Digg, the echo chamber and Matthew

by Mathew on April 15, 2007 · 18 comments

Paul Kedrosky points to a fascinating study that was written about in the New York Times magazine this weekend (it figures that the one time I put aside the mag without reading it, it will have a fascinating story in it), which looked at the theory of “cumulative advantage.” This is also known as the Matthew effect — from the bible passage Paul quotes in his post — or the “rich get richer” effect.

snipshot_d41ctepx4c7o.jpgSimply put, the theory is that if someone is popular — for whatever reason, be it real talent or just blind luck — he or she is likely to become even more popular, since people tend to gravitate towards things that are already perceived as being popular. In the study that is written up in the NYT magazine, a team set up a website where more than 14,000 participants signed up 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.

The results showed clear evidence of cumulative advantage, says one of the authors of the study:

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.

As the author notes, this kind of social influence — which might as well be called the Digg effect — “didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.” And that definitely complicates the tendency to believe in the wisdom of crowds when it comes to music or just about anything else.

“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,” … 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.”

Fascinating.

Update:

As Ethan at blackrimglasses.com points out, this is also known as a “power law distribution” and can be seen in all kinds of behaviour, both online and off.

  • http://blog.stealthmode.com francine hardaway

    Isn’t this the old hypothesis of “laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone?” On another subject, check out the other good story in the Magazine, which is Friedman’s article about the geopolitical advantages of being green.

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  • http://www.webomatica.com/wordpress/ Webomatica

    Makes sense, as something like “quality” is very subjective, and in the absence of having enough information or the individuality to decide for oneself, it’s far easier to go with the social cues, because siding with the majority is certainly safer.

    In regards to digg, there is definitely some hard going in the first 40 or so votes, but if an article can get past that, it hits the front page and people will digg it even without clicking on the link and reading the story. I’m convinced of this. I think some just figure, if it’s on the front page it must have merit.

    And lastly, in regards to blogs, now I have a good explanation of why it’s good to have a chicklet displaying the number of RSS subscribers :)

  • http://marclafountain.com Marc LaFountain

    So, let’s say it’s true that once something reaches a certain level of popularity it will continue to get more popular. If so, I think that makes the concept of Influencers more important than ever. After all, someone had to be the first to download those songs in the test or the first to buy Madonna in the real world. Understanding who these early adopters are and what makes them tick may give us a handle on what creates the foundation of popularity.

  • http://www.hmtk.com HMTKSteve

    I feel like a broken record player but…

    Te Wisdom of Crowds only works when the members of the crowd are ignorant of what the other crowd members are doing. Digg is not about the Wisdom of Crowds.

    There is only one social site on the web that does follow the Wisdom of the Crowds mantra and that is StumbleUpon. (For the most part at least.)

    Digg is all about the mob mentality.

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  • http://www.robhyndman.com/2007/03/25/newspapers-im-not-dead-yet-or-dead-men-walking/ Rob Hyndman

    Hence the blogging A-list, surely.

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  • http://www.paradox1x.org Karl

    And hence, I take ClayShirkyRule credits by quoting him first in a thread on social software:

    Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality: “In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.”

  • http://www.paradox1x.org Karl

    Whups… missed that last link of yours :)

  • http://oclcyc.wordpress.com Jope

    No, seriously: the NYT realized this only now?

    This what the movie, music and even A-listers have based their marketing model on for a long time.

    This is the reason music labels don’t promote small bands, or the reason why the movie business is now creating more sequels or trilogies than ever…

    The experiment may have been interesting, but hardly new insights here, I think. Mind you, they could just have talked to the guys at amiestreet.com and asked for their data… ;)

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  • http://www.fiftyfoureleven.com Mike Papageorge

    As Ethan at blackrimglasses.com points out, this is also known as a “power law distribution” and can be seen in all kinds of behaviour, both online and off.

    Here’s a good read if you are looking at learning more about how this has been used offline. Pretty fascinating stuff…

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  • http://bizop.ca Michael Webster

    If you re-read the Wisdom of Crowds, you will find a chapter on information cascades.

    An information cascade destroys the value of the mean answers of crowd.

    Cascades are responsible for sudden surges in popularity.

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