The “Rich Get Richer” Effect

Duncan Watts has a fascinating, brief piece in the NYT Magazine today about the “rich get richer” effect and how cultural mega-hits don’t have much to do with many individuals independently liking a given song or book. Rather, the success of a successful book or song and the failure of an extremely similar competitor has mostly to do with conditions fertile to sparking a “collective liking” effect (people buying a book since everyone else is buying the book, compounded over and over). Cultivating these conditions is something every author (or musician) thinks about. While you do your best to foster the butterfly effect and try to capitalize on random positive fluctuations in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, it can lead to your book “blowing up” — and entrepreneurs think the same way when trying to propagate a new idea or spur potential customers to action — the reality seems to be that this is truly a chaotic process.

People love to ascribe specific reasons for why one product succeeded over a very similar competitor. Sometimes these reasons are accurate, but sometimes I think a humble shrug can be the most honest explanation.

4 comments on “The “Rich Get Richer” Effect
  • To invoke Malcolm Gladwell, I think it depends largely on whether or not your early adopters are also connectors. I’d say the media also plays an interesting role, perhaps lending a little extra boost to the first mover advantage.

  • Paul Kedrosky has written about the Matthew Effect too:

    Additionally, an idea whose time has come is an endlessly fascinating topic in political science (See Kingdon’s garbage can model. Really!) Those models can be applied to other contexts and the effects of the severally and jointly acting forces can rarely be separated out well enough to be replicated. Which explains why soi-disant best practices do not really travel well.

  • Nowadays, part of the luck for an author is whether or not Oprah Winfrey likes your book.

    A pragmatic mercenary might research which sort of books Oprah likes best, identify the qualities they seem to have in common, and try to reproduce them.

    Reproducing the style of something as vomitous as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret would be easy. The hardest part would be coming up with a title as brilliant.

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