The title of this post is a bait-and-switch, actually, since my fundamental motive is to get you to read my old Las Vegas Weekly piece on "cumulative advantage,"
which is a concept from economics and sociology that I think everyone needs to know.
To summarize in one sentence that combines two ideas: small advantages in fame, wealth, power, etc. can grow into large advantages, large advantages can grow into larger still, and there's always, ineradicably, an element of randomness, of luck, as to what gets the small advantage in the first place, and what gets to leap from one level to the next.
fame is viral, and we can never be certain in advance as to which viruses will catch hold and which won't.* But once something is famous, the fame is very hard to dislodge.** So my first point of the day:
(1) There's always an element of luck when anyone
becomes well-known. Always. This includes Darwin as well as Rihanna. From the piece:
The more people know about each other’s choices, the more likely they are to come to agreement. In retrospect, this strong agreement can make an outcome seem as if it had been inevitable: Look, all these people agree, so this must reflect the taste of the public, or the quality of the merchandise. But in fact the experiment [by Duncan Watts and crew] shows the exact opposite. The more people know about each other’s choices, the less predictable the outcome.***
(By the way, the passage would have been just as correct if I'd added "size of the promotional budget" to the phrases "taste of the public" or "quality of the merchandise.")
(2) My second point is about explanations, not about cumulative advantage. Even disregarding luck, people who claim to know
the (other) reasons "Bar Bar Bar
" became a hit have at least some shit in their thinking: no
explanation of such a single social event is testable.**** For instance, take the idea that "Bar Bar Bar" became a hit because Crayon Pop are different from everyone else in K-pop — they have a different look, and "Bar Bar Bar" has a different sound — which seems like a good explanation to me
, and is one I myself would give, despite all these caveats. The trouble is that if "Bar Bar Bar" had not hit, I could have used that very same reason to explain Crayon Pop's failure
. And EXO, whose music is at least as novel as Crayon Pop's, didn't go top 10 in Korea until they hit with the relatively conventional "Growl."
(3) Putting 1 and 2 together: there's an element of luck as to which explanations themselves become common and accepted. Cumulative advantage applies to ideas as well as to people and songs.
The problem with the phrase "element of luck" is that it doesn't tell us how large the element is. In my limited reading, I've seen no way of specifying the percentage luck plays in cumulative advantage. Is luck 10 percent of the reason one song became a hit, and 80 percent of the reason another one did? How do we quantify
this sort of luck? It's not like a coin flip, which we know is 50 percent, or the roll of a die, which is 16⅔ percent. [EDIT:
Well, assuming the coin is balanced and the die isn't rigged, the chance of a particular
result of a coin flip is 50 percent and of the roll of a die is 16⅔ percent, but the percentage attributable to luck is 100 percent
for each: it's entirely chance.]( The breakCollapse )