The best frequently don't rise to the top

post by adamzerner · 2021-03-25T06:10:20.278Z · LW · GW · 34 comments

There are a variety of YouTube channels I've come across that seem like they don't get nearly enough views.

The best example that comes to my mind right now is probably Massimo Bottura. Wikipedia does a good job of describing who he is:

Massimo Bottura is an Italian restaurateur and the chef patron of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant based in Modena, Italy which has been listed in the top 5 at The World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards since 2010 and received top ratings from L'Espresso, Gambero Rosso and the Touring Club guides.

...

Osteria Francescana was ranked The World's 2nd Best Restaurant at the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards in 2015. In June 2016 Osteria Francescana was ranked No. 1 in The World's 50 Best Restaurants and No. 2 in 2017. The restaurant returned to rank No. 1 in The World's 50 Best Restaurants in 2018.

So... arguably the best chef in the entire world. On YouTube. Showing you how he cooks. How he thinks.

Yet his videos only get 10-20k views. That might sound like a lot on the surface, but pay attention to view counts on YouTube and you'll find random housewives consistently getting hundreds of thousands of views for their cooking videos.

I think you have to consider that some sort of failure. Market inefficiency, false negative, non-meritocratic, whatever.

Another good example is David Heinemeier Hansson. Another wildly successful and influential person. DHH is the creator of Ruby on Rails, which is perhaps the most popular web framework out there. He also is a best selling author, and founder of an incredibly successful company, Basecamp.

I feel like I didn't do him justice. He's one of the people I think of when I think about who's had an impact on me. Maybe I should have let Wikipedia introduce him like I did for Massimo.

Anyway, DHH has a YouTube channel where he lets you inside his brain and shows you how he thinks about writing software. How many views do you think those videos get? It's in the same ballpark as Massimo: 10-60k. And also similar to Massimo, you can find people who are way less qualified consistently getting hundreds of thousands of views on similar videos.

I want to focus on my core point here. DH6, not DH5. You might be able to make points about how being brilliant doesn't necessarily make you good on camera, or about how marketing and promotion matters a lot, or about releasing videos on a consistent schedule, or about how maybe they're not producing the types of content YouTube viewers want to watch. Some of those might be fair points, but do you think that they refute my core point? My core point is that there are people like DHH, like Massimo, who should be getting way more views on their videos, given the quality of the content they're producing and what they've done to promote that content. Do you disagree with that?

Here are some examples of very high quality content coming from what I'd consider to be diamonds in the rough, rather than being from famous people like DHH and Massimo:

Maybe you're thinking to yourself: "Ok? So, what's your point?" My point is just that it's not meritocratic. That quite often, the best don't rise to the top.

Again, maybe you're still thinking to yourself: "Yeah, of course the best don't always rise to the top. Duh. Is that it?"

Yeah, pretty much. If this point is already obvious to you, then this post probably won't be very interesting. I'm just saying things you already know. But to me, it's not obvious. I still have an instinct that the best stuff would rise to the top way more often than it actually does.

I should be upfront about something: I have a pretty big personal attachment to this question. I spent over five years working on two separate startups that both failed pretty miserably. And in both cases, I felt like the market wasn't very fair to me. I felt like I had pretty good quality products, and that my level of success was not even close to proportionate to the quality I produced. Well, not just the quality of the product, I'm trying to talk about product + marketing + everything else. My logic was, roughly:

If my quality is, say, a 7/10, my level of success should be somewhere in that ballpark. Maybe the market would be inefficient and I'd only reach a 5/10 or a 4/10. Or maybe I'd be lucky and reach an 8/10 or 9/10.

That didn't happen. And if you talk to other startup founders, I'm sure they'll tell you that I'm not alone. Paul Graham likes to say that you have to be 10x better than the competition to overcome inertia. That is so true.

I think the same thing is true in other fields too. Cooking is one that comes to mind. I know that over time, I've walked into random little restaurants that seemed to be pretty low on business, but had fantastic food! And it's not like the location or service were terrible or something. They did really well on whatever all encompassing metric of quality you want to use. But despite that, they had very little success.

I've been watching the show Chefs Table on Netflix recently. They basically do a little profile/biography on different world class chefs, and I've been noticing a similar trend where early in their careers they had serious problems with lack of success. Financial issues, depression, coming close to closing down, in some cases acutally going out of business and then re-opening. And then, for whatever reason, in comes a rush of success.

But the quality didn't really change! Maybe it changed a little bit, but not enough to account for the amount of change in success. It's not like quality went from 3/10 to 10/10, more like 9.5/10 to 10/10, perhaps. Before the rush of success, they were basically the same world class chefs producing the same incredible food. For whatever reason, the success just didn't come. They hadn't risen to the top yet. They were still diamonds in the rough.

I get the sense that lack of meritocracy is an issue in most fields, not just startups and cooking. I recall an anecdote about writing and the arts from a blog post I read today:

Further, I also know that many writers who are Quite Fucking Good go completely unnoticed throughout their lives. As is the case with virtually everything in the arts, it’s not exactly an easy thing to do — to be externally successful.

Again, I don't really have any insightful takeaways here. I've just been noticing myself slowly realizing that the best don't always rise to the top, and these are the examples that have been sticking out to me.

