In a must-read piece at the NYT Magazine, Duncan Watts argues against the received wisdom about the on-demand world. According to this view, the future is just about millions of consumers with millions of preferences, millions of content offerings, and opportunities for those who can connect the two and give consumers 'what they want'.
This is a view I (and others) have attacked many times before. People often don't know what they want until someone tells them what they might want. To an extent, word-of-mouth is taking over this 'discovery' role from broadcast media; but that doesn't mean that people's preferences are formed in isolation, that broadcast media won't play a role in this, or that the process of discovery is simply one of matching consumers profiles with product attributes (it is that, but only up to a point). Persuasion, 'hits' and marketing are here to stay, and even without big media the process by which content becomes popular is not just a matter of merit. The very concept of quality ('the good stuff') becomes suspect.
In Watts' words:
Conventional marketing wisdom holds that predicting success in cultural markets is mostly a matter of anticipating the preferences of the millions of individual people who participate in them [...]
The common-sense view, however, makes a big assumption: that when people make decisions about what they like, they do so independently of one another. But people almost never make decisions independently — in part because (i) the world abounds with so many choices that we have little hope of ever finding what we want on our own; in part because (ii) we are never really sure what we want anyway; and in part because (iii) what we often want is not so much to experience the “best” of everything as it is to experience the same things as other people and thereby also experience the benefits of sharing.
The numbers are mine, and I've introduced them to highlight how these three factors -- too much choice, the tendency to follow the crowd, and the need for shared experiences -- each question the orthodoxy independently.
To substantiate his claims, Watts did an experiment: he took several groups of people and asked them to choose songs to download, allowing people to see what others in the same group had downloaded. The result was that (i) within each group, those songs that were more downloaded at the beginning quickly became hits, dwarfing the rest; and (ii) one group's top hits had little to do with the next's.
Watts also set up an 'independent' group whose members were not allowed to see what others had downloaded. The most popular songs from this group (which you could call the 'quality' content) did prove to be popular on average accross the other groups, but this did not mean that they would be hits: "Overall, a song in the Top 5 in terms of quality had only a 50 percent chance of finishing in the Top 5 of success."
To this I would add a few things:
First, people's initial encounters with content are mediated by lists of stuff (or what I have elsewhere called aggregates): The lists of songs that people had to choose from in Watts' experiment, or iTunes' front page (on which read this excellent WSJ piece). These lists have authors and are usually annotated (the download counts in Watts' experiment), and this has an effect on their consumers.
Second, lists articulate communities: when I look at a list I know I am joining a 'consumption community' (not my term; read an earlier post on this, and also this) of others who are also looking at it, one in which the list's author (when there is one) plays a leadership role. When we speak about media being democratised, we should focus less on how anyone can publish content (although that is important) and more on the fact that anyone can publish a list. If that list is regularly updated and builds a loyal following, you have a tribe - or brand, or movement.
Finally, this has important implications for news. There, more than in any other genre, the three needs that Watts identifies (too much stuff; not knowing what to care for; and needing to know what others know) are crucial. The old civic values of news providers need to be reinterpreted in this context: offering a bit of guidance, providing an antidote to frivolity, and articulating shared concerns are key missions - and they are as relevant as ever.