American Idol - The Wisdom of Crowds?

April 3, 2007
Posted by Jay LivingstonI’ve posted here before about “prediction markets” and “the wisdom of crowds.” The Superbowl, the Oscars. Now it's American Idol time.

Many people wouldn’t have thought Sanjaya Malaker would still be on American Idol this late in the game. Now the odds on him have dropped to 18:1 (bet $100 and win $1800), more or less depending on which bookmaker. Melinda Doolitle is even money or better to win the whole thing (bet $100 and win $80).
Melinda Doolittle 4:5
Jordan Sparks 5:2
Blake Lewis 4:1
Lakisha Jones 5:1
Sanjaya Malakar 18:1
Chris Richardson 25:1
Gina Glocksen 30:1
Phil Stacey 35:1
Haley Scarnato 50:1

One of the things Sanjaya has going for him is Howard Stern. Yes, Mr. Stern isn’t just about strippers and sex toys. He takes a strong interest in culture and aesthetics, and recently he’s given a big boost to a grassroots movement that emerged from the website Vote for the Worst That site is encouraging fans to do just what the name says and vote for Sanjaya.

American Idol is resolutely democratic— the performers with the most votes stay. So if you can get the majority of Americans to vote for someone, he wins even if he’s the worst candidate. It might work for Howard Stern. It certainly worked for Karl Rove.

It works because American Idol is just that — American— and it exemplifies some of the curiosities and contradictions in American culture. To begin with, it turns something qualitative (the entertainment value of a performer) into something quantitative (a number of votes). Other contests do something similar, Olympic figure skating for example. But with American Idol, as Howard Stern is trying to show, that quantitative measure may have little to do with quality.

More interesting— and this is what seems peculiarly American about it— it is both democratic and egalitarian. The decision as to who is best is made not by experts but by anyone who sends in a vote. The assumption behind it is that we are all just as good as the so-called experts at making these decisions.

Americans don’t like people who come across as thinking they are better or smarter, and we especially don’t like those who claim to have more refined tastes. For a long time now, Republicans have won a lot of votes by attacking Democrats as the party of chardonnay-sipping, brie-eating, PBS-watching snobs. To be sure, on AI there is one critic who makes no bones about the superiority of his taste. But he’s the man we love to hate, Simon Cowell. And of course, he’s not an American.

There may also be something especially American in how we respond to these prizes. If we reject expert advice on matters of taste, if my judgment is just as good as anyone else’s, why don’t I just make my own decision? Can’t I decide for myself who’s the best and then buy his or her album?

But obviously Americans’ personal preferences are greatly affected by the outcome of these contests, whether the decision is made by a panel of experts (as in book awards), a larger vote of people in the business (the Academy Awards), or the general public (American Idol).

Surely in contests like these there cannot be very much difference between the winner and the entry that finished second. Or third or fourth for that matter. Yet the winner, no matter how narrow the margin, reaps large rewards at the box office or in album sales, while the runners-up are all but forgotten. Once the winner is decided, we all get in line.

There seems to be a contradiction between the American ideal of freedom and individualism on the one hand and the uniformity of our choices on the other. But that’s nothing new. As observers of American culture going back to deTocqueville have noted, Americans insist on their right to individual freedom, but they use that freedom to choose pretty much what everyone else is choosing. And they insist that others do likewise.

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