34 comments

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comment by gjm · 2021-03-25T09:39:50.123Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not only has Massimo Bottura's YouTube channel failed to rise to the top of (say) YouTube channels you find if you go looking for cookery content on YouTube -- it's failed to rise to the top of YouTube channels you find if you put "Massimo Bottura" into the YouTube search box. (I think its first appearance on the page when you do that is in 29th position.)

[EDITED to add:]

... having said which, I'm not so sure that's a bad thing. I took a look at a couple of his videos. One was (for me) practically unwatchable, consisting mostly of Bottura and (I assume) his family being annoyingly loud; I bailed after a few minutes of near-content-free video. Another was just an advertisement for some masterclass thing he's selling. I tried another video with some actual cookery in it and forced myself to watch all of it despite his annoying family, background noise, terrible camerawork, etc. I learned a bit, but if there was anything in it that revealed 3-star Michelin chef magic I missed it.

He may be a brilliant chef, but I don't think his YouTube channel is "the best" or deserves to "rise to the top".

Replies from: frcassarino, adamzerner
comment by frcassarino · 2021-03-25T12:39:29.212Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

His videos are clearly filmed with a phone, vertically, with no effort whatsoever in terms of production.Also he posted around 15 videos in the span of a couple of monhts, and never posted again. If you contrast that with cooking channels like Adam Ragusea, it's pretty clear why it didn't become as popular. 

comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-25T19:09:53.713Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My perspective is that things like the camerawork and background noise in his videos a) aren't particularly bad, and b) given (a), I'd think it'd only knock him down a few points. Maybe from, let's say 800k views to 700k or 600k, not all the way down to 10-20k (very ballpark-y of course).

As far as Michelin chef magic, personally I feel like I have picked up some things, like the amount of ingredients he uses. I see it as valuable to be able to watch someone with that degree of mastery. A lot of times such people don't actually know how to explain or articulate what they're doing correctly, so observing them can be hit or miss, but still seems pretty valuable to me.

Replies from: gjm, abramdemski, dmnissley
comment by gjm · 2021-03-25T21:59:13.960Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not just the camerawork and background noise. The information density is low. The bad camerawork, as well as being annoying in itself, makes it difficult to see any details of what he's up to, so you can't e.g. improve your knife skills by observing exactly what he does when chopping things. He explains rather little of what he's doing. At least in the video I watched all of, things like quantities and times are left unspecified. He wasn't doing anything particularly imaginative or highly polished. I can readily believe that I was watching a master at work, but I don't think there's anything much to distinguish what I saw from what I'd have seen if he'd been secretly replaced by a merely-competent professional chef.

(To be clear, I'm not claiming that all the things I describe are bad. What's relevant here is that they make it matter less just how good he is.)

Why, concretely, would I watch one of his videos?

  • To learn some specific fact or recipe. (For that, a book is usually better.)
  • To observe his technique doing some "ordinary" thing. (For that, the difference between a three-star Michelin chef and an ordinarily competent professional line cook is probably small. The line cook may actually be better at it -- they probably do it more than Bottura does. If some random merely-OK professional has a YouTube channel with better presentation and/or more variety of things, they're better for this than Bottura. A highly skilled amateur might be just as good for my purposes, in fact; the professional may use some technique that works very well but takes hundreds of hours of practice to do competently, and watching them do it may do little to improve my sub-professional skills if I'm not going to put in those hundreds of hours. And the amateur may make mistakes and then fix them, which the professional is much less likely to do but might be instructive.)
  • To observe his technique doing some unusual thing that he, specifically, is particularly good at. (That would be good. I don't know of any examples on his channel. Do you?)
  • To learn from his probably-exceptional culinary judgement. (Plausible, if there were actually anything on his channel demonstrating that judgement. I didn't see any examples in the quick look I had. Did you?)
  • To be inspired by his probably-exceptionally-ingenious ideas: combinations of ingredients I'd never have thought of, etc. (Also plausible. Also no examples apparent to me.)
  • To be entertained. (If what I want is merely entertainment, I can turn to TV star Gordon Ramsay, also a multi-Michelin-star chef-proprietor. Or to cooking-comedy channels like You Suck At Cooking. Or many other things. I certainly wouldn't go to Bottura's videos, which I find grating rather than entertaining.)
  • For the experience of watching a Great Person at work. (I guess? But that isn't a thing I particularly value, except to whatever extent I can see their Greatness actually being operative and learn from it, which -- see above -- doesn't seem to be the case for Bottura's YouTube channel.)

I'm quite sure that if you gave Bottura a skilled production team and used multiple hours of his time per episode, he could produce something as good as anything else out there. I bet he's a more skilled cook than, say, Ramsay at this point. But doing that hasn't been his priority -- no doubt he prefers to get on with cooking and with running a restaurant (and, lately, with spending time with his family during the deadly worldwide plague) -- and that's perfectly OK. But it means that what he does produce is neither very instructive nor very enjoyable to watch. For me, at least.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-26T02:46:17.515Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why, concretely, would I watch one of his videos?

