So I hopped into town for a satellite dish
I tied it to the top of my Japanese car
I came home and I pointed it out into the stars
A message came back from the great beyond:
There's fifty-seven channels and nothin' on"
90% of everything is crap.
This is not technically Sturgeon's Law, but rather Sturgeon's Revelation. Sturgeon's Law, properly formulated, is the broader Nothing is always absolutely so. But they mean effectively the same thing, and when people refer to "Sturgeon's Law", both on and off This Very Wiki, the "90%" quote is what they mean.
The idea is probably older than that, though. Benjamin Disraeli wrote in 1870: "Books are fatal: they are the curse of the human race. Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense."
In any event, the Law makes sense when you think about it. You can see it in action when the Creativity Leash is removed and anyone can publish anything without any real barriers to entry. Fields like Vanity Publishing and Fan Fiction seem to have much worse writers than professional publishing, but they're actually just reflective of Sturgeon's Law; publishers obscure their crap by rejecting it, and they'll tell you that it comprises 90% of what is submitted. In other words, it's not that published works are better on average; it's that you're just not seeing the crap it produces.
And publishers aren't the only filters of crap. Audiences have their own filters, like the Nostalgia Filter and the Import Filter, which skew certain genres away from Sturgeon's Law only because the crap has a hard time making it through the filter. Anyone who points out how much better classical music is than modern pop music based on percentage of non-crap is missing the fact that 90% of classical music was crap, but the crap was just buried into obscurity over the centuries.
Sturgeon's Law is borne out by actual, non-fictional science:
- The Dunning-Kruger Effect essentially says that the skills necessary in assessing how good you are at something are the same skills necessary for actually being good at something. In other words, the worse you are at something, the less likely you are to know how bad you are. This is the phenomenon that leads to someone being Giftedly Bad and fuels Sturgeon's Law.
- The related "Worse-than-Average Effect" states that competent people are more likely to evaluate their work as worse than it is. This kind of selects for Sturgeon's Law, in that good writers will be more hesitant to publish their work than bad ones, which in turn leads to over-representation of bad writers.
It's important to note that there's a bit of a spectrum of pessimism with respect to Sturgeon's Law. The most optimistic end of the spectrum admits that 90% of everything is crap, but posits that the remaining 10% is absolutely worth it. As one writer put it, "flipping through FanFiction.Net is like flipping through hell with an occasional slice of the heavenly cheesecake thrown in." The most pessimistic end of the spectrum posits that Sturgeon's Law is a baseline; in other words, at least 90% of everything is crap, and the percentage could be as high as 95%, 98%, or 99.99[vapor trail of 9s]%. The other side of the pessimism is the idea that the various filters (nostalgia, import, publication) aren't actually working, that 90% of all published work is crap, and the percentage of all works that are not crap is closer to one in a million.
Fandom being what it is, there are a lot of expansions, clarifications, and specific instances of Sturgeon's Revelation out there:
- Corollary 1: The existence of immense quantities of trash in science fiction is admitted, and it is regrettable, but it is no more unnatural than the existence of trash anywhere. This is essentially how we get from "90% of SF is crap" to "90% of everything is crap".
- Corollary 2: The best science fiction is as good as the best fiction in any field. Obviously, this doesn't necessarily follow from the Revelation. Sci-fi has its strengths and weaknesses compared to other genres, but most of them are quite incidental. Also, the proportion of good sci-fi compared to good works in other genres is obscured by differences in the raw numbers; if there are a thousand people writing sci-fi and a hundred thousand people writing everything else, well, you do the maths.
- Crawford's Corollary: Should you ever find that less than 90% seems to be [crap], your standard is too low and should be adjusted.
- Critic's First Corollary: 90% of people lack the taste necessary to distinguish between crap and non-crap.
- Critic's Second Corollary: 90% of people will criticise 90% of what they see, regardless of their ability to distinguish crap from non-crap.
- Ghetto Corollary: A "respectable" genre of fictional media will always be judged by the 10% of good works, but a stigmatised genre will always be judged by the 90% of bad works. We've classified the stigmatised genres in the Ghetto Index.
- TV Tropes' First Corollary: The difficulty of getting a fanbase to agree on exactly which 10% is not crap increases exponentially with the size of the fanbase. In other words, crap is in the eye of the beholder.
- TV Tropes' Second Corollary: Fanbases are perfectly happy to consume a portion of the genre they consider crap, but the difficulty of getting a fanbase to agree on exactly which portion of the "crap" part of the genre is worth consuming, and the size thereof, increases exponentially with the size of the fanbase. After all, we've got things like So Bad, It's Good and Guilty Pleasure; it's "crap", but we still enjoy it. But we've also got So Bad, It's Horrible and Epic Fail, and we generally don't enjoy it. The division between "crap you enjoy" and "total crap" is much more nebulous than the one between crap and non-crap; we don't even have a percentage for you.
- The Theorem of Narrow Interests: The more constrained the thing you're looking for, the fewer good examples exist.
- Evonix's Corollary: Crap is fractal. In other words, 90% of the crap is crappier than the rest, and 90% of the non-crap is still head-and-shoulders worse than the rest. And you can keep doing that division all the way down.
- Video Game Corollary: If a Video Game has user-created content, not only will 90% of it be crap, 90% of the crap will be obscene in nature. That 90% can be further divided into depictions of genitalia (male or female), fart jokes, and "LittleBigHolocaust", although that division is more nebulous because it relies on a particular game's ability and willingness to filter out such content.
- Yahtzee's Corollary: Everything is shit until proven otherwise. Yahtzee has sometimes referred to this as the "Guantánamo Bay approach" and elaborated further in one review: "Even if declaring a game to be shit after its first few hours of gameplay is perfectly professional, one should never assume that a game that starts out good will stay that way."
- Ruri's Law: The vast majority of people are idiots. Or, put another way, 90% of people are crap. In other words, you're probably crap.