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Hitsville, USA, Increasing Returns, and Path Dependence

Tom Slee writes:

Whimsley: Predicting hits may be like predicting the weather: [P]hysicist turned sociologist Duncan Watts writes about how cultural hits may be, like the weather, impossible to predict. It comes down to how much we like stuff because it's good and how much we like it because other people like it. If it's the latter, then it becomes impossible to predict at some point. What's nice is that they did some experiments to demonstrate some of this in the lab.... A side effect of this would be that there is a strong limit to the effectiveness of recommendation schemes from Amazon and Netflix and so on.... Here's a few paragraphs from the article:

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.... 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 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.... Ultimately, we’re all social beings... our mutual dependence has unexpected consequences, one of which is that... when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage.”... random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors.... 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.