What Makes Something Popular?

Society has a lot to answer for, including what music and literature becomes popular. And, if we didn’t already know it, an experiment by Princeton University scientists has confirmed it. In the experiment, 30,000 teenagers were split into two groups: independent and social. Each group was asked to listen and rank 48 songs by emerging artists, but while the independent group were oblivious to the opinion of their peers, the social group were able to see which songs were most popular.

The experiment wanted to see if the same songs were popular in both an independent and social world, and the results were that they weren’t. “Different songs became popular in different worlds’, said Matthew Salganik, a professor of sociology at Princeton. He uses the example of a song by band 52 Metro, which was most popular in one group and ranked near the bottom for the other.

It seems that social influence could even make bad music popular. In one experiment the scientists inverted the popularity of the songs. “If you believe that perceived popularity is the dominant force, then once a world is inverted, it stays inverted,” says Salganik.

Turning to the real-world, Salganik provided the example of an author who was accused of buying 15,000 copies of his own book in order to get it onto the best-seller list. It worked. He went on to sell 80,000 copies.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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