Viral popularity

We often assume that quality dictates popularity. Well not always. For sure, marketing can distort this hunt for quality: we buy a lower quality item because we heard about it first and not the better quality (less marketed) item or because the ads led us falsely to believe in its quality.

Now it increasingly looks like if one gets to be a front-runner in popularity, that begets itself. This might be called ‘viral popularity.’ Many search engines or sites produce lists that reinforce popularity. Google sorts items by which ones have been linked by others, making it more likely that others will link to them. Papers like The Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times lists the “most emailed articles.” YouTube lists a Viral Video chart (You Tube). You can see the Top Stories in the Blogosphere (also here at Tailrank or top blogs at BlogLines top1000). the most downloaded iTunes songs, the most popular bookmarks on, reddit or StumbleUpon. And all these tools are augmented by social networks like MySpace and Facebook that can help speed the circulation of recommendations.

In some sense, these are examples of James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds, but what if the front runners become the most popular over time just because they got an early lead?

This seems more likely because Power laws that shows that in many contexts (relationships, website hubs, roads, utility networks), the well connected hubs take on a greater central role in networks over time. This is because a node’s value in the network increases based on the number of links to it. And thus new nodes or actors increasingly likely to want to link to these nodes, making them more of a hub and further increasing their value. Hence the natural cycle perpetuates itself.

In contrast, as Super Crunchers points out, ‘nearest neighbors’ approaches that recommend works to you based on what others with your taste liked, lead users to engage with a wider % of video (through Netflix recommendations) or books (through Amazon’s ideas of other books you might like) or music (Pandora). In these cases, a piece of music or a video doesn’t necessarily become *more valuable* to the network as it becomes more linked to or watched, although invariably at some point there is a tipping phenomenon here too where people want to read a book, or watch a video just to be current with a piece of work that lots of others are discussing, and to be “cool” enough to be in the know.

Social network effects may originally induce a long tail — a phenomenon itself disputed by Chris Gomes in the WSJ and elsewhere — as users hear about works that they otherwise would never have heard about, but viral popularity in the main seems more likely to increase the warped distribution of popular videos, blog posts, and the like.


One response to “Viral popularity

  1. Pingback: Are social networks replacing search engines? « Social Capital Blog

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