Cumulative advantage versus the wisdom of crowds

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by: David Jennings

There's an interesting article in Sunday's New York Times about how we arrive at collective judgements of cultural products.

Conventional marketing wisdom holds that predicting success in cultural markets is mostly a matter of anticipating the preferences of the millions of individual people who participate in them. From this common-sense observation, it follows that if the experts could only figure out what it was about, say, the music, songwriting and packaging of Norah Jones that appealed to so many fans, they ought to be able to replicate it at will. And indeed that’s pretty much what they try to do. That they fail so frequently implies either that they aren’t studying their own successes carefully enough or that they are not paying sufficiently close attention to the changing preferences of their audience.

The common-sense view, however, makes a big assumption: that when people make decisions about what they like, they do so independently of one another. But people almost never make decisions independently — in part because the world abounds with so many choices that we have little hope of ever finding what we want on our own; in part because we are never really sure what we want anyway; and in part because what we often want is not so much to experience the "best" of everything as it is to experience the same things as other people and thereby also experience the benefits of sharing.

It's written by Duncan Watts, one of the Columbia University professors whose research on an artificial market for unsigned bands I draw on at some length in the Wise and Foolish Crowds chapter of the book.

I won't summarise the study again here: it's covered in different ways in the abstract and the NYT article. But the extract above expresses why sales charts are not good examples of the Wisdom of Crowds. In his book on the Wisdom of Crowds effect, James Surowiecki explains that the magic of the effect — when two million wrongs do make a right, because all of the 'wrong' elements cancel each other out — depends on several conditions. Foremost among these conditions is the independence and diversity of different people's judgements. As the article explains, when people are looking for new music to explore, they are not independent.

I describe this in terms of flocking behaviour. We all do it. If you see a mass of people flocking or swarming to check out the new Arctic Monkeys album, or the latest site that's been Slashdotted and Dugg, it's natural to imagine that there must be something worth looking into. Another factor is that culture isn't culture unless it's shared, at least with a small number of people. We want to explore the things that other people are exploring so that we can be part of their discussions and also get to know each other better through our shared experiences and the tastes we do and don't have in common.

All this could lead us in the direction of a kind of cultural mob rule. That's something that people like Jaron Lanier have worried about. Thankfully there are social forces that counteract flocking behaviour as well. They come, for example, in the shape of the outspoken, the eccentric and the plain snobbish individuals among us who react against the mob, declare that the emperor has no clothes, and reintroduce some independence into the mix. These are the people who wouldn't be seen dead with a Norah Jones album in their collection, but will wax lyrical about more obscure and overlooked artists who, they claim, are more deserving of our success. Often they are ignored, but that won't stop them, and sometimes they start new flocks of their own.

Whether these maverick voices are right or wrong, they help break out of what the NYT article calls "cumulative advantage" where the rich keep getting richer. They re-inject some dynamism into our culture. And blogs are just the kind of platform to enable their voices to be heard.

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