In The remixing dilemma: The trade-off between generativity and originality [PDF], a paper just published in American Behavioral Scientist, Benjamin Mako Hill and Andrés Monroy-Hernández analyzed a data-set of projects from the Scratch website that had been made available for download and remixing. They were attempting to identify the formalattributes that made some projects more likely to attract remixers. As Mako describes in this summary, they found that the projects that were most remixed were neither overly complex (too intimidating) and finished, nor overly vague and undefined (too uninspiring). The Scratch dataset was a good one to study here, because it includes the number of times each project was viewed as well as the number of remixes it inspired, allowing the authors to calculate the probability that a project will inspire a remix while controlling for its overall popularity:
To test our theory that there is a trade-off between generativity and originality, we build a dataset that includes every Scratch remix and its antecedent. For each pair, we construct a measure of originality by comparing the remix to its antecedent and computing an “edit distance” (a concept we borrow from software engineering) to determine how much the projects differ.
We find strong evidence of a trade-off: (1) Projects of moderate complexity are remixed more lightly than more complicated projects. (2) Projects by more prominent creators tend to be remixed in less transformative ways. (3) Cumulative remixing tends to be associated with shallower and less transformative derivatives. That said, our support for (1) is qualified in that we do not find evidence of the increased originality for the simplest projects as our theory predicted.
We feel that our results raise difficult but important challenges, especially for the designers of social media systems. For example, many social media sites track and display user prominence with leaderboards or lists of aggregate views. This technique may lead to increased generativity by emphasizing and highlighting creator prominence. That said, it may also lead to a decrease in originality of the remixes elicited. Our results regarding the relationship of complexity to generativity and originality of remixes suggest that supporting increased complexity, at least for most projects, may have fewer drawbacks.