April 15th, 2007

Cumulative Advantage Explains Web 2.0, MySpace, The A-List, TechCrunch, Digg, And So Much More

by

Just when you thought you understood Web 2.0, along comes a theory so disruptive it razes everything in its path. The theory of cumulative advantage suggests that every successful Web 2.0 site — and the output of every Web 2.0 platform — is completely arbitrary and random. The head-exploding NYT piece by Columbia professor Duncan Watts is a must read, but here’s the key:

In our artificial market, therefore, social influence played as large a role in determining the market share of successful songs as differences in quality. It’s a simple result to state, but it has a surprisingly deep consequence. Because the long-run success of a song depends so sensitively on the decisions of a few early-arriving individuals, whose choices are subsequently amplified and eventually locked in by the cumulative-advantage process, and because the particular individuals who play this important role are chosen randomly and may make different decisions from one moment to the next, the resulting unpredictably is inherent to the nature of the market.

Oh, how sweet the irony — Web 2.0′s radical openness and transparency, combined with its intensely social nature, are precisely why it brings you the best of nothing.

Here is the most important line in the entire piece, which casts extreme doubt on every notion of democratized collective intelligence — “because the particular individuals who play this important role are chosen randomly and may make different decisions from one moment to the next”

In an open Web 2.0 system, with a randomly chosen group, it’s impossible to generate anything other than arbitrary results. Web 2.0 glorifies the “social,” but in an open system, social behavior becomes “monkey see, monkey do.”

All of a sudden it’s crystal clear what Web 2.0 really is — the greatest platform ever for harnessing randomly imitative social behavior. Before Web 2.0, achieving utterly arbitrary results took time and effort. Now, with platforms like Digg, we can get nowhere in a fraction of the time it used to take.

WOW — I am humbled and awestruck by the power of technology, and the power of randomly socialized human beings to snuff out each others’ critical faculties and personal tastes.

So does that mean Web 2.0 really is DOA? So long as it’s driven by the ideology of egalitarianism and radically transparency, probably so. But I suspect the pendulum is about to start swinging back from that extreme, so maybe there’s still hope.

I realize that I’m painting with very broad brush strokes, and that the fun I’m having with this theory comes unfairly at the expense of some of the myriad notions and sites that fit under the capacious Web 2.0 rubric, but it’s not everyday that you find scientific proof that a concept like Web 2.0 actually deconstructs itself.

As for Web 2.0 winners, is MySpace better than Orkut? Are A-List bloggers smarter or more interesting than Z-List bloggers? Is TechCrunch better than Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, and GigaOm? Are stories on the front page of Digg better than a bunch of random junk?

If you believe the theory of cumulative advantage, the answer is — NO!

Of course, this explains why Google has been the only Web 2.0 company to make a gazillion dollars harnessing human behavior, i.e. linking patterns — PageRank ensures that the link “votes” Google uses to determine search results aren’t from a “randomly chosen group,” and…it doesn’t show you the score.

  • I don't think Duncan Watts's idea really discredits THE TIPPING POINT or THE IDEA VIRUS at all. Here's why:

    His modeling of the less than dramatic impact of influentials on the spread of a contagion through a population was convincing--BUT--I don't think his model really applies all that well to the web...

    Because in his model, *every* member of the herd had a *connection* to those around them through which they could infect(influentials simply had a higher probability to infect via these connections). But influentials on the web are different in that their "connections" are to DISCRETE populations--populations whose respective members don't necessarily have connections to the other population's members.

    Watts's model describes the impact of promiscuous sheep on the spread of something within a specific herd. But THE IDEA VIRUS and THE TIPPING POINT describe the impact of a shepherd with access to multiple herds.

  • (Some of my previous comment was cut off. Here it is in full)

    Everything depends on the ratio of songs to users and users per group. Numbers matter because if there are too many songs per user, they will try only a small sample songs and so less likely find the objectively good songs.

    Fortunately, the right architecture can keep the random rich from getting richer:

    1. Build in a reputation system (like Slashdot) so that people with good taste have greater influence.

    2. Make sure users must sample a variety of songs.

    3. Implement a tournament ranking system where users rate 5 random songs against each other at a time. The best 2 would go on to the second round.

    Such changes would dramatically increase the chances that the crowd recognizes both genuine hits and lesser-known gems.

  • Everything depends on the ratio of songs to things that will keep the random rich from getting richer:

    1. Build in a reputation system (like Slashdot) so that people with good taste have greater influence.

    2. Make sure users have to sample a variety of songs.

    3. Implement a tournament ranking system where users rate 5 random songs against each other at a time. The best 2 would go on to the second round.

    These changes would dramatically increase the chances that the crowd recognizes both genuine hits and lesser-known gems.

  • Berlin

    celeb endorsement and star-power. It explains why Myspace dethroned Friendster --even with its so-called first-mover advantage.

  • Great post! An interesting perspective to consider...

blog comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe

Receive new posts by email

Recent Posts