Good idea about getting more concrete. Here are some examples that come to mind:

  • A few weeks ago I had some leftover pasta and meatballs. The pasta wasn't enough to feed myself and my girlfriend, so I opened up a box of pasta that was shaped differently, eg. rigatoni when the leftovers were shells, and mixed it with the sauce and meatballs. My girlfriend was upset and thought that was really weird. I left that experience feeling confused about my culinary intuitions, because while she had strong feelings about it, it seemed perfectly fine to me. Fast forward to a week or two ago, I watched one of Massimo's videos where he cooked mac 'n' cheese, and he too used many different shapes of pasta. Seeing that, I update my beliefs pretty strongly towards such a thing being reasonable, because I trust his intuition. There are caveats of course. Fine dining is a different context than a casual Wednesday night meal. Maybe it makes sense to do "weird" things in the former context but not in the latter. These are things to think about, but I believe that there is still a pretty good amount of value in watching someone like Massimo make decisions. I think I can use my common sense to make reasonable updates to my beliefs. Not just about the specific instance (eg. different types of pasta), but about the more general category (doing "weird" things). Contrast this with watching, let's call it Some Random YouTuber. For Some Random YouTuber, I don't have that same amount of trust in their intuition, and thus I can't make the same updates to my beliefs. Let me provide some additional concrete examples.
  • In that same mac 'n' cheese video, his bechamel sauce wasn't too crazy. He didn't do anything too fancy to it. This surprised me a little bit. I would have expected a chef like him to have tricks up his sleeve, but that didn't really happen.
  • Or maybe it did. Maybe the trick is using super high quality ingredients. I've been getting the impression that for more mundane ingredients like milk and flour he tends to use the type of stuff you'd get at the supermarket, but for ingredients like parmigiano reggiano, he always seems to have some sort of super high quality version. He doesn't really emphasize it though. Maybe this is just an instinct that great chefs have. "Well duh, of course you wouldn't just use parmigiano reggiano from the supermarket."
  • Still in that same video, I thought it was a little interesting that he used so many different types of cheeses. I'm not sure what conclusions to draw from that. It's something that I've sorta stashed away to keep in mind and come back to.
  • I noticed that he added chunks of ricotta cheese. I have a feeling there's something important there: heterogeneity. Instead of just a uniform flavor throughout, you get these pockets of something with a different flavor and texture. Again, he didn't really call this out specifically, and if he were a better video maker I think it's something he would have talked about (Kenji Lopez-Alt does a fantastic job of this), but I still find it pretty cool to be able to observe him and try to take what I can from it. Maybe this is one of those things that is obvious to him that he doesn't even think to mention.
  • I've heard the term "mise en place" before. It means that you should prep your ingredients before you start cooking. I've always wondered whether that's just something that people say but in practice, when good chefs are actually cooking at home for their families, that just goes out the window. I noticed that in his videos he always has stuff prepped. I interpret that as weak evidence because it could be because he's filming, but it's something.

I could continue to give more examples like these if you're interested, but I think this probably gets the point across about the value I see in getting to watch someone who's a master.

To learn some specific fact or recipe. (For that, a book is usually better.)

Maybe. His videos aren't about that, but I happen to be someone who watches a ton of culinary YouTube stuff and has also read books, and IMO there are a lot of subtle things you pick up with video that you don't pick up in text + pictures (many books are annoyingly light on pictures too).

To observe his technique doing some "ordinary" thing.

Yeah, I agree that this isn't a compelling reason to watch him.

To observe his technique doing some unusual thing that he, specifically, is particularly good at.

Nothing comes to mind for me here.

To learn from his probably-exceptional culinary judgement.

I think this is the big one. I tried to address it in my first block of text.

To be inspired by his probably-exceptionally-ingenious ideas: combinations of ingredients I'd never have thought of, etc.

To me this feels like there's a lot of overlap with culinary judgement, and my response is similar.

To be entertained.

This is certainly a reason I'd expect people to watch his videos, and a secondary reason why I enjoyed watching them. I agree that there are better options out there, like Ramsay perhaps. And I agree that it makes sense for the existence of such options to take away from Botturas viewers. But not as much as it actually does in practice. I would expect that him being ranked as the worlds best chef would provide a lot more entertainment value than actually has in reality.

For the experience of watching a Great Person at work.

Similar to the above, except I wouldn't expect as much interest purely for being a Great Person.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2021-03-26T09:55:08.779Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the concrete examples. Of course the drawback of getting concrete is that since my reasons for finding them uncompelling are also rather concrete and specific and don't fit into any particular pattern, it's not clear what conclusions to draw :-). But:

  • I already make pasta-bake dishes with different kinds of pasta, and I didn't need to watch a multi-Michelin chef to tell me that was OK.
  • My bechamel sauces are already pretty simple.
  • I already try to use high-quality ingredients. (This is a thing that's emphasized, e.g., in a lot of cookery books.) It may be that the likes of Bottura are better than I am at seeing which ingredients it matters more for, but I think I have reasonable intuitions for this already.
  • I already make pasta-bake dishes with different kinds of cheese, and again I didn't need a multi-Michelin chef to tell me this. (If there's a specific thing I learned this from, it's probably the experience of eating a "quatro formaggi" pizza many many years ago. No multi-Michelin chefs involved there either.)
  • When I make pasta-bake dishes I already leave the cheese in chunks. Again, no multi-Michelin chefs involved.
  • I agree that the fact that he has his ingredients prepped before the start of each video is some evidence that mise en place matters even in non-restaurant situations. But (1) there are already plenty of cookery books aimed at home cooks urging you to bother with mise en place, (2) there are plenty of non-world-class cooking YouTubers who also get their ingredients prepped before they start / at the start, so you could learn the same lesson elsewhere, and (3) it shouldn't be very strong evidence because another explanation is just that watching someone finding things in their cupboards doesn't make very compelling video.

