Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market

Matthew J. Salganik, Peter Sheridan Dodds, Duncan J. Watts


Hit songs, books, and movies are many times more successful than average, suggesting that “the best’” alternatives are qualitatively different from “the rest”; yet experts routinely fail to predict which products will succeed. We investigated this paradox experimentally, by creating an artificial “music market” in which 14,341 participants downloaded previously unknown songs either with or without knowledge of previous participants’' choices. Increasing the strength of social influence increased both inequality and unpredictability of success. Success was also only partly determined by quality: The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.