Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage?


This article in last week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine is very interesting, I think. It seems to debunk a few popular myths about hit records and the conditions that create them. I’m posting it here in full as it probably will go Select soon.

As anyone who follows the business of culture is aware, the profits of cultural industries depend disproportionately on the occasional outsize success — a blockbuster movie, a best-selling book or a superstar artist — to offset the many investments that fail dismally. What may be less clear to casual observers is why professional editors, studio executives and talent managers, many of whom have a lifetime of experience in their businesses, are so bad at predicting which of their many potential projects will make it big. How could it be that industry executives rejected, passed over or even disparaged smash hits like “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter” and the Beatles, even as many of their most confident bets turned out to be flops? It may be true, in other words, that “nobody knows anything,” as the screenwriter William Goldman once said about Hollywood. But why? Of course, the experts may simply not be as smart as they would like us to believe. Recent research, however, suggests that reliable hit prediction is impossible no matter how much you know — a result that has implications not only for our understanding of best-seller lists but for business and politics as well.

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.

There’s nothing wrong with these tendencies. Ultimately, we’re all social beings, and without one another to rely on, life would be not only intolerable but meaningless. Yet our mutual dependence has unexpected consequences, one of which is that if people do not make decisions independently — if even in part they like things because other people like them — then predicting hits is not only difficult but actually impossible, no matter how much you know about individual tastes.

The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. 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.

Because it’s not possible in the real world to test theories about events that never happened, most of what we know about cumulative advantage has been worked out using mathematical models and computer simulations — an approach that is often criticized for glossing over the richness of real human behavior. Fortunately, the explosive growth of the Internet has made it possible to study human activity in a controlled manner for thousands or even millions of people at the same time. Recently, my collaborators, Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodds, and I conducted just such a Web-based experiment. 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.


So does a listener’s own independent reaction to a song count for anything? In fact, intrinsic “quality,” which we measured in terms of a song’s popularity in the independent condition, did help to explain success in the social-influence condition. When we added up downloads across all eight social-influence worlds, “good” songs had higher market share, on average, than “bad” ones. But the impact of a listener’s own reactions is easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to others. The song “Lockdown,” by 52metro, for example, ranked 26th out of 48 in quality; yet it was the No. 1 song in one social-influence world, and 40th in another. Overall, a song in the Top 5 in terms of quality had only a 50 percent chance of finishing in the Top 5 of success.

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. Because the long-run success of a song depends so sensitively on the decisions of a few early-arriving individuals, whose choices are subsequently amplified and eventually locked in by the cumulative-advantage process, and because the particular individuals who play this important role are chosen randomly and may make different decisions from one moment to the next, the resulting unpredictably is inherent to the nature of the market. It cannot be eliminated either by accumulating more information — about people or songs — or by developing fancier prediction algorithms, any more than you can repeatedly roll sixes no matter how carefully you try to throw the die.

This, obviously, presents challenges for producers and publishers — but it also has a more general significance for our understanding of how cultural markets work. Even if you think most people are tasteless or ignorant, it’s natural to believe that successful songs, movies, books and artists are somehow “better,” at least in the democratic sense of a competitive market, than their unsuccessful counterparts, that Norah Jones and Madonna deserve to be as successful as they are if only because “that’s what the market wanted.” What our results suggest, however, is that because what people like depends on what they think other people like, what the market “wants” at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history: there is no sense in which it simply “reveals” what people wanted all along. In such a world, in fact, the question “Why did X succeed?” may not have any better answer than the one given by the publisher of Lynne Truss’s surprise best seller, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” who, when asked to explain its success, replied that “it sold well because lots of people bought it.”

This lesson is not limited to cultural products either. Economists like Brian Arthur and Paul David have long argued that similar mechanisms affect the competition between technologies (like operating systems or fax machines) that display what are called “network effects,” meaning that the attractiveness of a technology increases with the number of people using it. But even in markets that don’t exhibit obvious network effects (like markets for low-carb or organically produced food, fuel-efficient vehicles or alternative energy technologies), sudden shifts in consumer demand can still arise, persist and then shift again. These shifts often come as surprises but are soon explained away as mere reflections of changing public sentiments. Yet while in some sense these markets do reflect what people want, that is true only of what they want right now. If markets not only reveal our preferences but also modify them, then the relation between what we want now and what we wanted before — or what we will want in the future — becomes deeply ambiguous.

