New Scholar: Duncan Watts

Photo: The Selby

When compared with the ways it has transformed dating, shopping, terrorism, and interpersonal communication, the fact that the Internet is changing how a few social scientists work may not seem like much to get excited about. But if Duncan Watts is right, it should be. The Columbia University sociologist is among the most active and imaginative of a group of scholars who are using websites like Facebook, eBay, and Amazon to try to answer some of the most basic questions about human behavior—why ideas spread, what we look for in choosing friends, how we decide what things are worth to us.

Few have embraced the Web as a research tool quite like Watts, who’s taken a leave from Columbia to work at the New York lab of Yahoo Research, in large part because of the trove of data that it allows him to work with. Among his recent projects is Music Lab, a music-downloading site he co-created where thousands of users get to listen to songs they’ve never heard before. The site has allowed Watts to study how a song becomes a hit. In an experiment described in his most recent paper, he took the popularity rankings of the songs on the site and, unbeknownst to the users, reversed them. What he found is that while there is a self-perpetuating quality to popularity, we’re not utter lemmings—people will like something more if you tell them it’s popular, but they won’t like it as much as something that actually is popular. What’s more, the manipulation seemed to drive people away from the site—they didn’t look around for songs they liked more than the artificially popular ones; they just gave up and left.

If it seems like the popularity of songs is slight subject matter for a serious sociologist, don’t be fooled. “Changing how people think is the biggest business that there is,” says Watts, “for governments, for philanthropies and businesses—for everybody.”

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New Scholar: Duncan Watts