Hitmakers Have Randomness And Cumulative Advantage To Thank For Their Success

Duncan J. Watts, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, along with collaborators Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodd are conducting a Web-based experiment in predictability and consumer preference (for music) at MusicLab.Columbia.edu.
On Sunday, conclusions from their data was spread far and wide via the New York Times Magazine.

Recent research suggests that reliable hit prediction is impossible no matter how much you know. Conventional marketing wisdom holds that predicting success in cultural markets is mostly a matter of anticipating the preferences of the millions of individual people who participate in them. The common-sense view, however, 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. 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.

Scott Karp is pretty jazzed about this new theory.

Oh, how sweet the irony — Web 2.0’s radical openness and transparency, combined with its intensely social nature, are precisely why it brings you the best of nothing.
In an open Web 2.0 system, with a randomly chosen group, it’s impossible to generate anything other than arbitrary results. Web 2.0 glorifies the “social,” but in an open system, social behavior becomes “monkey see, monkey do.”
As for Web 2.0 winners, is MySpace better than Orkut? Are A-List bloggers smarter or more interesting than Z-List bloggers? Is TechCrunch better than Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, and GigaOm? Are stories on the front page of Digg better than a bunch of random junk?
If you believe the theory of cumulative advantage, the answer is — NO!

I find the above sentiments difficult to digest, but as a creator of content (who would like to occasionally give birth to hits) I take this away—NEVER GIVE UP and GET UP TO THE PLATE A LOT.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.