hit making and watts


Sociologist Duncan Watts has done a series of experiments to offer a long overdue challenge Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Jonathan Berry and Ed Keller’s The Influentials. The long-held romantic notion that some charismatic cultural alphas spread ideas, and the men in grey flannel just need to get their products in their hands–the ‘Law of the Few’–is back in play. A nice article discusses this in more detail, a long section, towards the end of the piece:

Watts wanted to find out whether the success of a hot trend was reproducible. For example, we know that Madonna became a breakout star in 1983. But if you rewound the world back to 1982, would Madonna break out again? To find out, Watts built a world populated with real live music fans picking real music, then hit rewind, over and over again. Working with two colleagues, Watts designed an online music-downloading service. They filled it with 48 songs by new, unknown, and unsigned bands. Then they recruited roughly 14,000 people to log in. Some were asked to rank the songs based on their own personal preference, without regard to what other people thought. They were picking songs purely on each song’s merit. But the other participants were put into eight groups that had “social influence”: Each could see how other members of the group were ranking the songs.

Watts predicted that word of mouth would take over. And sure enough, that’s what happened. In the merit group, the songs were ranked mostly equitably, with a small handful of songs drifting slightly lower or higher in popularity. But in the social worlds, as participants reacted to one another’s opinions, huge waves took shape. A small, elite bunch of songs became enormously popular, rising above the pack, while another cluster fell into relative obscurity.

But here’s the thing: In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs–and the bottom ones–were completely different. For example, the song “Lockdown,” by 52metro, was the No. 1 song in one world, yet finished 40 out of 48 in another. Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song’s success seemed to be due to merit. “In general, the ‘best’ songs never do very badly, and the ‘worst’ songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible,” he says. Why? Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.

get your darkon


As a way to distract myself from the beginning of the semester, I watched a documentary,  Darkon on IFC. It’s about a group of creative anachronists in the Baltimore/D.C. area. I saw the preview years ago, and very much looked forward to seeing it. The movie was an incredible view into the role playing lives of these individuals…

It’s like watching TV, but you are the hero. Who doesn’t want that? You can watch Brad Pitt or you could be Brad Pitt. Which would you rather do?

I role play everyday at work. I mean, I’m a retail manager at Hot Topic, and I role play the role of a cool guy who wants you to buy his clothes, everyday.

Certainly when you are in situations, like a formal dinner a wedding, there are very structured roles you are supposed to play. Roles that you’ve learned, and that you play. Darkon’s just a little different–there are more roles that you’ve chosen to play just for fun.

Presentation of Self in Everyday Life connections abound. I could be wrong, or perhaps I had made it up, but I recall seeing a preview for the film a few years ago and it caught my attention. It alternated between two groups in armor and broadswords running towards each other, then cut to a tagline “Two worlds collide…,” and then quickly cut to a guy cleaning out a litterbox in a plain suburban backyard.

The documentary gives ample time to explore the quotidian lives these people: the peanut butter sandwiches made, the documents faxed, the cat boxes cleaned. All to drawing contrast with their ‘in game’ lives. The disconnect between the worlds is something that they, perhaps, are even more pained to realize as they become increasingly embroiled in the game:

I wish I could make a more positive change in the world, or at least have some effect with my actions. Most of the time you go through life and you’ve got to do what you have to do rather than the things you dream of.

You role play your entire life. You role play being the clerk at McDonalds. You don’t really want to be there, you’re playing the role to make money.

The ways in which these people seek out meaning outside of their jobs at videostores and Starbucks really resonated with some of my own findings on tour guides, some of whom really look to instill their lives with meaning by serving as deeply passionate public historians and neighborhood boosters…

(I’m close. After looking it up, I guess this is the original trailer?)

first day prep


I always try to get a few interesting ideas out there on the first day of class to pique interest, and generate early discussion. For 101, I’m stuck on doing horoscopes and conspiracy theories. I’m not sure what I’m going to do for my first day in Urban (last year’s ‘Subways and Situationists’ as two perspectives on cities–looking at the differences between Tokyo’s and the U.S.’s address system as well–worked as an orienting logic for first day discussion).

