Persistence may not be the key to success in an attention economy. In fact, it appears to do long-term harm, a new study suggests.
Fang Wu and Bernardo Huberman, both from the Social Computing Lab at HP Laboratories in Palo Alto, California, researched the production histories and success of over 10 million videos submitted by over half a million producers on the online video site, YouTube.
Their manuscript, “Persistence and Success in the Attention Economy,” was submitted to the arXiv on April 2nd and is freely available.
The researchers defined a “success” as a video that ranked in the top 1% based on downloads to all videos submitted in the same week. Seven percent of all producers earned a successful title sometime within the study period and 21% of these successful producers earned it with their first video.
If you think that success is just the luck of the draw, we should expect that persistence in uploading videos should pay off. In fact, it does just the reverse.
While the average quality of repeat submissions increases steadily with each successive upload (quality here being counted as the average star ratings a video receives by its viewers), the likelihood of having a success actually decreases with increasing submissions.
This result is puzzling since we assume that producers learn from past failures and improve their technical and marketing skills which successive submissions. The main point of this of this article is that persistence can be harmful to future success.
Does this study say anything about academic publishing? Substitute YouTube for the name of your favorite journal and there are many uncanny similarities:
- Like YouTube producers, academic authors operate in an attention economy where success is measured by the ability to attract attention.
- Academics want their work to attract the attention of their peers. They want to be read widely and cited profusely. They want their articles published in prestigious journals and be associated with the great works of others. They want editors to highlight their work in editorials and be promoted through press-releases. A best-article award may not come with any money, but for an academic, it’s worth more than gold.
- Many publishers have added YouTube-like post-publication evaluation tools to their site, listing top-downloaded articles, allowing readers to rate articles by stars, leave comments, or post a summary on a social networking site, among others.
But this is where the similarities stop.
While persistence may not work for YouTube artists, it’s a behavioral strategy that works for most academics. It’s not necessary to publish consistently cutting-edge research in top-tier journals to be considered successful. Publishing unremarkable findings in second-tier journals is good enough for most academic promotion and tenure purposes.
Perhaps the problem with translating the findings of YouTube to academic publishing is in the definition of success, which is defined as the videos which ranked in the top 1% of downloads. This definition necessarily limits behavioral analysis to academic superstars. It ignores the fact that specialization allows many academics to be local stars in small fields and avoid competition with global stars in immense fields.
Not all of us can be superstars, but many of us do shine brightly.