Wrecking the idea that popular art is superior to unpopular art


There was a great piece on Morning Edition yesterday about art that becomes popular versus art that doesn’t. Is there some quality that makes some art successful and preserved forever or is it all just random chance?

Obviously, the big problem with a question like that is that you can look at only one timeline; there’s no way to look at an alternate world where the Potter books never took off (or they did, inevitably).

For those who haven’t clicked the link (you can listen to the short news piece or you can read a transcript of it) a Princeton professor decided to create a number of alternate virtual worlds to test the hypothesis that popular art becomes popular because of its inherent qualities rather than random chance. He created a database of music by unknown, unsigned bands and invited thousands of teenagers to listen and download their songs for free.

Those teenagers were randomly sorted into nine different “worlds.” In one control group, the teens did not get the chance to see which songs other teens selected. In the other eight, they did.

Try not to be wildly surprised, but different songs became popular in different virtual worlds. A song that was number 1 in one setting was 40th (out of 48) in another. Further experimentation established that there was a minimum level of quality below which popularity was not possible, but after that there was no predicting what would be successful and what would not. Read it yourself if you’re curious.

My problem with this is not the assertion that popularity does not come solely from quality, and that a piece of art that is well-known is not inherently better than something obscure. It’s always been perfectly obvious to me that wonderful and excellent books could/should have been popular but weren’t (I’m not talking about me, now).

My objection here is that the good professor chalks popularity up to “chance.” In fact, he (or at least the reporter covering his work) hits the idea of chance very hard. But that’s a black box.

I’ve talked about this sort of thing before, but there are a lot of effects that people attribute to chance simply because they are not well understood. What I would like to see is an experiment that examines the way those songs became popular in each virtual world. Was it an early surge? Was there an early surge that faced a backlash, with the more popular work getting a secondary surge? I’d like to know, and by that I mean that I’d really really like to know.