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Scott Brown's Nostalgorithm for Pop-Culture Sensations

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Old 07-02-2008
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Scott Brown's Nostalgorithm for Pop-Culture Sensations
Oh, X-Files sequel. Like your subtitle says: I want to believe. I really do. But above all, I want to want. And I don't. What gives? I hearted you monstrously in the '90s. And I like knowing a sequel is out there, the same way I like knowing my AOL account is out there: comforting, but I feel no special urge to visit. I'm guessing I'm not the only one. Why is that? Why do some beloved pop fantasies evolve into mini-religions, while others fade like an old pair of Jams? Hollywood doesn't have the answer. They'll green-light just about anything, from a live-action He-Man movie to The Smurfs in 3-D. Our only hope here is science.
So I turn to a scientist — my former college roommate Noah Helman. Back in the '90s, he was our dorm's brainy, not-quite-as-hot Scully; I, its stubby Mulder, the believer. We used to watch The X-Files together, in real time, then debate it over warm Squirt. (These were the heady days before Television Without Pity.) Now he's a busy molecular biologist, but he agreed, for the sake of science, to help me determine the perfect "nostalgorithm" — a differential equation that will determine a pop object's nostalgic potential while explaining why a Thundercats movie intrigues, but the X-Files sequel leaves me cold. Let's begin with the simplest factor: Time (t). As any former Giga Pet owner knows, stuff peaks, then gets old. Thus:
Popular velocity (ΔPopularity/Δt) = -L x t
where L = probability of lameness.
Off its peak, we see exponential decay in Popular Velocity over time:
Popularity(t) = exp(-L x t) = e-Lxt
Translated crudely from the calculus, this simply means pop properties have expiration dates, like Lunchables or Tom Cruise. Or The X-Files, which has been off the air for six years now and was in steep decline four years prior to cancellation. And fan love doesn't steadily decline — it plummets as exposure (E) reaches an unhealthy level:
Popular velocity =
(-L x t) - L2 x (Popularity - E)3
Ergo: even worse news for The X-Files, one of the '90s more overexposed phenomena. But as Noah points out, non-awesome pop objects are primed to become awesome again. The X-Files is solidly non-awesome — so perhaps a popular re-awesomeness awaits it, è la Grunge, Trump, and Steel? Perhaps — but probably not this month. While what's old is eventually new again, it takes about a generation (tgen = 20 years) for kids to pick up what their parents discarded. And so:


Which gives us a swooping, hilly graph (see figure, above) and strands The X-Files movie in that sad little valley: 10 years off its peak popularity in 1998 — when the first film opened and attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince us that bees are scary. According to our formula, the proper release date for this X-Files movie is 2018 — not 2008. (That date satisfies the math but also halves David Duchovny's smolder-quotient.)
But time and generational reclamation aren't the only factors. (If so, where's that big-budget Airwolf movie?) There's also niche: Paranormal procedurals like Medium are milking the X meme, along with Lost, which regularly pits science against faith, but without the smoky will-they-or-won't-they (all due respect to authors of Jack/Locke yaoi fan-fic). What about the resurgence of Star Trek less than a decade after its cancellation? Space westerns must be the exception.
I ask Noah about these additional factors, and he asks me for a grant. Who needs him? I can blitz my way through this:


The graph for this one looks, well, kind of like Airwolf barebacking KITT. And I'm not sure it explains anything. But it has left me strangely, counterintuitively jazzed for this upcoming X-Files movie — all this reminiscing makes me want to catch up with Mulder and Scully and, hell, even Flukeman. This is the point where Noah throws his TI-73 at my head and pronounces me hopeless. Maybe no amount of ratiocination can capture the messy heuristics of true devotion. Maybe bees are scary. Is $10 really too much to pay to find out? Probably, but I'm doing it anyway. What can I say? I want to believe.
Email scott_brown@wired.com.


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