I think that I’m going to have two little stories for my new Media, Technology, and Sociology class: The first is the narrative framework and viewing options (online, ipod, on-demand) for HBOs new series ‘In Treatment,’ and the second is the ramifications of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007, which ties financial aid to colleges assisting in industry anti-piracy efforts. A section of the bill–which looks to be going up for debate in February–is called “Campus-based Digital Theft Prevention,” and it states:

Each eligible institution participating in any program under this title shall to the extent practicable […] (2) develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property as well as a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity.

If interested, read more here and here. I’m also thinking of using David Lynch’s faux-iPhone commercial, and Mike Wesch’s video essay.

participation. observation.


I think a fair amount about participant observation. Trained as an ethnographer, this is one of the things that I am supposed to be preoccupied with, I suppose, and I’ve done my best to be preoccupied with it. Because my focus has been on tourism, I’ve noted a trend in the travel literature in tracing historical routes: Tony Perrottet’s Pagan Holiday follows antiquarian tourism paths, Horowitz’ Blue Latitudes follows Captain Cook’s journeys, Jonah Blank’s Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God traces the path of the Indian god Rama, and Richard Bernstein’s Ultimate Journey walks a Buddhist monk’s Seventh-Century journey down the Silk Road. In the more academic tradition, Loic Wacquant follows Pierre Bourdieu to claim that the sociologist has to “submit himself to the fire of action in situ” (2004: viii), in the hopes of spurring a “carnal sociology.” He continues, later, to write, “it is a general approach to social life because all agents are embodied and all social life rests on a bedrock of visceral know-how, or prediscursive knowledges and skills that are both acquired and deployed in practical entailment with a definite social cosmos” (2005: 463). (This is not unique to ethnographers, either: C. Wright Mills once wrote that he felt it “useful… to report in some detail how I go about my craft” (1959: 197) and Max Weber wrote that the sociologist should express the position from which he writes (1949: 83), and Robert Park famously recommended that his students,

You have been told to go grubbing in the library, thereby accumulating a mass of notes and liberal coating of grime. You have been told to choose problems wherever you can find musty stacks of routine records based on trivial schedules prepared by tired bureaucrats and filled out by reluctant applicants for aid or fussy do-gooders or indifferent clerks. This is called ‘getting your hands dirty in real research.’ Those who counsel you are wise and honourable; the reasons they offer are of great value. But one more thing is needful; first-hand observation. Go and sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and the slum shakedowns; sit in the orchestra hall and in the Star and Garter burlesque. In short, gentlemen, go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research. (Cited in Prus 1996).

One of the benefits of staying with my partner’s parents for the weekend, besides the food, is to read Esquire. Something I never do. But Chuck Klosterman has a nice little blurb about method writing, that made me think about how things can go terribly askew with participation. He mentions Eric Nuzum, someone who, to get the essence of his subjects, forced himself to drink blood for his book about vampirism, The Dead Travel Fast. I prefer the author who just insisted that, to truly know Van Halen, he had to learn to play Eruption on guitar. I think of Duneier on the sidewalk, Waquant in the ring, Kornblum in the factory. (Not because they drink blood.) I like the idea of visceral know-how, and set to do a little of my own–becoming a licensed NYC tour guide for my last project and playing in a band at several local and international music festivals for my current one. But I am less of a member of the Wacquant school of ‘mastery’ than of the Plimpton school of ‘close, but never-quite.’ (Also, I stood right next to his full, seer-suckered self in the front row of Radiohead’s Kid A show at Madison Square Garden…) This is the paper that I’m going to be working on next, I suspect. It will start with that fabulous appendix in Tally’s Corner, when Liebow contemplates a chain-link fence that separates him from the subjects of his book.

(Yes, this is two mentions of Radiohead/Thom Yorke in recent posts.)

in the…


We just watched Ace in the Hole, a 1951 Billy Wilder film wherein a small town tragic accident is exploited by a down-on-his-luck former big city reporter, and turned into media circus (and a literal one). It is a fabulous film, and a perfect compliment to Bourdieu’s On Television (the first part is available here), wherein the ‘Show and Hide’ logic of the social field is elucidated perfectly via Kirk Douglas’ three perfect soliloquies on journalism. It also reminded me of Elia Kazan’s 1957 Face in the Crowd as a commentary on the switch of media from radio to television (which would match up well as a text with Natalie Zemon Davis’ ‘Printing and the People.’