Sign up FAST! Login

The Justin Timberlake Effect: Becoming ultra-popular is often just luck. And they drown out the not-as-lucky


Stashed in: Luck!, Usability!, Design!, life, Growth Hacks!, Winner take all., Network Effects, The Universe, The Multiverse, Consequences, Intuition, The Future, Awesome, interesting, Harry Potter, Madonna!, Feedback, Music, Truth, @jtimberlake

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

Sometimes popularity is just random

This is fascinating because it speaks to unintended consequences.

How you say it matters more than what you say.

This is the foundation of "Winner Takes All":

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.

"Winner take all" is enabled by network effects:

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.

I'm coming back to this again and again:

Luck creates the initial momentum.

But then feedback loops keep it going.

We (heart) feedback loops.

And yet, feedback loops mean the most popular is not necessarily the best.

Feedback loops created Bon Jovi.

feedback loop funny

You May Also Like: