Beyond Social Currency

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, 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.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

8 replies on “Beyond Social Currency”

Greyson Chance is only 12 😉

Very intriguing phenomena. At first stab I would think the network effect would still dominate. It is hard to avoid hearing about the Greyson Chance’s of this world. But hopefully niche artists will have an easier time finding their audience.

You have inspired me to think about giving Pandora a try, I am now curious as to how good its predictions are.


Hah, was wondering if someone would call me on that one. His birthday is in a few weeks–I figured I’d be conservative and round up.

Anyway, I’m sure that YouTube will keep promoting Greyson Chances and Susan Boyles. And I don’t begrudge these talented folks their 15 minutes of fame–and the opportunity to try to convert those opportunities into careers. But I hope that content will be given a chance to become a more important success factor than social influence.


Jeremy, no complaints here! But music exploration sounds like a much more deliberate activity than listening to a radio station. What intrigues me here is the observation that we are all sucked into being explorers–through a medium that somewhat isolates our decisions from social influence.


I think we by nature are explorers, much more than we’re given credit for. For example, even when listening to the radio station, a supposedly passive activity, many people don’t just sit and listen to the radio station. They’ll start fiddling with the dial. Or hit “seek” and scan the channels for a while until they find a song they like, and then “seek” again a few songs later.

People don’t necessarily stay on the same radio station the whole time. They actively go out and explore other possibilities, by scanning through multiple stations. Music is fundamentally more exploratory by nature.


Perhaps, though I still believe that musical taste exhibits a lot more conformity than exploration. But I hope you agree that listening to terrestrial radio involves a lot of social influence: radio stations target particular demographics, and many not only favor popular music but announce the popularity of the songs they are playing. I’m not sure how much people overcome that dynamic by station-surfing.


Yes absolutely.. radio programming is determined in large part by demographic appeal…mashed up with payola. My only point is that listeners aren’t completely passive. Too easy to not only switch stations, thereby “exploring”, but to also pop in a CD, turn on the ipod, etc.


Interesting. I often have the same — i.e. I often really like a song before they are played widely or have entered the top charts. My wife actually things I can predict the charts. 😉


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