Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Rich Really Do Get Richer

By Jeffrey S Savage

Ever wonder why the best selling books, movies, or music are the bestsellers? Is it because they are the best of the products that are out there? Did The Da Vinci Code sell so many copies because it was the best thriller? Is Harry Potter the best fantasy? Will the best authors, singers, and actors naturally rise to the top? Or is there more to it?

Ever wonder why publishers, recording companies, and movie studios have so much trouble duplicating previous successes? Why can’t an author just write a similar book? Why not just find a music group with a style and sound that is like the hot band?

Imagine for a minute that your favorite author, actor, or musician was given a chance to do it all over again. Would they still be the mega-star they are now? A recent study says no.

Recently a group of researchers at Columbia set out to test a theory. According to the theory, people tend to like what other people say is good. As social beings we are attracted to the TV shows other people are watching, the movies they go to, and the books they are reading.

According to the researchers, “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.”

This “rich get richer” effect states that a book which is slightly more popular at just the right time may exponentially take off far beyond the quality of that book. Like a snowball, the popularity grows—not necessarily because it is better, but just because it is popular.

“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.”

But how would you test such a theory? Just jump in your time machine and jump back a couple of decades? This is the truly ingenious part of the study. The researchers actually created different worlds via the Internet and loaded each world with music from bands most people have never heard of.

“In our study, published last year in Science, more than 14,000 participants registered at our Web site, Music Lab (, 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.”

So what do you think happened? Obviously people’s tastes differ, so one would not expect the results in each world to be exact. But with 14,000 participants there should have been enough consistency so that the best songs rose to the top while the worst songs dropped to the bottom right? Right?

I mean you’d never read an author (cough, cough, Dan Brown) just because everyone else was would you? You’d never watch a TV show (American cough Idol) just because everyone was talking about it? Right?

If we are all as independent minded as we like to think we are, the results of the tests should show that the best songs rose to the top in every world. Social influence should not play a role in which songs became hits.

“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.”

Ouch. Guess we’re not as independent thinking as we might have hoped. Apparently Julie and Sariah are huge Madonna fans because of social influence. And Kerry can’t get enough of Survivor because she’s been subtly brainwashed by the masses around her. And Rob—who knows why he can’t get enough of Brittany Spears (even after she shaved her head)?

In the at-least-we’re-not-total-lemmings news, individual preferences do place a significant role. In general the highest independently rated songs finished with the most market share in the influenced worlds, while the worst songs finished in the bottom half. But the impact of individual preferences were easily overwhelmed by the reactions of others.

“The song “Lockdown,” by 52metro, for example, ranked 26th out of 48 in quality; yet it was the No. 1 song in one social-influence world, and 40th in another. Overall, a song in the Top 5 in terms of quality had only a 50 percent chance of finishing in the Top 5 of success.”

So what does this say for us as writers? As many of us have suspected all along, luck plays a big role in who become the bestsellers. Coming in early, writing more books, getting a lot of press—all of these can affect sales. Even negative publicity can improve sales. The good news is that generally the best selling books are going to be reasonably well written.

As an author it is to my advantage to win over the early adopters. If I can get people talking about my book—even predicting how well it will do—it may actually become a self fulfilling prophecy.

But there’s a bigger picture as well. Take something like presidential ratings. If we read in the paper that the President’s ratings are going down, we are likely to rate him or her lower. This may explain why the race to elected office is starting earlier and earlier. Candidates understand that their popularity can make or break them months, or even years, before the actual election. “Everyone likes Candidate X” we may think to ourselves. “So undoubtedly that must be the best person for the job.”

Even scientific “facts” could possibly be swayed by consensus. Everyone knows the world is flat.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see a movie or read a book because you want to discuss it with your friends. Likewise it is perfectly natural to be influenced by what we hear from others. But I know that in the future I will be looking more closely at my own decisions to try and determine how much is influenced by what I think, compared to just going along with the crowd.

If you’d like to read the article for yourself (instead of just agreeing with me) you can access it at:


At 5/08/2007 8:27 AM, Anonymous rob wells said...

Jeff, thanks for posting this. Matthew Buckley pointed me to this article a few weeks ago, and I kept meaning to link to it here--but I'm too lazy. Thanks for the analysis.

And Britney Spears ROCKS, so you can shut up your stupid face.

At 5/08/2007 9:49 AM, Blogger Josi said...

