My mate Dave [yes I know- it sounds like Ali G] sent me this great NYTimes article about social influence on the success of cultural products.
Once again substantiating Herd thinking [there you go Mark ;-p], a professor at Columbia and the author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, shows that not only is social influence more important than personal preference when deciding what you like, as counterintuitive as that might sound, but there is an additional factor that makes predicting what will be a hit practically impossible:
The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory.
Which is why film studies / record companies find it so hard to predict what will be a blockbuster, which led to a venture capital model of cultural production, where studios / labels invest in 10 things on the assumption that 9 will lose money but 1 will make enough to recoup the losses.
Should we want to pull out a useful thought for marketers, it would probably be that it isn't what is actually popular that matters [despite the 1 million housewives can't be wrong school of thought] - rather:
"what people like depends on what they think other people like."
Which suggests how style bibles like Dazed can be used to influence cultural dissemination and also the value of decent online seeding - the web is the only place where you can actually see what the masses claim to like.