Maybe there is a pattern to the above: the things you say you learned from watching a master at work, I (and I'm fairly sure many others) managed to learn in other ways, which suggests (though of course it doesn't prove) that the advantage of watching a world-class chef rather than a merely professionally-competent one is not very large. (It suggests it in two ways. First of all, if I learned those things from people less stellar than Bottura then other people can too. Second, if even I know that you can make a good pasta dish with a variety of different pasta shapes and cheeses, then it seems a fair guess that a large proportion of cooks much more skilled than I am also know that, which in particular means that most merely-competent-professional level cooks know it, which means you could learn it from them too.)

Let me mention two things I haven't accounted for. (1) It may be that any competent cook could teach the same lessons but that they're easier to learn from someone you know is world-class, because you find what they say more believable. That might be true, but if so I think it's an individual quirk rather than something that makes world-class teachers much better. I don't have any particular difficulty believing advice I get from merely-competent chefs, and I'm pretty sure that's typical. (2) It may be that any competent cook could teach the same lessons but would also teach other anti-lessons, and that what distinguishes Bottura-level chefs is that they don't have misconceptions to pass on. That might be true, but I haven't so far noticed that when I watch Bottura (or Ramsay, who at least has been at something close to Bottura's level) or read books by the likes of Keller or Robuchon I keep thinking "oh, gosh, that contradicts something I thought I knew from reading/watching lesser chefs".

To be clear, I'm not rejecting the idea that one might sometimes learn more from watching a top-level chef like Bottura than from watching Binging with Babish (skilled amateur) or Bon Appetit (mostly merely-competent professional) or whatever. But the skill level of a teacher is not the only thing that determines the effectiveness of their teaching, and it seems to me that even if the only thing you care about in your cooking videos is how much they teach you (and not at all about entertainment, the illusion of getting to know a nice friendly person, etc.) a carefully thought out, well presented video from an ordinary professional is likely to teach you more than one of Bottura's.

This is partly because I think Bottura's are unusually bad in all respects other than his own skill. If someone put together a series where they went to the home kitchens of, say, a dozen Michelin-level chefs, talked to them for ten minutes about what they were about to make, did a single take using no more than an hour of the chef's time for a half-hour video, and gave it just enough editing to not suck too badly, I suspect that would make very good YouTube content, it would teach viewers a lot, and I personally would probably watch the hell out of it. It wouldn't need to be at Ramsay's level of slickness or stuffed with jokes or anything. And my guess is that something like that would actually do pretty well on YouTube.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-26T17:11:14.472Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hm, I think we agree about a lot of things. There are a lot of people I'd prefer to watch over Bottura for all of the reasons you said. But I like to supplement the other stuff with Bottura. Which, actually, sounds like something you also agree with.

I agree that all of the examples I gave are things that you could pick up, probably more efficiently, from other sources. But 1) getting the stamp of approval from someone like Bottura allows for a belief update that I think is larger than the update you can perform by hearing the sixth moderately skilled YouTuber preach it to you.

And more importantly, 2) there's gotta be some "secret sauce" that distinguishes a master like Bottura from the rest! Which we agree on. So...

2a) I personally enjoy getting to observe him and trying to figure out what it is. Is this a quirk of mine? I'm not sure. I get the sense that it's maybe 30% me being unusually interested in this, and 70% a thing that a lot of people would enjoy.

2b) Maybe the examples I gave haven't hit the nail on the head in terms of me figuring out the secrets. Maybe none of the examples I have succeeded in this. But I suspect that over time you'd pick some of this "secret sauce" up, even if it's moreso subconsciously/via osmosis. Mopping up "secret sauce" isn't really the most practical goal for someone like you or me, which is why I spend more time watching Adam Ragusea, who is extremely practical and a great teacher, but as a supplement, I think it's fun to spend some time seeking out the secret sauce.

And my guess is that something like that would actually do pretty well on YouTube.

I agree!


FWIW, after talking this through, with you and elsewhere, I've come to believe that Botturas YouTube channel is a pretty bad example of the larger point I'm trying to make in this post about the best frequently not rising to the top. Well, not necessarily "the best" and "the top". Moreso about quality and reception.

I think a much better example is with his restaurant! Iirc from Chefs Table, he struggled for a while, and then success came very quickly after he received a good review or some magazine ranked him. So then, quality didn't really change (food + ambiance + service + location + whatever else), but reception changed significantly. I suspect that this sort of thing happens all of the time, and that what abramdemski proposes [LW(p) · GW(p)] about getting the right exposure and then benefiting from a snowball effect is a very plausible explanation.

comment by abramdemski · 2021-03-25T19:38:45.053Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems to assume roughly linear relationship between quality and reception. As I mentioned in my other comment, this seems far from necessary. We can have something like an exponential relationship between the two, in which case a small difference in quality can create a massive difference in reception.

I just don't get why you think moderately bad camera work should a priori best be thought of as some percentage of views lost (taking something from 800k to 700k or 600k) rather than in orders of magnitude (taking something from 800k to 80k or 8k).