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. But even a modest amount of randomness can play havoc with our intuitions. Because it is always possible, after the fact, to come up with a story about why things worked out the way they did — that the first “Harry Potter” really was a brilliant book, even if the eight publishers who rejected it didn’t know that at the time — our belief in determinism is rarely shaken, no matter how often we are surprised. But just because we now know that something happened doesn’t imply that we could have known it was going to happen at the time, even in principle, because at the time, it wasn’t necessarily going to happen at all.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to anticipate the future, any more than we should stop trying to make sense of the past. But it does mean that we should treat both the predictions and the explanations we are served — whether about the next hit single, the next great company or even the next war — with the skepticism they deserve.

Duncan J. Watts is a professor of sociology at Columbia University and the author of “Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age.”
Edit: It looks like it was actually published on April 15th
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I tried to make similar points (and others) in this thread, but didn't get much attention. Good to have some empirical backup!
I haven’t read the whole thread, but I think your ideas of applying some sort of mimesis concept to analyse pop culture are very reasonable. I don’t, however, necessarily think that the camp which stresses art’s intrinsic upheaving potential is wrong. This study but seems to underline that peer influence is the most contributing factor in determing whether a song goes stratospheric or not—it doesn’t disregard other aspects completely.


there are no accidents
what's funny is that if i'm downloading western rock'n'roll music, the popularity is not a factor in decision making at all -- if not have the inverse effect: i would go for the least popular ones. but if it was reggae, i do trust the majority view -- the hits tend to be the best.

obviously because the markets are different for a myriad of socio-historical reasons...


there are no accidents
and yes, atleast in the west, i do think Timberlake is a result of this - as well as most popular culture to some degree -- and i suspect that this degree is higher than what we'd like to think. maybe much, much higher. because we are a lot less independent thinkers than we'd like to believe.


I just dont know
its a very well written and rounded article. its also good to hear the empirical evidence to back the ideas. but surely the arguments are not particularly groundbreaking?

i think that the inverse effect that you speak of zhao is only applicable to an extremely small proportion of the market, i dont think the majority have such a conscious approach to popularity / tastemakers.

when we speak of JT as a 'product' of this effect, surely we're speaking purely in terms of popularity rather than merit?


when we speak of JT as a 'product' of this effect, surely we're speaking purely in terms of popularity rather than merit?
Unfortunately, I don’t think the writer makes it clear what he means by ‘popular’. Does he mean popular as in many downloads, or popular as in good ratings? I think he uses the second definition. If so, I would interpret him as writing that Timberlake’s popularity is a product of his merits and his popularity. The latter being much more important.


there are no accidents
so, thinking about history in terms of cumulative advantage... things that rise to the top, and having considerable cultural weight and influence on subsequent cultural products... all of human culture begins to resemble one big arbituary peer-pressured mob flocking to incidentally popular shit. :eek:


Hmm, I don’t think I expressed myself clearly enough up there. I think Borderpolice put it better in the What Is Good About Pop Music? thread:

We will not get further with
unraveling this mystery, as long as we don't understand how human
brains work, which most likely means never. What we can do is see how
people react to music in different contexts. Here the evidence in
favour of a strong mimetic element is overwhelming or at least seems
so to me. One can quite easily test this empirically by exposing
individuals to new music, on their own, with friends at a party,
surrounded by threatening strangers and so on. Don't you know the
feeling when you fall in love with somebody and suddenly start liking
the same music they do, even where you might have sniffed at what they
liked before you met them? On the other hand, as the example of
solitary development of musical preference shows, the mimetic approach
cannot be an exhaustive explanation for any individual's tastes, but
it seems to cover most of the social effects of music, that is, what
we can and do discuss.

‘To be sure, the phenomenology of the music experience would sometimes
be couched in terms of being hit and that's appropriate because
the mimetic aspects work on a level below consciousness before it it
becomes conscious where it often manifests itself as a sudden revelation,
so there's no contradiction.

Consider the simpler case of yawning: it is an irresistible force,
isn't it? Yet would you not agree that it can also clearly be
triggered by observing someone else's yawning?
What Borderpolice is saying, I think, is that you don’t take an active decision in liking Timberlake just because other persons seemingly do, but you subconsciously enjoy his music more because of his popularity. You enjoy him more, not because you are ‘supposed to’, or whatever, but deeply and sincerely.

