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Beyond Social Currency

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A research study I like enough to have blogged about it a few times is Princeton sociologist Matt Salganik‘s dissertation work on music preferences and social contagion. For those unfamiliar with this work, here is the abstract of his Science article “Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market” (co-authored with Peter Dodds and Duncan Watts):

Hit songs, books, and movies are many times more successful than average, suggesting that “the best” alternatives are qualitatively different from “the rest”; yet experts routinely fail to predict which products will succeed. We investigated this paradox experimentally, by creating an artificial “music market” in which 14,341 participants downloaded previously unknown songs either with or without knowledge of previous participants’ choices. Increasing the strength of social influence increased both inequality and unpredictability of success. Success was also only partly determined by quality: The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.

The result is hardly surprising to anyone familiar with the history of pop music. But I’m intrigued by the possibility that technology is simultaneously pulling music as a social phenomenon in two opposite directions.

On one hand, YouTube and social networks may actually be amplifying the positive feedback of music popularity. The recent story of YouTube sensation Greyson Chance (yes, a 13-year old with his own Wikipedia entry) becoming a national phenomenon in a couple of weeks attests to the power of social contagion. I don’t mean to take anything away from Chance’s talent, but I feel safe asserting that his talent was necessary but hardly sufficient to achieve his popular success.

On the other hand, Internet radio services like Pandora and Last.fm, despite their social features, offer the possibility of drastically reducing the effect of social influence. Both of these services require users to provide some representation of their musical tastes as initial inputs, whether by selecting preset stations or using particular artists or songs as seeds. Presumably those tastes are in large part the product of social influence. But the subsequent interaction between users and these services is relatively buffered from social influence. Users hear songs while listening privately through headphones–in many cases at work or while commuting. No one else is around when those users decide how to rate what they are listening to.

Granted, social context will always seep in–I don’t think I could give a thumbs-up to a Justin Bieber song even in the privacy of my own Pandora profile. But much of the music I discover is from artists I’ve never heard of–and thus evaluate without the explicit social influence of preconceptions about those artists.

As it turns out, I often discover after the fact that a number of the artists I like have achieved popular success. I can’t tell whether that reflects on their objective music quality, my own conformity of musical taste, or skew on the part of the recommendation system (cf. does everything sounds like Coldplay?). Still, I’m quite sure that I’m not favoring music based on prior knowledge of its popularity –for the most part, I don’t have that information at the time that I decide whether I like a song. Indeed, I hear new music almost exclusively through Pandora.

I don’t know how exceptional I am as a media consumer, but I suspect my case is increasingly common. Perhaps we are heading into a world where there will be a split between musical taste as social currency vs. musical taste as purely personal pleasure. It’s harder for me to imagine books or feature-length movies becoming so divorced from social context, if only because consuming them is a much larger and concentrated investment.

Still, I think it’s a big deal that this is happening in music. It’s a welcome counterpoint to the winner-take-all dynamic that has dominated the past decades of pop music. I can’t say that it will make the music industry more of a meritocracy–or that I even know what that would mean. But I think it’s a welcome step away from the caricature of conformity demonstrated by Salganik’s research.

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