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-25T20:03:40.701Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good point, exponential does seem like it could sense. I'm not sure.

comment by dmnissley · 2021-03-25T20:05:52.282Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're underweighting production quality (false consensus bias?). Just as an example, my girlfriend is big into youtube, but she only watches high production channels, and will quickly skip past anything that looks like it's been shot on a phone. She'll also basically refuse to watch any movie or show that was shot before about the year 2000 for similar reasons.

Another big factor is personality of the creators. She likes to watch channels where she feels some connection to the creators. They're usually a couple of people or more where there is entertaining and comedic banter that's always going on besides whatever subject the actual video is about. It's chiefly entertainment for her, with any educational content just being a bonus.

I would posit that most people who watch youtube have preferences closer to hers than to yours, although my own are probably closer to yours.

Here's an example of the kind of video I'm talking about: 

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-25T20:50:24.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, maybe. My thinking is that some people care about it more than others, but in my experience watching YouTube videos (and I happen to watch a ton of cooking videos on YouTube), I recall seeing videos that seem basically even to Massimo in terms of production quality, personality, etc., yet have hundreds of thousands of views.

comment by Dave Lindbergh (dave-lindbergh) · 2021-03-25T15:30:46.138Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sigh. To make something work in a competitive world, you need to make it work on all the relevant metrics - at least "good enough" on all of them, and better than the competition on some of them.

Suppose you offer a product that's measured on 4 metrics (imagine: quality, speed, price, size, ease of use, beauty, weight, ...), A, B, C, D.

Some potential customers will weigh some metrics more heavily than others. Some will ignore some metrics completely. But in general you need to do at least 5/10 on all of them and better than that on some of them.

Metric A: 7/10

Metric B: 8/10

Metric C: 2/10

Metric D: 10/10

That's a losing product. It's fantastic on D, but bad on C, and that kills it for most customers. Maybe there are a few people who don't care much about C and will love the product. But not many.

That's what happened to Massimo Bottura (C was production quality). You're the weird customer who doesn't care about C and notices mainly D. 

Probably that's what happened to your startups.

Sorry - it's tough. But that's the reality.

---

Added: Of course the same is true for other competitions, for example mate selection. Happily most people are only looking for a single mate, so it's not that difficult to find somebody who values D a lot, C hardly at all, and also measures well on your own preferred metrics.

It's not that easy for a startup or a YouTuber, who need numbers.

Replies from: Dagon, adamzerner
comment by Dagon · 2021-03-25T17:16:44.297Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yup.  The modeling error here is that "quality" is a single dimension, and that it's both absolute and roughly linear in value.  All three of these are false.  What Dave Lindbergh is calling "metric", I'd call "dimension of value" (because the metric is an indicator of the value, not the value itself.  Also, because metric implies universality, and value is relative and marginal).

There are hundreds (or perhaps tens of thousands) of dimensions of value, which have different scales and weightings for different customers.  As pointed out, having experts agree that one is providing the values to the critics and high-end customers that make them a top restaurateur does not correlate terribly well to those that make for popular youtube videos.   

comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-25T19:24:46.565Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with the general point but disagree that that's happening with Massimo, and more generally with the other examples of lack of success. I do think that's part of what happened with my startups though.

comment by gwern · 2021-03-26T14:59:17.330Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the most interesting media experiments I know of is the Yahoo Media experiments:

  1. "Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market", Salganik et al 2006:

    We investigated this paradox experimentally, by creating an artificial ‘‘music market’’ in which 14,341 participants downloaded previously unknown songs either with or without knowledge of previous participants’ choices. Increasing the strength of social influence increased both inequality and unpredictability of success. Success was also only partly determined by quality: The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.

  2. "Web-Based Experiments for the Study of Collective Social Dynamics in Cultural Markets", Salganik & Watts 2009:

    Using a ‘‘multiple-worlds’’ experimental design, we are able to isolate the causal effect of an individual-level mechanism on collective social outcomes. We employ this design in a Web-based experiment in which 2,930 participants listened to, rated, and downloaded 48 songs by up-and-coming bands. Surprisingly, despite relatively large differences in the demographics, behavior, and preferences of participants, the experimental results at both the individual and collective levels were similar to those found in Salganik, Dodds, and Watts (2006)...A comparison between Experiments 1 and 2 reveals a different pattern. In these experiments, there was little change at the song level; the correlation between average market rank in the social influence worlds of Experiments 1 and 2 was 0.93.

This is analogous to test-retest error: if you run a media market with the same authors, and same creative works, how often do you get the same results? Forget completely any question about how much popularity correlates with 'quality' - does popularity even correlate with itself consistently? If you ran the world several times, how much would the same songs float to the top?

The most relevant rank correlation they seem to report is rho=0.93*. That may seem high, but the more datapoints there are, the higher the necessary correlation soars to give the results you want.

A rho=0.93 implies that if you had a million songs competing in a popularity contest, the #1 popular song in our world would probably be closer to only the #35,000th most popular song in a parallel world's contest as it regresses to the mean (1000000 - (500000 + (500000 * 0.93))). (As I noted the other day [LW(p) · GW(p)], even in very small samples you need extremely high correlations to guarantee double-maxes or similar properties, once you move beyond means; our intuitions don't realize just what an extreme demand we make when we assume that, say, J.K. Rowling must be a very popular successful writer in most worlds simply because she's a billionaire in this world, despite how many millions of people are writing fiction and competing with her. Realistically, she would be a minor but respected author who might or might not've finished out her HP series as sales flagged for multi-volume series; sort of like her crime novels published pseudonymously.)

