Why does a song like Royals top the charts or a novel like Gone Girl become a massive best seller? Sure, both received widespread critical acclaim, but so do lots of books and music that you've probably never heard of. So what makes art a hit, or for that matter, a flop? According to Princeton social scientists, it's mostly chance.
When a song drops, it's difficult to know what made it succeed or fail. Marketing, talent, how the cultural wind was blowing: all of these are intertwined. You can't go back and tweak one little thing to see how the outcome might have changed.
But what if the same song could be released in many parallel worlds simultaneously? Would it succeed or fail across the board? To test this, the Princeton scientists ran a series of experiments with 30,000 teenagers. These teens were funneled into one of nine digital worlds, given 48 songs by emerging artists, and then asked to listen to, rate and, download as many songs as they wished.
Participants in the experiment were randomly assigned to one of two conditions—the "independent" condition or the "social influence" condition. In the former scenario, the songs were put in a different order for each user, and teens were asked to rate them based solely on their personal preference. In the latter scenario, teens could see exactly how popular each song was among their peers.
"Different songs became hits in different worlds," said Matthew Salganik, a professor of sociology at Princeton, senior researcher at Microsoft and the co-creator of the study. For example, in one world, Lock Down by the band 52 Metro, came in first and in another world, it came in 40th. It’s true that a handful of songs were consistently rated popular in multiple worlds. But many songs—especially those ranked 12-36 in the control condition—ended up snagging top and bottom rankings in the various social influence worlds. "Appeal matters but there’s also a lot of luck involved," Salganik says.
Scientists also found that social influence can make a song popular, regardless of its quality. In one experiment, the scientists inverted the song rankings so that the most successful was presented as the least successful, and so on for all 48 songs. "If you believe that perceived popularity is the dominant force, then once a world is inverted, it stays inverted," says Salganik. A few songs began to recover their initial ranking, but the reversal eventually stalled. "For some songs, the artificial change in popularity was enough to change people’s behavior, so that perceived popularity turned into real popularity," he says.
Salganik gave the real-world example of an author who was accused of buying 15,000 copies of his own book in order to make the best-seller list. It worked, and his book went on to sell 80,000 copies. "It's plausible that people were just interested in the subject," says Salganik. "Or you could say that subsequent sales were driven by that one-time fake introduction to the best-seller list."
Popularity begets popularity. When faced with choice overload, people go for what’s known. "The effect of social influence has a lot to do with what people choose to look at," says Salganik. "When people are aware of what others are doing, the inequality [between what’s popular and what’s not] increases. As fads form, they make stars into mega stars." Meanwhile, all the other albums, books, etc. that never became hits in the first place fade into oblivion.
But again, Salganik reiterated that it’s nearly impossible to know why one piece of art catches the public eye and another does not. He also surmises that social influence has a greater effect on certain art forms—like books or movies. You can listen to and judge a song in a couple of minutes. "But you can’t consume a book in one sitting," he says. So when faced with a huge bookstore, you reach for the title your friends like.
Based on these experiments, Salganik is wary of publishers, production companies, and record labels who try to come up with hit-making formulas. "Once you see something happen, you want to learn from it. But if there’s a lot of randomness in process," he says. "You can be learning the wrong lesson from history."
Still Salganik hopes artists will be encouraged by his findings. "You should not take your lack of popularity as a sign that your work isn’t high appeal," he says. Of course, many of us will make great art; only some of us will make money from it.