What if we could run history twice? (Would Madonna still be popular?)

One difficulty in the study of history is that, although you can make predictions, many are difficult to test. You can argue that the US would have still entered World War II even without Pearl Harbor, but the only way to know for sure is to re-run history without the Japanese sneak attack.

Similarly — and this is the point of the article — you can argue that Madonna rose to become perhaps the cultural icon of the 80s because she anticipated the zeitgeist of the times…or because of luck or good marketing or whatever. Who knows. We as Americans would like to believe that talent always rises to the top, although research shows actual social mobility is less impressive.

Duncan Watts and colleagues
at Columbia University dreamed up an ingenious scheme to essentially run history twice, harnessing the power of the Internet. They created a website (now closed, sorry) that allowed people to listen to and then download songs by unknown bands for free. The songs were all ranked according to how often they were downloaded.

The trick is that there were actually 9 different “worlds.” When you logged in, you were randomly assigned to one of these worlds. The information you saw about download activity was for your world only. (In one of the 9 worlds, you were given no information about download activity.)

Not surprisingly, people were more likely to listen to and download songs that other people had downloaded. This effect was much weaker in the world in which people didn’t know what other people were listening to.

What is more interesting is that how popular a song was in one world predicted how popular it would be in all the worlds pretty well, but not perfectly. That is, there were songs that tended to be extremely popular in all worlds, and there were songs that were extremely unpopular in all worlds. Otherwise, there was a lot of variability. There were some songs that were loved in one world but hated in others.

This experiment, at least, suggests that some people are destined to be stars, but not everybody who is a star was destined to be so. One thing this research doesn’t tell us is how to tell which is which. But it does narrow the range of options.

The experimenters were interested in social networks and not psychology, per se. From a psychology standpoint, one limitation of this study is that we don’t know whether people actually liked songs better because they knew that other people liked the songs. All we know is that they listened to songs that other people had downloaded, and that they were more likely to download songs that other people downloaded. Of course, it makes sense to listen to what other people are listening to, and you can’t download the song (in this study) until you’ve listened to it. Hopefully some future research will work this out.

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