Then toss in the undoubtedly <<1 correlation between popularity and any 'quality'... It is indeed no surprise that, out of the millions and millions of chefs over time, the best chefs in the world are not the most popular YouTube chefs. Another example of 'the tails comes apart' [LW · GW] at the extremes and why order statistics is counterintuitive.

* They also report a rho=0.52 from some other experiments, which are arguably now more relevant than the 0.93 estimate. Obviously, if you use 0.52 instead, my point gets much much stronger: then, out of a million, you regress from #1 to #240,000!

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-26T17:18:19.550Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is fantastic. Thank you!

comment by Richard Horvath · 2021-03-25T13:18:54.704Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that often the best don't rise to the top, but you have bad examples here.

You are confusing expertise in different domains: just because one is exceptional in something, it does not follow they are good at teaching it or making videos of it.
This is especially apparent in Bottura's channel. He might be the best chef in the world, but his youtube content is mediocre.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-25T20:09:58.685Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are confusing expertise in different domains: just because one is exceptional in something, it does not follow they are good at teaching it or making videos of it.

I agree about there being different domains, that each is important, and that expertise in one does not imply expertise or even competency in another.

You might be able to make points about how being brilliant doesn't necessarily make you good on camera, or about how marketing and promotion matters a lot, or about releasing videos on a consistent schedule, or about how maybe they're not producing the types of content YouTube viewers want to watch.

What I was trying to get at is that all things considered, if you encapsulated all of that in some one-number metric of quality, a) IMO all of the examples I gave were very high quality, and 2) in general, I have a strong impression that very high quality frequently doesn't lead to success.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2021-03-25T21:57:11.319Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe the one-number metric that matters on YouTube has a very strong component of how technically well the video was made.

Like, even if someone who "deserves it" makes technically great videos and gets tons of followers, most of them follow the channel for "wrong reasons", that is, they would not have subscribed if the same content had lower technical quality. So if someone who "deserves it" makes technically crappy videos, they only get a few followers.

In other words, most people watch YouTube because they want some short funny visual experience. Not because they want to learn from world-class experts. Okay, maybe they watch something short funny visually attractive that allows them to pretend to themselves that they are doing it to learn.

That would kinda reduce your thesis to "the best at X frequently don't rise to the top when Y matters". The difficult part is figuring out what exactly it is that matters on YouTube (or on the market).

comment by eihli · 2021-03-25T13:04:39.246Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My core point is that there are people like DHH, like Massimo, who should be getting way more views on their videos, given the quality of the content they're producing and what they've done to promote that content. Do you disagree with that?

 

What do you mean by "... who should be getting way more views... ...Do you disagree with that?" (To provide context around my thoughts as I write, I'm thinking of the phrase "the purpose of a system is what it does".)

I'm thinking there's at least two meanings with at least two different ways to interpret. 

First, you could mean "I have an understanding of the system that leads me to expect a different distribution of popularity by viewcount. I have an understanding of the system. Good content -> high viewcount. It should do this. It does that. Do you disagree?" 

Second, you could mean "I have an understanding of meritocratic justice such that the distribution of popularity as judged by viewcount is unfair. Good content -> high viewcount. Life should be this way. It is that way. Do you disagree?" 

If neither of those hit the mark or if anyone has alternatives, I'd like to know.

For the first interpretation, "do you disagree" can't really be applied to your understanding of the system. You understand it the way you do. I suppose a similar question that might be more appropriate could be "How might the system differ from my expectation such that I am surprised by this behavior?" A brief response to that question would be something along the lines of YouTube's purpose having to do with money, algorithms to keep people viewing and clicking on ads, what makes something viral, etc...

For the second interpretation, that might be a long-winded philosophical topic that I expect could be summed up with "Yeah... that sucks."

Replies from: adamzerner, gworley
comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-26T04:12:18.371Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Definitely closer to the first than the second. I'm not trying to touch on the second at all, but I also don't think the first is entirely accurate either. In all honesty, I'm having trouble articulating what it is that I am trying to articulate. Let me give it another stab:

  • Imagine a metric that encapsulated everything related to quality. Call it "encapsulated quality". (I'm not just trying to point at "raw quality" alone in this post. I am totally onboard with the idea that various other things matter.)
  • Imagine a world where "encapsulated quality" leads to reception pretty reliably.
  • In that world, I'd expect people like Massimo to have much, much more reception, and people like Random Shitty YouTuber With Hundreds of Thousands of Views to have much less reception. Do you disagree with that?
  • Those expectations I have aren't matching various things I've been observing in this world.
  • Therefore, I'm developing a strong inclination that quality doesn't reliably lead to reception in our world. Instead, like MaximumSkull says [LW(p) · GW(p)], it's more that it helps stack the deck in your favor.
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2021-03-26T01:49:08.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this gets at the heart of the confusion I see in this post, specifically confusion around the work "best" is doing, although highlighting "should" works just as well. I'd argue there's no fact of the matter about who should get more views, there's just the question of who actually gets more views and whether view count correlates with personal judgments of quality. That a person doesn't like what others do is not surprising to me.

