Sunday, April 22, 2007

Maybe we are all sheep

Like a lot of people, I've often wondered why "popular" often doesn't equate to "quality" in books, film and the like. There are a lot of explanations -- marketing, the lowest common denominator at work, or simply shrugging it off as evidence that the American public, by and large, are a bunch of dunces who really like fart jokes.

Turns out, though, that we're simply not the independent thinkers we think we are. Almost as important as reading a book we like is knowing that other people are reading it, too.

[Conventional marketing wisdom] makes a big assumption: that when people make decisions about what they like, they do so independently of one another. But people almost never make decisions independently — in part because the world abounds with so many choices that we have little hope of ever finding what we want on our own; in part because we are never really sure what we want anyway; and in part because what we often want is not so much to experience the “best” of everything as it is to experience the same things as other people and thereby also experience the benefits of sharing.

There’s nothing wrong with these tendencies. Ultimately, we’re all social beings, and without one another to rely on, life would be not only intolerable but meaningless. Yet our mutual dependence has unexpected consequences, one of which is that if people do not make decisions independently — if even in part they like things because other people like them — then predicting hits is not only difficult but actually impossible, no matter how much you know about individual tastes.

The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory. Thus, if history were to be somehow rerun many times, seemingly identical universes with the same set of competitors and the same overall market tastes would quickly generate different winners: Madonna would have been popular in this world, but in some other version of history, she would be a nobody, and someone we have never heard of would be in her place.

Oh sure, you say. Nice theory, but c'mon. How do you prove that?

Like this.

In our study, published last year in Science, more than 14,000 participants registered at our Web site, Music Lab (www.musiclab.columbia.edu), and were asked to listen to, rate and, if they chose, download songs by bands they had never heard of. Some of the participants saw only the names of the songs and bands, while others also saw how many times the songs had been downloaded by previous participants. This second group — in what we called the “social influence” condition — was further split into eight parallel “worlds” such that participants could see the prior downloads of people only in their own world. We didn’t manipulate any of these rankings — all the artists in all the worlds started out identically, with zero downloads — but because the different worlds were kept separate, they subsequently evolved independently of one another.

This setup let us test the possibility of prediction in two very direct ways. First, if people know what they like regardless of what they think other people like, the most successful songs should draw about the same amount of the total market share in both the independent and social-influence conditions — that is, hits shouldn’t be any bigger just because the people downloading them know what other people downloaded. And second, the very same songs — the “best” ones — should become hits in all social-influence worlds.

What we found, however, was exactly the opposite. In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.

It turns out that an independent assessment of "quality" is a factor; quality songs tended to be popular in all the worlds. But it turns out it's only a factor, not the factor or even the biggest factor.

So "Bridezilla" and it's ilk isn't going to disappear from the airwaves anytime soon. But we can take comfort in the knowledge that it's not because we're Philistines; it's because being part of a group experience is more important to our brains than the fine details of what that experience is. Opera or "Jackass": as long as you've got company, it's all good.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Thad said...

Here is a comic you might find funny about cumulative advantage:

http://www.thadguy.com/comic/meritocracy-of-democracy/33/

4/22/2007 12:14 PM  

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