The Frontal Cortex

Quality and Popularity

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 (, 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.


  1. #1 Jonathan Vause
    April 20, 2007

    I think 2) is much more important than 1) – even if most people correctly decided that Mozart was better than Madonna, they would rarely trust their opinion and speak out against a crowd. When making any subjective judgement, most people’s immediate thought is ‘what does everyone else think?’

  2. #2 Scott D
    April 20, 2007

    I always listen to the second song (or download sample) first. It’s usually the “hook” song that gives you a good idea of what th eband is about. Of course on Neko Case’s latest, her third song “Hold On Hold On” is the best, so the method doesn’t always work.

  3. #3 Scott Belyea
    April 20, 2007

    …success in the marketplace isn’t necessarily correlated with quality … we instinctively believe that if a song is popular, then it must be good.

    I actually don’t mean this questionj to be sarcastic – is this a serious post?

    If it is (yes, here comes the sarcasm), I can only look forward to hearing about a study that demonstrates with repeated observations that the sky is blue on a sunny day …

  4. #4 MattXIV
    April 20, 2007

    I don’t see how you can draw any implications about “quality” from this study. First, it’s pretty much impossible to objectively talk about the “quality” of music. I’d say that a big flaw with the study is that they used a good where there is no objective measure of quality. The quantity that they used (first impression of quality as independently determined) doesn’t have to correlate with the value the subject ultimately recieves for their choice, but the main alternative, measuring quality by polling satisfaction, suffers from confirmation bias and does not segregate social effects.

    When people have incomplete information and/or have a very large number of choices, they draw on the opinions of other people to help make educated guesses. The long-term value of a song isn’t readily apparent after a causal listen, so with 48 songs by artists unknown to the audience, it’s unsurprising that people are going to try piggybacking on other’s knowledge. Few people have never had the experience of listening to an album that was highly recommended to them where they didn’t hear the appeal until after repeated listens – Trout Mask Replica is a common example.

    Also, music is a somewhat unique case because it is consumed as part of social rituals and used expressively and to define group identity in a way that more mudane products aren’t. People often construct entire social identities around music and other cultural products. The fact that cultural products often lack objective standards of quality probably facilitate this, since different choices can be categorized as matters of preference instead of deriving from discrepancies in information or wealth and consuming an “inferior” product to afirm a group identity is unlikely to have material consequences.

  5. #5 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    April 20, 2007

    It’s a depressing moral: success in the marketplace isn’t necessarily correlated with quality.

    Depressing perhaps, but certainly not novel. The same conclusion has been clear in the computer OS marketplace for decades.

  6. #6 Science Avenger
    April 20, 2007

    Hasn’t American Idol proven this already?

    I’ve actually found I consistently like the songs that are around #12 on the list. The most popular tend to be the watered down ones.

    As for Trout Mask Replica, after 20 or so listenings, I gave up. I’d rather listen to Metal Machine Music.

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