On a more concrete note, never underestimate how much many people like liking things that other people like. Popular stuff is popular because it's popular past some threshold where positive feedback kicks in.

comment by romeostevensit · 2021-03-25T09:11:38.242Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Taste is illegible to people without it.

comment by Maximum_Skull · 2021-03-25T08:10:42.288Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The meritocratic part is the best are significantly more likely to rise to the top, real world is best thought of as a stochastic place, full of imperfect information and surprises.
Being the best at content creation is not the same as being the best at YouTube: size of one's target demographic matters, the ability to self-promote matters, ability to network matters, ad-friendliness of content matters... Akin to evolution, the system does not select the *best* creators in the conventional sense of creating the best videos, being the best at writing and so on. In fact, one might argue for the opposite being the default [? · GW].
The selection criteria are messy, the variance in outcomes is significant, the variance in perceived selection criteria even more so. 
My takeaway is that one should be lucky and avoid being unlucky, while trying to stack the deck as much as one can in order to manipulate variance.
 

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-25T20:57:23.008Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The meritocratic part is the best are significantly more likely to rise to the top, real world is best thought of as a stochastic place, full of imperfect information and surprises.

That makes sense, I agree.

comment by aphyer · 2021-03-25T19:38:12.298Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Without commenting on the rest of your point, this part:

If my quality is, say, a 7/10, my level of success should be somewhere in that ballpark. Maybe the market would be inefficient and I'd only reach a 5/10 or a 4/10. Or maybe I'd be lucky and reach an 8/10 or 9/10.

is something I don't think you should necessarily have expected from a market to begin with.  Assuming that your startup was in a scalable field (e.g. a software company as opposed to a restaurant) with an efficient market, what you expect to happen is that quality 7/10 should lead to success 0/10 - there is no reason that anyone would buy from you when they could instead buy from a 10/10.

In reality there are lots of reasons this isn't quite the case.  Maybe your product is 7/10 overall but genuinely the best in the world for certain specific users/use cases.  (C++ and Python both continue to exist).  Maybe the market just isn't very efficient and some people end up buying inferior products.  (PHP also continues to exist).  But on the whole expecting a 7/10 product to experience a 7/10 success is not actually what you should expect to see.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-25T20:16:45.196Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed. I think the caveat you make about some people preferring one and others preferring another use case is an important one, but in general I agree that my logic was wrong and it's an important mistake to avoid.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2021-03-25T17:14:43.797Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Quantity/frequency matters.

Algorithms should minimize the chance that initial luck (bad or good) leaves a lasting effect on end popularity.

Really great, accessible stuff pumped out regularly will eventually rise.

Replies from: Dagon
comment by Dagon · 2021-03-25T19:03:31.066Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Algorithms should minimize the chance that initial luck (bad or good) leaves a lasting effect on end popularity.

Why would algorithms care about that at all?  They're optimizing clicks, and I see no reason they'd want to give up any power to try to reverse the effects of luck.

comment by Archimedes · 2021-03-25T22:31:51.277Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The idea that better quality cooking corresponds to higher viewership is only a rough expectation even when all else is held equal, which never actually happens. YouTube popularity is highly memetic and subject to algorithms, network effects, and plain dumb luck. The factors involved in success are numerous and difficult to predict, but some of the most important factors are quality content, posting regularity, high entertainment value, viewer engagement, and having an angle or niche to stand out. Being the best cook in the world guarantees not a single one of these.

comment by abramdemski · 2021-03-25T19:31:01.076Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Funny enough, I've recently been contemplating asking a question here on LW like "what actually-quite-good youtube channels are out there?" precisely because I suspected there were a lot of hidden gems like you mention! I didn't get around to it, though, perhaps because watching youtube feels low status so I felt like it would be embarassing to visibly put effort into optimizing my youtube-watching.

Anyway, there are a few reasons why I thought this was a priori plausible:

  1. First and foremost, I see this as an example of the tails come apart (ie Goodhart). Even if quality and reception are very highly correlated, you should expect the top of the two to be different, based on noise alone. But maybe that's not satisfying: what's driving the noise? Why isn't reception exactly proportional to quality?
  2. A big factor here, for a lot of cases, is going to be network effects. Small fluctuations in popularity don't get corrected, they get exacerbated. Two people can release similarly great videos, and the fact that one gets its first views from the right people (who show all their friends) can snowball into a big lead. And this can snowball into making one channel a huge success while the other practically-equivalent channel is lost in obscurity.
  3. But there are also going to be a lot of "noise" factors that aren't random at all. EG, how clickbaity a video is. Out of two similar videos, if one is a little more informative but the other is a little more clickbaity, I expect the clickbaity one to do better.

The third point means we could see the tails come apart to a very high degree, even if there's no noise in the system at all. To possibilities like #3, you respond:

I want to focus on my core point here. DH6, not DH5. You might be able to make points about how being brilliant doesn't necessarily make you good on camera, or about how marketing and promotion matters a lot, or about releasing videos on a consistent schedule, or about how maybe they're not producing the types of content YouTube viewers want to watch. Some of those might be fair points, but do you think that they refute my core point? My core point is that there are people like DHH, like Massimo, who should be getting way more views on their videos, given the quality of the content they're producing and what they've done to promote that content. Do you disagree with that?

