When I discover a new band* I follow a set routine. I go to the Itunes store and start sampling the songs that are most often downloaded. I tacitly trust in the wisdom of crowds and assume that more popular songs are better, or at least catchier. It turns out that I’m wrong. Here’s Duncan Watts, a sociologist at Columbia:
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’s a depressing moral: success in the marketplace isn’t necessarily correlated with quality. I imagine this is for two reasons: 1) humans are bad at judging quality and 2) we are social animals, highly attuned to status. What little talent we have for evaluating talent is quickly overwhelmed by our appraisals of popularity. As a result, we instinctively believe that if a song is popular, then it must be good.
*Recent infatuations include TV on the Radio, Neko Case and the new Bright Eyes album, Cassadega. All are of very high quality, even if they are popular.