The fickleness of the ‘attention economy’

Fang Wu and Bernardo Huberman have done a fascinating study which seems to undermine the theory that in order to succeed in the YouTube ecosystem you need to be a prolific and persistent uploader.

The Abstract of their paper reads:

A hallmark of the attention economy is the competition for the attention of others. Thus people persistently upload content to social media sites, hoping for the highly unlikely outcome of topping the charts and reaching a wide audience. And yet, an analysis of the production histories and success dynamics of 10 million videos from \texttt{YouTube} revealed that the more frequently an individual uploads content the less likely it is that it will reach a success threshold. This paradoxical result is further compounded by the fact that the average quality of submissions does increase with the number of uploads, with the likelihood of success less than that of playing a lottery.

The researchers (who work at HP Labs in Palo Alto), studied the hit rates of 10 million videos uploaded by 600,000 users before 30 April 2008 and classified as a ‘success’ any video that came among the top 1% of those viewed.

Their finding is that “the more frequently an individual uploads content the less likely it is that it will reach a success threshold.” Why? “When a producer submits several videos over time, their novelty and hence their appeal to a wide audience tends to decrease.”

So why do people persist in the face of declining audience figures? Wu and Huberman argue that they are like gamblers, who tend to overestimate the chance of winning when the probabilities are small. (Note: professional gamblers don’t operate like that.)

I think this misinterprets the biggest driving force behind user-generated content: the fact that people like being creative, and when technology (like YouTube) provides them with an outlet for their creativity, then they use it. ‘Success’ in Wu’s and Huberman’s terms is nice; but it’s not necessarily what it’s all about.