Buried in the bottom of Clive Thompson's interview with the man who rebutted The Tipping Point is a description of a neat little study of how music catches on in subcultures. Yahoo research scientist Duncan Watts gave eight online groups of people the same collection of songs and let them rate and discuss them. As people rated and talked in each group, certain songs became popular hits — but each time it was different songs. But wait, it gets worse.
Watts also set a control group, who rated the songs on merit without knowing anyone else's ratings. Ratings were much flatter in this group, with a few songs recognized as especially bad or good. Meanwhile in the social groups:
Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song's success seemed to be due to merit. "In general, the 'best' songs never do very badly, and the 'worst' songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible," he says. Why? Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.
So musical hits are random, they're not based on merit, and we make them because people like music that they know other people like.
And now, dear congregation, let us close with a hymn by Soulja Boy, the first YouTube-created musical star.