The Extraordinary Delusions of List-Compilers

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A Wall Street Journal piece by Carl Bialik, and his related blog post, examine how the mania for lists amplifies behavior -- and not necessarily for the better. Reporting on a study by the Princeton sociologist Matthew Salganik:

[P]opularity in the music world, even unearned, breeds more popularity. Researchers enlisted more than 12,000 volunteers to rate and download songs from among 48 chosen for their relative obscurity. Some of these volunteers were lied to: At a certain stage in the experiment, popularity rankings for this group were reversed, so the least-downloaded songs were made to appear most-downloaded.

Suddenly, everything changed. The prior No. 1 began making a comeback on the new top dog, but the former No. 47 maintained its comfortable lead on the old No. 2, buoyed by its apparent popularity. Overall, the study showed that popularity is both unstable and malleable.


There's a curious historic link between the composition of musical hits and the debunking of herd behavior. Charles Mackay, the nineteenth-century Scottish journalist who wrote the classic of bubble-bursting, financial and otherwise, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, was actually the author of song lyrics, including political doggerel, that went platinum, at least by Victorian standards; one work sold 400,000 copies globally. Perhaps Mackay's exposure of popular manias was rooted in his own misgivings about mass taste. Angus Calder's account of Mackay's career in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that late in life, Mackay described himself as being "painfully conscious" that his "worst" pieces had been most popular, while his serious poetry had received "slight or no recognition." Poor guy; I wonder how he would feel to know that the masses now value neither his songs nor his poems, but only his book on what fools they are.


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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