Duncan Watts’ piece in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine (subscription required) sheds a lot of light on how cultural products make gains (or not) in popularity.  As Watts defines it cumulative advantage

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 . . .

Watts goes on to suggest that the main reason for this is that people are sheep.  Okay, that’s not fair.  What he says is that social influences have an effect on what becomes “popular”.  That is, none of us make decisions completely independently.  There’s always some sort of calculus of what others will like when it’s our turn to make choices.  In fact, if we’re given some indication of the choices that others have made (as was the case in the experiment that Watts and his collaborators ran with music downloads), the influence of others “played as large a role in determining the market share of successful songs as differences in quality.”

The takeaways, as Watts indicates, are as follows:

What our results suggest, however, is that because what people like depends on what they think other people like, what the market “wants” at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history.

More importantly, trying to predict future hits become nearly impossible.

If markets not only reveal our preferences but also modify the, then the relation between what we want now and what we wanted before—or what we will want in the future—becomes deeply ambiguous.

For marketers, this is troubling, since there’s clearly no predictability.  On the other hand, as David Jennings points out, “culture isn’t culture unless it’s shared.”  But in the sharing, cultural creations not only get amplified, they’re also changed and may change the receptivity of people who come into contact with them.

Hat tip to Futurelab for highlighting David Jennings’ writing on this subject.  For those interested in further discussion in the blogosphere on this article and subject of cumulative advantage, I’d suggest you start your search here.


Posted by Rob Fields