Popularity is Overrated

My love of The Flamingo Kid may seem misplaced in view of its meager 6.2 IMDB score—with a mere 3900 ratings—its lack of a Blu-ray edition, and unavailability on Netflix or Amazon Instant Videos. But this is not an unfamiliar thing for me, and probably for a lot of people. Actually, TFK is just one of several movies I love and have watched more times than it would be seemly to admit—not art movies (though there are those too), but Hollywood features with A-list stars—but which languish in obscurity and neglect. Why is this? Is my taste so idiosyncratic? Or bad? I want to suggest that the most popular movies—or songs, or novels, or whatever—are not as much better than others as their popularity would seem to imply. Sometimes they may be no better. By the same token, relatively neglected works are not so inferior and may be not at all inferior.

If popularity is determined by recognizable quality, why can’t hits be predicted in advance? You might think they could be, since once a hit is established, its quality seems evident, and people always say the reason they love a hit song or whatever is because it’s “so awesome.” But evidently not. Studies like this one of the book, music, and movie business and this one of the television business note the inability of industry professionals to predict which products will be hits—despite strong financial incentives to do so—and examine their strategies for coping with the problem. (The second article quotes the president of CBS to the effect that, “All hits are flukes.”) And it seems obvious, really, that these businesses would be managed quite differently from the way they are if the sales differentials could be predicted.

Yet hits generate massive sales, vastly outselling the songs/movies/books/etc. that they couldn’t be distinguished from ahead of time. Sting makes $2000 every day from “Every Breath You Take.” That one song generates over a quarter of all Sting’s music publishing income (see here for details). J. K. Rowling is another obvious example. The best selling book series in history has the usual story of early rejection. Twelve publishers rejected the manuscript of the first Harry Potter book before Bloomsbury finally picked it up. The editor who bought it advised Rowling to get a day job, since there was little chance the book would sell. Rowling would go on to become the first person ever to make a billion dollars by writing books (though not a billionaire, apparently, thanks to Britain’s highly progressive tax code). Examples like this couldn’t happen (or would be exceedingly rare) if stellar sales implied stellar quality.

Here is an interesting study of the phenomenon, focusing on the music business. The authors created their own music download website populated with indie songs from obscure indie bands unknown to the study participants. It was a large study, with over 14,000 participants. Participants were invited to listen to songs, rate them, and download them if they wished. There were two basic conditions: one in which the participants had knowledge of how many times a song had been downloaded, and one in which they didn’t. In the knowledge condition, outcomes were more extreme (i.e., there were higher peaks and lower valleys in numbers of downloads between songs) and less predictable from independent ratings of song quality. In the knowledge condition, songs that were independently rated highly almost never did terrible and songs that were rated terrible almost never made it to the top, but for all other songs, the popularity outcome was completely unpredictable: they could wind up at the top, the bottom, or somewhere in the middle. This was not true of the no-knowledge condition.

Thus, mere widespread knowledge of the preferences of others is enough to generate the phenomenon of the “awesomeness” of cultural products that couldn’t be differentiated from their competitors ahead of time even by seasoned professionals. Apparently a “contagion effect” causes chance initial success to snowball and catapult a work or artist to the stratosphere. The works thus left behind, therefore, are not necessarily inferior—or much inferior—to those lucky few that become “awesome,” any more than those few are necessarily superior—or much superior. So if there’s a movie or other work you love that doesn’t seem to have the popularity it deserves, don’t feel bad. Popularity is overrated.