Taste on the Margin

For the most part, taste doesn’t really matter. The wide majority of us can agree when something is good, or when something is bad. It’s only when taste is on the margin that interesting things start to occur.

Most people agree that the best film of all time is The Godfather (in particular, Part I). It’s not that The Godfather is everyone’s favorite movie — in fact, far from it. I have met very few people who claim that The Godfather is their favorite film of all time; yet when they have to choose an objective best film ever made, it typically goes to that film.

You see similar patterns in other media. For video games, it’s The Ocarina of Time. For music, it’s Dark Side of the Moon (though Radiohead fans would like to disagree). There always seems to be an agreed upon work or group of works that tend to take all of the top spots, and roughly 80% of people agree upon their placements. It also works on the opposite end — most people agree on what the worst works are as well. 

This seems to imply that our tastes usually aggregate in the same ways. We may have some differences, but the point is that if you get 1,000 people to vote on their favorite movie, a pretty clear pattern at both tail ends appears. It’s not a completely equal distribution.

But what if we look at the places where it is an equal distribution? In that messy middle, where people have a lot harder of a time agreeing upon what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s meh?

It’s in this place where people’s tastes actually shine through. I’ll give an example in video games, because it’s the easiest medium to make this distinction. A video game is typically judged by four aspects: gameplay, story, music, and art. For a game at the top tail — such as Ocarina of Time — it excels at all four aspects. For a game at the bottom tail — Superman 64 — it fails in all four aspects.

In the middle, you have games that are weighted in different manners. For example, Devil May Cry 3 is primarily gameplay-focused, but doesn’t really have a story. On the other hand, Uncharted 2 has a riveting story, but it’s gameplay is bland and basic. Both of these games are overall pretty well received, but they aren’t in the top tail. So who likes which game?

You can probably already see where this is going. Just as works are weighted differently, tastes are weighted differently as well. A person who enjoys gameplay more than story is going to claim that Devil May Cry 3 is a better game than Uncharted 2, and vice versa. A person who likes hip hop music is going to rate albums in the middle higher if they are hip hop, than if they are country. A person who prefers light-hearted, clear-cut movies are going to rate those movies higher than others.

So this is where taste really comes into play. It also proves that there’s not really such thing as “good taste” or “bad taste”. A taste being good/bad implies that there is a correct answer to a rating of each work. Perhaps this can apply to works in the tail ends, but it can’t apply to those in the middle. Tastes are inherently subjective, because they are based on weighted preferences. Not only that, but they are preferences that usually change over time. 

Still, it’s great to understand your own taste. After going through hundreds of movies, games, albums, and books, I feel like I have a much better understanding of myself than I did previously. I can infer things about the type of person I am based on what I enjoy — things I myself did not even realize. So go ahead — explore the margin. You never know what you’ll find.

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