A system ordered largely by unbalanced positive feedback will continually amplify that feedback. I learned this in 7th grade with my mock fender and gorilla 12 watt amp. So why does Duncan Watts piece in the NYTimes today describing a study proving that popularity affects web site user’s decisions, have many in the blogosphere trumpeting the ironic death of Web2.0, collective intelligence, transparency, and the network effect?
Watt’s article describes his study that was published last year in Science, where more than 14,000 participants registered at their Web site, Music Lab (www.musiclab.columbia.edu), and were asked to listen to, rate and, if they chose, download songs by bands they had never heard of. Some of the participants saw only the names of the songs and bands, while others also saw how many times the songs had been downloaded by previous participants.
The results indicated that songs that jumped to an early lead in number of downloads tended to stay at the top on the web site that provided download numbers; and these popular songs were very different from the ones choosen by users that were not provided that “social” information. Thus, there is a “cummulative advantage” provided to the early downloaded songs - and these early leaders are effectively random, they are simply the preferences of the first users.
So what should we take away from this? Many are using the simple experiment to knock the very core principles of transparency, wisdom of crowds, collective intelligence, and the network effect that are at the core of the leading approach to succesful web sites and systems. Scott Karp - whose sanity amid the Web2.0 hype I always appreciate has really dropped the hammer:
All of a sudden it’s crystal clear what Web 2.0 really is — the greatest platform ever for harnessing randomly imitative social behavior. Before Web 2.0, achieving utterly arbitrary results took time and effort. Now, with platforms like Digg, we can get nowhere in a fraction of the time it used to take.
While on one hand, it’s nice to see something we know intuitively - that things already declared popular receive more attention than items without that distinction - proved to be true. On the other, the experiment as performed dramatically over-simplifies the situation for one very big reason: positive feedback loops.
The most successful emergent systems, those where valuable order arises by individuals acting autonomously, are successful through a balance of positive and negative feedback. Everything from thermostats to a human’s sense of balance to ants’ decisions on the best place to store their waste. Can you tell I just read Stevn Johnson’s Emergence?
How dramatically would the results change if you simply gave users the ability to vote songs both up and down? Hard to say, but I would have to guess it would make a difference.
Creating a system that produces quality from simple rules is amazingly complex - netflix is offering a cool $1M for one that improves their movie recommendations. I wouldn’t dismiss the crowd’s wisdom from an experiment that doesn’t allow the wisdom to emerge.
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