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“Most Read” stories may be a matter of luck, not quality as research discovers ‘hits’ are almost random

Good news: trends probably aren’t started by cool kids who are way smarter and more influential than you or I. Instead, products and ideas catch on in society because we’re ready for them – and just about anyone can start up the the wave of acceptance for that new idea.
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Some of the critical research on this was published back in Feb 2006 in Science, the magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but most of us learned about it in a recent Fast Company piece by tech writer (and Canadian) Clive Thompson Is The Tipping Point Toast?
You remember the Tipping Point, a fascinating New Yorker article turned into a hit book by (another Canadian) Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell, struck by what he’d learned about the way epidemics hit a "tipping point" and moved suddenly from geometric to exponential growth, wondered if the same pattern was evident in society at large. Can ideas or behaviour be spread from person to person like a disease?
In his book he argued very persuasively that they could and outlined three rules that he thought governed this: The Rule of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Rule of Context. (Wikipedia has a decent summary of the rules here, )
 Marketers and the media seized on the first rule, which suggested that a very small number of people wielded enormous social influence and played the critical role in creating trends and hits – in getting things to the tipping point.
Some scientist have begun researching the idea in greater depth and are finding results that point in a very different direction — one of them, Duncan Watts, is the focus of Thompon’s article, Is the Tipping Point Toast? I think the piece relies on a kind of straw man argument that ignores the nuance and complexity of Gladwell’s book, but never mind. There’s some interesting research underlying it just the same. Probably the most interesting is the experiment Watts undertook with two other scientists: Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market.
Watts set up a music downloading site, populated it with 48 unknown songs by unknown bands and then recruited about 14,000 people to the site to listen to, download and rate the songs. The audience were (unbeknownst to them) divided into cohorts – some were absolutely unfettered and acted as individuals. Others were allowed to see (to greater and lesser extents) the choices and ratings of others as they made their choices.
Here’s how Thompson summarized their results:

In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs–and the bottom
ones–were completely different. For example, the song "Lockdown," by
52metro, was the No. 1 song in one world, yet finished 40 out of 48 in
another. Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between
merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song’s
success seemed to be due to merit. "In general, the ‘best’ songs never
do very badly, and the ‘worst’ songs never do extremely well, but
almost any other result is possible," he says. Why? Because the first
band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly
to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to
be mostly a matter of luck.

I wonder what this research should mean to news sites and our increasing efforts to let readers comment, rate and see each other’s comments and ratings?
photo courtesy Mara B’s photostream on Flickr

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