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In 2004, a trio of researchers at Columbia University began an online experiment in social-media marketing, creating nine versions of a music-download site that presented the same group of unknown songs in different ways. The goal
of the experiment was to gauge the effect of early peer recommendations on the songsâ€™ success; the researchers found that different songs became hits on the different sites andthat the variation was unpredictable.â€œItâ€™s
natural to believe that successful songs, movies, books and artists are somehow â€˜better,â€™â€ one of the researchers wrote in The New York Times in 2007. â€œWhat our results suggest, however, is that
because what people like depends on what they think other people like, what the market â€˜wantsâ€™ at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history.â€ But for music fans who would like to think that talent is ultimately rewarded, the situation may not be as dire as the Columbia study makes it seem.
In a paper published in the online journal PLoS ONE, researchers from the MIT Media Laboratoryâ€™s Human Dynamics Lab revisit data from the original experiment and suggest that it contains a clear quantitative indicator of quality thatâ€™s consistent across all the sites; moreover, they find that the unpredictability of the experimental results may have as much to
do with the way the test sites were organized as with social influence.
Numbers gameIn their analysis, Alex â€œSandyâ€ Pentland, the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Science, his graduate students Coco Krumme â€” first author on the new paper â€” and Galen Pickard, and Manuel Cebrian, a former postdoc at the Media Lab, developed a mathematical model that, while simple, predicts the experimental results with high accuracy.
They divide the decision to download a song into two stages: first, the decision to play a sample of the song, and second, the ensuing decision to download
it or not.
They found that, in fact, the percentage of customers who would download a given song after sampling it was consistent across sites. The difference
in download totals was due entirely to the first stage, the decision to sample a song in the first place.And that decision, the researchers concluded, had only an indirect relationship to the songsâ€™
popularity. In the original experiment, one of the sites was a control, while the other eight gave viewers information about the popularity ofthe songs, measured by total number of downloads.
But on those eight sites,
the number of downloads also determined the order inwhich the songs were displayed.
The MIT researchersâ€™ analysis suggests that song ordering may have had as much to do with the unpredictability across sites as the popularity information.â€œWeâ€™ve
known forever that people are lazy, and theyâ€™ll pick the songs on the top,â€ Pentland says.
â€œThereâ€™s all this hype about new-age marketing and social-media marketing. Actually, it comes down to just the stuff that they did in 1904 in a country store: They put certain things up front so youâ€™d see them.â€Quality,
not quantityIn their work, the MIT researchers interpret the likelihood that sampling a song will result in its being downloaded as a measure of quality.
Since that measure was consistent across sites, using it, rather than volume of downloads, to order song listings would probably mitigate some of the unpredictability that the Columbia researchers found.Even on sites where the number of downloads determines song ordering, high-quality songs will gradually creep up the ranfgfgkings, because, by definition, they net more downloads per sample than low-quality songs do. But â€œit does take a long time for the market to fully equilibrate,â€ Krumme says. â€œPrecisely how long it wouldtake for the highest-quality songs to rise to the top depends on the specifics of a particular market.â€â€œThe model that they propose does a good job of providing insight into whatâ€™s happening in the experiment,â€ says Matthew Sagalnik, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Princeton University, who as a graduate student at Columbia was lead author on the original paper.
â€œI think itâ€™s neat that such a simple model is able to reproduce the results of the experiment with pretty high fidelity.â€â€œI think that their predictions about the long-run dynamics are interesting,â€ Sagalnik adds, â€œand I hope that they would betested with additional experiments.â€Allison
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The upper regions of ocean circulation are fed predominantly by broad upwelling across surfaces at mid-depth over the main ocean basins (rising blue-green-yellow arrows).
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Image: John Marshall and Kevin