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  • Brendan Stec

Could you get famous twice?'re a famous actor. Or a superstar musician. Or an ultra influential academic. You "made it" to the top of your industry and achieved the greatest levels of success. But could you make it to the top again if you had to do it a second time?

Let's look at an experiment conducted by Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds, and Duncan Watts at Princeton, which shows how unpredictable forecasting extreme cultural success can be. The three built a website called MusicLab, where people could listen, rate, and download 48 different songs from different bands, like a 2006 version of SoundCloud. First, they asked a group of people to listen to the songs on MusicLab and rate their favorites. Then, they took another big group of people and divided them into 8 independent groups. This time, with social influence coming into play, people in each group could see how other listeners rated each song, pushing the most popular songs to the top of the list.

While all of the groups tended to separate similar songs as generally bad or good, the "hit songs" in each group were dramatically different. The song "Lockdown" ranked around the average in the very first group, yet was the number one hit in another group and number 40 in a third group. In one alternate universe, a band was on the cover of Rolling Stone. In another, they were struggling to pay rent.

The MusicLab experiment illustrates not only luck's remarkable influence on success in social systems, but also a sociological concept called the Matthew effect. You may recognize the Matthew effect from the age-old aphorism "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." On MusicLab, the "rich" songs received a few initial good votes. As new listeners came to the site, they were more likely to vote for the already rich songs at the top of the list. Another wave of new listeners, another high likelihood the popular songs get more popular. Meanwhile, songs that start a little "poor" get quickly buried at the bottom of the heap. Essentially, small differences in initial conditions - impacted greatly by luck - quickly amplify through positive feedback.

To get famous a second time, you need the same favorable initial conditions you had the first time. Perhaps Chance the Rapper had responded to one of your tweets, and he showcased some of your music in a freestyle. Then you got to showcase more of your music in the studio. Then you got a call from Kanye...

You may have the talent and drive to be successful in a competitive social system, but your probability of extreme success depends highly on your ability to take advantage of the rich get richer dynamic: the Matthew effect. And that ability is really hard to refine, because it really isn't an ability at all. It's luck.


1 The Success Equation by Michael Malboussin

2 Complexity by M Mitchell Waldrop

3 "Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market" by Michael Salganik, Peter Dodds, Duncan Watts:

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