It’s late at night, and you’re looking for something to watch on TV. Do you choose the movie you’ve seen before or a new one you know nothing about?
For most people, each of these is appealing for different reasons. Novelty is exciting, but risky. Familiarity is comforting, but redundant. We all want some of each in our lives.
One of the biggest critiques about relevance is that it’s all about familiarity. Critics argue that relevance means dumbing down information, only giving people “what they want.” These critics are worried that, if given the choice, we will always chose to consume information related to what we already know. We’ll never open our eyes to anything new. We will stay trapped in the narrow swim lane of our own experience within a vast ocean of possibilities.
And yet we swim outside the lane again and again. The argument equating relevance with familiarity is overly simplistic. It ignores the reality that we all try something new once in awhile. Most of us do it with eagerness and pleasure—not pain. So what differentiates the circumstances where we choose familiarity and those where we choose novelty? How does relevance fit into these decisions?
Relevance theorists argue that the fundamental nature of relevance is not about familiarity. It is not about connecting something new with information you already have. It’s about how likely that new information is to yield conclusions that matter to you. To answer a question on your mind. To confirm a suspicion. To fulfill a dream. To set your path forward.
But remember the other piece of relevance theory: relevance is inversely correlated with effort. The harder something is to understand or connect with, the less relevant it will seem. And here’s where familiarity shines: it significantly reduces effort. When you’ve done something before, you’ve already made the connection. It’s much, much easier to do it again. Familiarity encourages cycles of repetition. It offers alternatives to the effort and risk involved in trying new things.
We may not crave familiarity, but we settle on it as a safe way to generate a reasonable amount of satisfaction. We go back to that restaurant. We read another novel by the same author. However, when we identify something new that could bring meaning into our lives without a whole lot of effort, we take the leap. We desire relevance, and we’re willing to take a risk and do some work to get it.
That’s why so many successful stories of relevance cloak something novel in something familiar. When the New World Symphony in Miami wanted to connect younger, urban residents with classical music, they created a new language for their concerts. They presented outdoor ”wallcast” productions, pairing visual art projections with live orchestral performances. Their marketing staff headed down to South Beach on the weekend to hand out “day of” advertisements for symphonic concerts alongside marketers pushing flyers for clubs and bars. The concert content was classical, but their form spoke the language of their urban, hip community. They tied something novel for young adults–live orchestral music–to more familiar experiences.
The Symphony didn’t change the music to reach new people. They changed the way young people saw classical music concerts, helping new audiences perceive the symphony as a relevant, compelling way to spend a Saturday night.
This change was not something most young adults could achieve on their own. For people unfamiliar with orchestral performances, it takes too many leaps of imagination–too much effort–for most people to decide that the symphony could fulfill desires for stimulation, social connection, and artistic pleasure. The symphony had to do the work to create the relevance, reduce the effort, connect the novel to the familiar, and help people open themselves to new, hopefully positive, experiences.
Too often, we expect people to do the work of manufacturing relevance on their own. They won’t. It’s too much work. Our brains crave efficiency. If it takes too many leaps to get from here to there, relevance goes down. The line need not be straight, but it must be clear, and short.
Imagine you are someone who yearns to live a creative life. Both a craft night and a theatrical production are relevant to your interests. They could each bring meaning to your life. But the craft night is free and the theater tickets are expensive. The craft night is at a friend’s house where you’ve been before and the theater is in an unfamiliar part of town. You can wear jeans to craft night; who knows what you wear to the theater? You weigh the options, and from an effort perspective, the choice is clear. You go to craft night.
Does that mean the theater is irrelevant to your interests? Not at all. It just takes too much effort to get to the point where your butt is in a seat.
Relevance isn’t about what you already know. It’s about what you’d like to know, where you’d like to go, and what experiences you think will help you get there. Ice hockey star Wayne Gretzky was famous for saying “I skate to where the puck is going.” Something is relevant when it is connected to where a person wants to go. What you want to know. Who you want to be.
But let’s face it: dreaming big, skating to where the puck is going—that’s hard work! It requires really knowing yourself, having a vision and goals for the future, and having some idea of the steps required to get there. It’s much easier if the institution can meet you in the middle, reach out a hand, and invite you in.
Many cultural experiences are new to people. Many people have never visited a museum, climbed a volcano, or prayed in public before. The novelty of these experiences doesn’t diminish the potential for these experiences to be relevant. They may be extremely relevant—to a person who wants to be an artist, wants to take on physical challenges, or wants a spiritual community. The challenge is not in the novelty but in the effort required to make a relevant connection. We have to help make the connection and reduce the effort. When we can do that, people will get off the couch and try something new.