As Zhao writes, not all people are like that. I would guess that most people in here are not. I know that I am not—at least not in terms of being particularly seduced by mass popularity. The example above, about starting to like what your lover likes, strikes closer to home, though.


but surely the arguments are not particularly groundbreaking?
What is groundbreaking, to me, is that peer influence seems to be so strong that any talk about musical quality is redundant. It’s popular because it’s popular. Period. (Arguably. ;))


Ghosts of my life
What is groundbreaking, to me, is that peer influence seems to be so strong that any talk about musical quality is redundant. It’s popular because it’s popular. Period. (Arguably. ;))
I disagree. Fundamentally the music has to be strong, or at least interesting and in touch or expressive of something close or true to the listeners, even if it might appear superficial to others. The mass record buying public aren't dumb, at least not when it comes to the higher-order megastars (Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Timberlake - who I think is as close as you can get to those guys these days - and so on).

What is at work here is nothing new and it manisfests itself in different ways in different communities at different times. Its the same principle when a music comes back into fashion, or when something written off as terminally unfashionable gets re-appriased. E.g. hipsters getting into metal again (cue cries of "I was always into it").


I just dont know
i know what you mean, but the results did show that the tracks rated highest by those with no information on popularity rose to the top on average across the other groups.

it seems to me that it does not necessarily detract from the artistic value of popular music, but rather puts it in appropriate perspective, highlighting the whimsy of popular opinion. because popularity is artificial doesnt mean that anything popular loses its merit, just that popularity shouldnt be used to attribute value

also, on a different scale and in a less straightforward manner, i personally am very aware of how much my tastes and interests are affected by others, whether media, blogs, websites, shops, whatever... clearly its not simply jumping on bandwagons, but complicated relationships of trust and taste and influence. its only natural, as the passage so eloquently articulates - we are social creatures, and it seems to me that we all (on some level) distil our sense of identity and individuality in relation to others... and taste is an element of that


there are no accidents
Fundamentally the music has to be strong
to be extremely negative:

Fundamentally, our ideas about what "strong" means is influenced by centuries and mellenia of the effects of Cumulative Advantage.


there are no accidents
Right. Whats your point?
well i was being extreme for the sake of playing devils advocate. it is an interesting thought though...

i do believe that Michael Jackson and Prince are very rare forces in pop music with unmatched brilliance and power, which has, and will continue to prove the test of time. i think they are amazing, improbable talents, and not just a result of Cumulative Advantage.

Tim F

Well-known member
At the risk of boringly belaboring the obvious, I think it's important not to think of this idea in relation only to generally ubiquitous (pop) culture phenomena such as JT, but also locally ubiquitous stuff as well.

e.g. I would imagine that if we look at, say, "freak-folk" music - which appears to value or at least be typified by marginalia, obscurity, a disconnectedness from commercial concerns - Animal Collective would be significantly more popular (in terms of sales) than any of the other artists or groups.

This may be partly due to certain musical properties, certain musical choices made (the Beach Boys resemblances, to use one example), but it's also part of cumulative advantage: when people want to investigate freak-folk, what is the name they hear first and most often?

I think that even the most "cluey" music fans are victim to this, especially when investigating new (to them) areas of music - there is often a tipping point where, through a combination of your own current or past tastes and the reception of critical/commercial noise, you feel compelled to check out a particular scene or sub-genre, at which point it's terribly difficult not to at least initially be beholden to the established heirarchies of quality/urgency/popularity as set by the scene's members, exponents and ambassadors.

I'm particularly interested in this w/r/t the vagaries of fashion within house music - esp. the way in which the current house/techno interzone continually negotiates and renegotiates the space between house sensuousness and techno abstraction - e.g. why is it that we are currently experiencing a "tipping point" moment of "back to deep house" in the form of Ame/Dixon/Ferrer etc? It's not as if this option wasn't available before. Any understanding of the winding of fashion at work would have to take into account:

a) the quality of the music being rallied to
b) how it represents itself or is being represented
c) its historical allusions
d) how contextually it fits into the history of fashion-development in the area (i.e. what is it about the music we were dancing to yesterday that makes us want to dance to [x] today)
e) how all of the above are then conditioned by cumulative advantage


Well-known member
I disagree. Fundamentally the music has to be strong, or at least interesting and in touch or expressive of something close or true to the listeners, even if it might appear superficial to others.
That's it for me; the artists that come to dominate an era express whats happening in fashion and various social groups or offer something new, i.e. from a mass perspective they are simply better artists or lightning rods for the collective consciousness at a given point in time.

Granted this is self-perpetuating, once an artist crosses a certain threshold they become definitive, but they don't rise to the stature of a MJ or Madonna in the first place if they aren't extremely relevant. The right packaging and image is naturally part of this.

Logan Sama

Cumulative accumulation would only be significantly distorting to popularity when comparing acts of a very similar level of ability.

Otherwise one would assume there would be more pressing factors involved, like not being shit, lazy or disorganized for example.