Is Britney the QWERTY Keyboard of Pop Culture?

Cite this Article
Thomas A. Lambert, Is Britney the QWERTY Keyboard of Pop Culture?, Truth on the Market (February 05, 2008),

I thought I would be safe in church. I thought I could avoid her there. But no, the minister had to mention Britney Spears during the sermon Sunday morning. I think the reference had something to do with keeping perspective and the ridiculousness of a motorcade escort to UCLA medical center. I’m not really sure. My mind immediately began to wander.

The question I was pondering was: Why is everyone so obsessed with her??? In case you haven’t noticed, her latest work sucks, and (much more importantly for purposes of media coverage) she’s looking pretty plain these days. Now, I don’t mean to be rude. She’s not hideous or anything. She looks, well, sort of average. But she’s just not hot, or even interesting. So why do gazillions of paparazzi follow her every move?

I was still mulling over The Britney Obsession as I continued reading William Page and John Lopatka’s fantastic new book, The Microsoft Case: Antitrust, High Technology, and Consumer Welfare. As many TOTM readers will recall, a primary theory underlying the government’s high-profile monopolization case against Microsoft was that the company had achieved its success because of “network effects” and was making efforts to protect the “applications barrier to entry” that preserved those effects and precluded the emergence of a serious rival (in particular, the Netscape Navigator/Java combination). Page and Lopatka explain network effects as follows (pp. 24-25):

[N]etwork effects are scale economies on the demand side. They arise when the user of the product receives not only the product’s inherent benefit, but also a network benefit that increases with the number of other users of the product. A telephone network, for example, is more attractive if it is larger and thus allows a member of the network to communicate with more people. … [A] computer operating system is used with various complementary goods, especially applications. Software vendors tend to write applications for the most popular operating system to reach the largest market, and the greater availability of applications in turn induces new users to choose that operating system. This positive feedback loop may cause the market to standardize on the product that gets the early lead in competition among incompatible standards. The theory even suggests that consumers may be locked in to a durable good with inferior qualities, simply because of its enormous network benefits.

Does this explain The Britney Obsession, at least in part? People follow Britney not because she’s that interesting but because they know tons of other people follow Britney, and they’ll therefore have lots of good fodder for the water-cooler. The media follow Britney because they know she has this “installed base” of followers. The abundance of media reports and photos makes Britney that much more interesting to follow. After all, everyone loves an unflattering candid shot, and when there are paparazzi everywhere, there are bound to be many such shots. We therefore end up with a positive feedback loop: Britney’s crazy because the paparazzi have essentially turned her into a caged animal, and she’s become a caged animal because she’s crazy.

Do you see what’s happening here? We’ve settled on a “standard” that, judged by its intrinsic merits alone, is probably not the best thing out there. But when we take account of how many people use that standard, it becomes most desirable. It’s like the QWERTY keyboard or VHS tape.

So is there any hope for Britney? In The Antitrust Enterprise, Herbert Hovenkamp explains that “when equipment based on a particular network standard is marketed and acquires a significant installed base, resistance to change becomes considerable and only a very large technological improvement will succeed in displacing the existing format.” The DVD standard, for example, was so superior that it eventually dethroned VHS.

Here’s hoping that a new pop idol emerges as the standard before Britney destroys herself.

UPDATE: Over at Organizations and Markets, my colleague Peter Klein analyzes this a bit further. Some nice points. (Be sure to check out the link to Paul David on Path Dependence.) Peter also notes that there’s a Wikipedia entry, Famous for Bring Famous, that gets at the phenomenon I’m discussing. The list of people falling into that category is pretty amusing.