We've all heard the term "Location, location, location" in regards to real estate, the reason being because if the location is good, more people see it and therefore know it's there, they will remember it and when in need of such a business, or if they know someone looking for it, they can't recommend a place they've never heard of, hence they go back to the 'location' they saw once upon a time. So, in media--"Promotion, promotion, promotion", the reason being because if the promotion is out there, then more people will see it and therefore know it is there. Chances are when they are then looking for a book, movie, magazine, etc, they will remember the one they saw advertised.

Fascinating stuff Jeff--and did I mention my book is out this week? Sheep's_Clothing. Fourteen out of ten people rated it as their favorite book ever written. Tell your friends :-)

At 5/08/2007 10:20 AM, Anonymous kerry said...

Interesting article -- and perceptive comments, as usual. I'm afraid it's true. I'd have never read Harry Potter (any of them) without the hype. I've even watched a television show or two because people have discussed them here. (Survivor isn't one of them.) I guess I really AM a sheep in Wolfe's clothing. (Wolfe is my maiden name.)

Speaking of Sheep's Clothing, I just heard about this new book that I have to buy so I can recommend! Everybody's talking about it, you know. If I didn't have to drive more than a hundred miles to find an LDS bookstore, I'd get it this morning and be on the cutting edge of public opinion for once! (Good for you, Josi! I really can't wait. I love all your books!)

Thank you, Jeff! I just love Tuesday mornings. I can always count on sitting down at the computer and learning something interesting, helpful and/or profound. (Or all three.)

Then ROB comes along later in the day and . . .

At 5/08/2007 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Britney Spears is a great example of marketing and promotion. She's not a great singer (sorry, Rob), but she's popular because they marketed her to the right group at the right time.

Sunjaya also comes to mind--how on earth did he stay on American Idol so long? Everyone else could out sing him any time, yet week after week he survived.

Harry Potter isn't the best written book, yet people wait in line at midnight to buy the next book. I remember all the publicity when it first came out and how people were up in arms because it was teaching kids to use black magic. That publicity helped push the book (and series) into bestselling status.

No matter how well written or amazing your book is, no one will buy it unless they know about it. Marketing is a key element to success.

Thanks, Jeff, for a great post. Word of mouth really does influence people.

Rebecca Talley

At 5/08/2007 12:04 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

I heard Sanjaya survived so long because there was a group of people who thought it was funny to have him on the show, so they banded together and voted like crazy to keep him on as long as they could. But that is heresay.

At 5/08/2007 2:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just started "Nothing to Regret" and I love it. What a great first chapter. It really took me into his head and made me think about how he was feeling and it made me mad that people would throw tomatoes and manure at his mother. How dare they!

My daughter did a History Day presentation on the Japanese Internment camps and was appalled at how these Americans were treated.

I'm going to hurry with all my "have to" stuff today so I can get back to your book!

Rebecca Talley

PS We're mean, but we jumped up and down with glee when Sanjaya finally went home. Nice kid, but can't sing in the same league as the others. (Of course, he can sing waaaay better than me!)

At 5/08/2007 2:55 PM, Blogger Josi said...

Howard Stern was one of the 'vote for the worst' people, there were also several websites that were urging people to vote for him in order to throw off the AI tallies, since AI said they will not manipulate votes and it's up to the voice of the people. They did it to some guy last year too.

Oh, and Kerry--you are my favorite person today! Thanks for the sweet comments, I needed em today

At 5/11/2007 4:52 PM, Blogger Jon said...

Ok, I am willing to admit it: I read DaVinci Code because it had been on the Best Seller list for so long. I was not displeased by it - I thought it was a great page-turner. (And Harry Potter is wonderful stuff - I don't care what you naysayers say!)

Music is a different story for me. While I do like some popular music, I'm more likely to enjoy indie music that no one's ever heard of. For example, how many of you have heard of:
King's X
Radio Iodine
The Bird and the Bee

Wonderful stuff - not big on the top 40 charts, though.

I'm curious about the article: how did they determine "top quality" songs? Isn't quality still kinda subjective?

for Rob: my favorite BS song: Soda Pop - no airplay and I can't figure out why. =(

At 5/15/2007 12:45 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...


The songs were rated best to worst according to the blind downloads and ratings. In other words, the opinions of the 50% of the people who couldn't see what anyone else thought.


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