Hit songs, books, and movies are many times more successful than average,
suggesting that "the best" alternatives are qualitatively different from
"the rest"; yet experts routinely fail to predict which products will
succeed. We investigated this paradox experimentally, by creating an
artificial "music market" in which 14,341 participants downloaded previously
unknown songs either with or without knowledge of previous participants'
choices. Increasing the strength of social influence increased both
inequality and unpredictability of success. Success was also only partly
determined by quality: The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst
rarely did well, but any other result was possible.
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