(I don't disagree at all, but) I think you're implicitly assuming something like: even if DHH is a little less clickbaity than competitors, this should only translate to a somewhat cooler reception. This is reinforced by your expectation that:

If my quality is, say, a 7/10, my level of success should be somewhere in that ballpark. Maybe the market would be inefficient and I'd only reach a 5/10 or a 4/10. Or maybe I'd be lucky and reach an 8/10 or 9/10.

But reception can be highly nonlinear, perhaps closer to exponential. So, at the upper ends of quality, small differences in quality lead to very large differences in reception.

We could see something like:

Quality      Reception

1/10          0/10

2/10          0/10

3/10          0/10

4/10          0/10

5/10          0/10

6/10          0/10

7/10          1/10

8/10          2/10

9/10          5/10

10/10          10/10

Again, even without randomness, in a system like this you could see the effects you're describing.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-26T03:37:56.367Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Funny enough, I've recently been contemplating asking a question here on LW like "what actually-quite-good youtube channels are out there?" precisely because I suspected there were a lot of hidden gems like you mention! I didn't get around to it, though, perhaps because watching youtube feels low status so I felt like it would be embarassing to visibly put effort into optimizing my youtube-watching.

Kenji!

Also I think you might really like Eric Normand. In particular the videos/podcasts where he spends 60-120 minutes exploring, distilling and discussing famous papers in computer science. It makes me sad that these videos only get a couple hundred views.

And if you happen to be into basketball/are curious about what the smart basketball people sound like, I have a special place in my heart for Thinking Basketball. If you end up watching any videos, I'd be interested to hear what you think of them! Especially if you aren't a sports person, and especially if you didn't like them :)

(I don't disagree at all, but)

Overall, I get the impression that we don't disagree about anything, and that I was a little misleading in my OP.

I think you're implicitly assuming something like: even if DHH is a little less clickbaity than competitors, this should only translate to a somewhat cooler reception.

I don't think that's what it is. Let me try to clarify. I agree that the "noise" factors you mention all matter in addition to "raw quality". Things like click-baitiness, production quality, personality, etc. Let's operationally define "quality" to be some metric that encapsulates "noise factors" + "raw quality". My judgement is that... let's say DHH's videos are a 7/10 in this metric. He's getting 30k views when others who I judge to be significantly worse in this "quality" metric, maybe a 3/10, that encapsulates a variety of factors, are getting 300k views or even 3M views. 7/10 quality → 3/10 reception, and 3/10 quality → 7/10 reception.

I think that what you propose here is a very plausible explanation for this:

A big factor here, for a lot of cases, is going to be network effects. Small fluctuations in popularity don't get corrected, they get exacerbated. Two people can release similarly great videos, and the fact that one gets its first views from the right people (who show all their friends) can snowball into a big lead. And this can snowball into making one channel a huge success while the other practically-equivalent channel is lost in obscurity.

I regret using the YouTube examples. I think a much better example is what I've seen watching Chefs Table where one lucky break such as being ranked in a magazine produces a snowball effect that takes someone like Massimo from obscurity to international acclaim shockingly quickly. I suspect that similar things happen all the time in fields like music, writing, arts, and business. Back to Massimo's restaurant: things like location, service, lighting, and ambiance ("noise factors") matter in addition to food quality ("raw quality"). But whether or not you rise to the top seems to often depend on that lucky break + snowball effect.

My point isn't about noise factors vs raw quality, or about linear vs exponential relationships between quality and reception. It's about significant inefficiencies and lucky breaks.

Well actually, I think I'm having trouble articulating what my point is. So think of the above as a WIP.

comment by 9eB1 · 2021-03-26T05:35:19.977Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I watched a few of the DHH, Eric Normand and Be a Better Dev videos. DHH's videos are very good, actually I was sucked into watching a couple, but he doesn't have very many. Also, your link points to his old channel, and now all those videos are https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9wALaIpe0Py6E_oHCgTrD6FvFETwJLlx, although he only did one more in that series. The couple Eric Normand videos were pretty good, I could imagine that there are really good ones somewhere in the feed. For Be a Better Dev, the videos seemed pretty low quality, very focused on learning AWS-specific technologies. It gave me the impression that he was just following traffic for what to talk about, the exact opposite of DHH. It's the equivalent of YouTube blogspam.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2021-03-26T06:03:55.785Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your input here, it's great to get some more data points!

For Eric Normand I think it can be a bit hit or miss. Some of them I find to be meh, but others I really love. Two that I've watched recently that I've loved were How is Haskell faster than C? and The Early History of Smalltalk. The former opened my eyes to a perspective on how to think about how "fast" a language is. The latter I really appreciated because he distilled a paper that I am interested in but otherwise would never have been able to parse. Again, it makes me very sad and confused that such videos only are getting a couple hundred views.

You're right about Be a Better Dev being very AWS focused. That's what I had in mind when I chose it as a channel that I like. I started a job somewhat recently where we use AWS stuff, and it's all new to me because I had never used it before. I've spent time googling around for content that explains AWS stuff, and his was a pretty clear winner for me. I check his channel before I read the docs. If you know of something better I'd love to hear about it.