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 (http://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.”
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: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/15/magazine/15wwlnidealab.t.html?pagewanted=2&ei=5070&en=5ba4dbbad63b1d1e&ex=1178683200