Does ranking information, who likes what, top-10 rankings, produce “winner take all” situations?
There is an old rule in strategy which is that there are no rules. While it is always nice to try and create underlying theories or rules of how the world works, science and mathematics are still fairly young to describe something this complex. Trying to apply rules like the concept presented in the title is probably some form of confirmatory bias.
Having said that, there is evidence that this effect can happen, not as a rule to be followed, but something that does occur. How could this happen?
Ranking information does allow us, as people, to see what other people are doing. That’s always interesting–to see what others are doing, looking at or thinking about. And by looking at what other people are looking at, there is a natural increase in “viewership” of that item. So the top-10 ranking, always entertaining of course, does create healthy follow-on “views.”
But “views” does not mean involvement or agreement. In other word, while ranking information and today’s internet makes it easy to see what other are seeing, our act of observation actually contributes to the appearance of popularity. That popularity appears to drive others to “winner take all.”
“Winner take all” can take many forms. Winner take all can meant that once the pile-on starts, that a web site becomes very popular. This is often confused with the network effect. Winner take all can also mean that a song becomes popular because its played alot, so more people like it, so its played even more, and so on. Of course this does not describe how the song became popular to begin with–perhaps people actually liked the song and it had favorable corporate support–there is nothing wrong with that.
And this leads us to the uncertainty principle. The act of observation disturbs the thing we are trying to measure. The more scientific formulation has to do with the limits of observation of position and velocity at the atomic level but we’ll gloss over that more formal definition.
The act of observing a top-10 list on the internet, causes the top-10 list to become more popular. The act of listening to a song, and through internet communication channels, changes the popularity of the song. So its clear, that given internet technology, there is a potential feedback loop that employs the uncertainty principle.
Alright, that makes sense. But the world is probably a little more complex than this simple thought.
While the act of observing could make something more popular, that does not mean that the act of observing makes something unpopular turn into something popular. In other words, people are not fools. They like what they like. If something is on the top-10 list or comes from a band that has good corporate airtime support, that does not mean that it is a bad song or a bad list. It does not mean that people would not like it if did not play in that venue.
The internet is a powerful tool to help people quickly find what they want. The cost of finding a new web site or a new source of top-10 lists (or whatever) is fairly low. So there is no real inherent lock-in. There is the possibility that given the internet’s reach, the ability to more rapidly escalate and de-escalate from “winner take all” to “has been” is fairly robust. Its quite possible, in the spirit of making business rules for fun, that the internet produces a steady stream of “winner take all” and if there is a steady stream of “winner take take all” events, then they are really just average events after all (regression to the mean). So with my fancy new rule, there are no “winner take all” events any more, just a large number of rapidly escalating/de-escalating average events–the frequency has just been bumped up.
That’s okay as well.