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Watts, Duncan. "Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage?"

Watts, Duncan. "Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage?" New York Times Sunday Magazine. April 15, 2007. [link]

I've been meaning to blog this for almost a week now...


This essay begins with the common-sense position that the culture industry should be better than they actually are at figuring out which books, music, movies, etc., will succeed. But this position assumes that "when people make decisions about what they like, they do so independently of one another. But people almost never make decisions independently."

Instead, they rely on the recommendations of others, in the form of bestseller lists, word of mouth, etc. The social process by which we consume culture leads to "cumulative advantage":

This 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 — 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.

To test this idea, Watts and collaborators set up a website called "MusicLab" where they made mp3s available for listening and download. Visitors "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."

And the result was that the social influence worlds varied widely, not only from the control group, but from each other as well.

"In our artificial market, therefore, social influence played as large a role in determining the market share of successful songs as differences in quality. It’s a simple result to state, but it has a surprisingly deep consequence."

Watts closes with caution about any type of prediction or analysis under such circumstances: "Our desire to believe in an orderly universe leads us to interpret the uncertainty we feel about the future as nothing but a consequence of our current state of ignorance, to be dispelled by greater knowledge or better analysis."


I should probably summarize the piece better, but I may do so once I've downloaded and digested the version of this article that appeared in Science.

The significance of this piece, as far as I can tell, is that it provides a model for empirically testing of the cumulative advantage hypothesis, and as Watts notes at the end of the NYT piece, it's a hypothesis which runs against the grain of a great deal of our commonsense thinking when it comes to culture. The idea that publishers, music execs, Hollywood vets, etc., have an "eye for talent" and are capable of predicting success may be even thinner than we suspect.

And of course this has serious implications for any discussion of canonicity, which is rapidly becoming one of the chapter themes as I think about what this book will look like. It's not just that this supports the notion of canonicity, although the CA hypothesis certainly does that. What's really interesting is the degree to which the process of canonicity is an arbitrary one--once the ball is rolling, the rich get richer, but the MusicLab work suggests that there's no necessary "rich," that the initial conditions can vary from "world" to "world."

I'm not sure I'm explaining this particularly well, but it raises questions about the motivations behind canonicity, or the presumed prevalence of such motives.