Krumme notes that the design of the MusicLab study also affected which songs participants were exposed to. The interface was designed so that songs with a lot of social recommendations gained top placement on the list. Comparing this with control tests that left social information out, the group found that people were simply more likely to sample songs in the top position on the list, rather than scrolling all the way down. That means social cues matter more if they influence how items appear on a site. Finally, Krumme says, when her group simulated running the study for a longer period of time, quality songs rose independently of social cues. She notes, however, that in the real world, the initial period of sales is still very significant. If a song doesn’t do well at first, it may become invisible or unavailable, meaning that social cues surrounding its launch would still matter.
The study’s findings make sense, says Christian Borghesi, a researcher at CEA, a French-government-funded technological research organization. Borghesi has also studied the body of results from the MusicLab. “To click freely, just for fun, is one thing,” he says, “and to buy or be deeply involved in something is very different.”
But the social scenario presented in the study doesn’t fully reflect the way social influence works in real life, says Lada Adamic, an assistant professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan who studies online communities. In particular, she notes, in this study, participants didn’t know the other people sampling and downloading music. The coolest kid in school might prove to have a stronger influence on others, she suggests, or people might be more likely to download or buy music recommended by a close friend.
Music is also relatively easy to evaluate without help, Adamic adds. It only takes a few minutes to listen to a song, and most people are confident in their own taste. Social influence, even from strangers, might play a larger role with respect to products or services that are harder for individuals to assess.
Adamic says, “For most real-life scenarios, social influence does play a big role, because we want to do what our friends do, and we trust their opinions, and we want to fit in and be up-to- date.”