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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Not Always About Who You Know...

Check out this superb article "Is the Tipping Point Toast?" (Fast Company article via Mind Hacks) which critiques the concept of "Influentials" in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and highlights some of the interesting research data by network theorist Duncan Watts.

Social-networking tools are extensively used in marketing today, stemming from a belief that there exists a small group of highly-interconnected Influentials who play the major role in starting or propagating trends of any sort.

However, this belief is rarely put to a rigorous investigation and the assumption that these Influentials can be identified and targetted is made with the benefit of hindsight.

In fact, studies by Watts suggest the counterintuitive result that random Ordinary people are more likely to start trends than Influentials, and there is no way of telling in advance who that person will be.

He performed an interesting "turn back the clock" experiment (conceptually similiar to Richard Lenski's experiment in evolutionary biology) that was published in Science in 2006:

Watts wanted to find out whether the success of a hot trend was reproducible. For example, we know that Madonna became a breakout star in 1983. But if you rewound the world back to 1982, would Madonna break out again? To find out, Watts built a world populated with real live music fans picking real music, then hit rewind, over and over again. Working with two colleagues, Watts designed an online music-downloading service. They filled it with 48 songs by new, unknown, and unsigned bands. Then they recruited roughly 14,000 people to log in. Some were asked to rank the songs based on their own personal preference, without regard to what other people thought. They were picking songs purely on each song's merit. But the other participants were put into eight groups that had "social influence": Each could see how other members of the group were ranking the songs.

Watts predicted that word of mouth would take over. And sure enough, that's what happened. In the merit group, the songs were ranked mostly equitably, with a small handful of songs drifting slightly lower or higher in popularity. But in the social worlds, as participants reacted to one another's opinions, huge waves took shape. A small, elite bunch of songs became enormously popular, rising above the pack, while another cluster fell into relative obscurity.

But here's the thing: In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs--and the bottom ones--were completely different. For example, the song "Lockdown," by 52metro, was the No. 1 song in one world, yet finished 40 out of 48 in another. Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song's success seemed to be due to merit. "In general, the 'best' songs never do very badly, and the 'worst' songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible," he says. Why? Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.

Word of mouth and social contagion made big hits bigger. But they also made success more unpredictable. (And it's worth noting, no one in the social worlds had any more influence than anyone else.) So yes, Watts figures, if you rewound the world to 1982, Madonna would likely remain a total unknown--and someone else would have slipped into her steel-tipped corset. "You cannot predict in advance whether a band gets this huge cascade of popularity, because the social network is liable to throw up almost any result," he marvels.

Contingency is important, and the role of Influentials is highly exaggerated.

In any case, I find it curious that both Duncan Watts and I have a similar key criticism of The Tipping Point which I reviewed over three years ago - using a similar metaphor!

Watt's view:

Perhaps the problem with viral marketing is that the disease metaphor is misleading. Watts thinks trends are more like forest fires: There are thousands a year, but only a few become roaring monsters. That's because in those rare situations, the landscape was ripe: sparse rain, dry woods, badly equipped fire departments. If these conditions exist, any old match will do. "And nobody," Watts says wryly, "will go around talking about the exceptional properties of the spark that started the fire."

My view:

Just one match (Maven) in a fireworks factory can blow everything up. You don't need to set up a comprehensive network of fuses (Connector) and detonators (Salesman) first. In contrast, even a hundred detonators would have trouble blowing up a hydroponics farm.

We have both observed that an agent in the midst of change has a tendency to believe that she is the prime mover of the change, ignoring the contributions of others, preconditions in the environment and the vagaries of blind luck.

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