How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 6)

NUSSBAUM We do want it [The Approval Matrix] to be useful. Somebody told me that they were sitting on a subway and they saw somebody circling things on it. That was really cool, I suppose it was things they wanted to see.

ROBERTS Exactly!

NUSSBAUM I thought that was really great. There are the two reactions that I like the most: people finding it really useful and also people arguing with it. It was always interesting to trigger an argument where people just have a conversation about how good or bad something was in relation to something else. We actually made a little bit of a specialty in the Culture section in general of doing quasi-mathematical charts. We did a crazy guilt/pleasure index for reality television as a way of covering reality television. The other big one was when Sternbergh and I collaborated on this thing called The Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations. I don’t know that you’ve seen that. That’s the flowing time chart that shows how things move from buzz to saturation point, how good people think things are going to be, to backlash to backlash to the backlash. We’ve done a few mathematical things. But they’re kind of tricky. We tried to come up with others but sometimes they just didn’t work. Or were too complicated. It’s hard to come up with anything original just because magazines, this is their stock in trade. The thing I do really love about The Matrix and I did feel really proud about, was the fact that… I felt like it managed to combine a bunch of things in a good way.

ROBERTS Like what? What did it combine?

NUSSBAUM It’s fun to respond to, so it’s an entertaining thing. It allows us to have a final say on the culture for the week. In a magazine sense, it closes the section nicely. And it’s kind of a destination place, people open the magazine and go to it.

ROBERTS That’s very true.

NUSSBAUM Give a quick shot of wit and humor.

ROBERTS It’s easy, pretty easy.

NUSSBAUM On the one hand it’s easy and reductive. On the other hand, I’m telling you, I guess people who are just not mathematically-minded at looking at charts: I don’t get it. I don’t get it.

NUSSBAUM They don’t understand how charts work. I had somebody say: I don’t like it, it makes me feel dumb, it makes me angry. I mean, I think it’s clever but it’s not THAT smart.

ROBERTS They didn’t understand what the placement of the points meant? Is that what you’re saying?

NUSSBAUM Exactly. This wasn’t an uncommon reaction. There was a moment when it first came out where people felt like they had to work to understand it. I don’t think that was a bad thing. There was also a question of the tone of it. We had a meeting early on, when we first put out the section, where there was a discussion about whether it was too kind of snarky, bloggy, online, maybe juvenile in its sensibility, whether that was in some way problematic, or didn’t match what the rest of the section was supposed to be. I never agreed with that. But it’s always a discussion because when you have something that’s funny and punchy in that way, there’s the question of: Is it going to be sour and kind of rim-shot-ish, like it’ll just be a roast? To me it doesn’t feel like that at all. And obviously we celebrate things. A whole half of it is about things we think are brilliant! So those were the main points of debate. One of them was tonal, one of them was the idea of acting as if there really was a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow. And then, that’s it.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

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