas resulted in a far greater investment.”
Why it blew up: It’s both fascinating and horrifying that a system abolished more than 150 years ago is still compromising economic mobility today.
10. Why scholars can’t resist the uncrackable Voynich manuscript, by Ruth Graham (2/23)
What: A burst of new theories emerged about a beautiful and mysterious manuscript held at Yale University. Written in an unknown or uncrackable code or language—or possibly in gibberish—it has confounded experts from an astonishing range of disciplines since 1912.
Key quote: “Academic suicide.” “Kryptonite.” “The likelihood that it’s fake is not zero.” “The Voynich is the Mount Everest of the genre and the K2 at the same time.”
Why it blew up: A fiendishly unanswerable riddle driving physicists, botanists, cryptographers, linguists, and psychologists insane, with stunning illustrations? Who wouldn’t read about that?
Amanda Katz is the deputy editor of Ideas. You can follow her on Twitter @katzish