Thursday, January 17, 2008
Science New has an article about social influence that challenges some assumptions about how ideas spread through populations. Instead of focusing on “opinion leaders,” this research suggests that what matters more is “the influenced”:
More important than the influencers, the researchers found, were the influenced. Once an idea spread to a critical mass of easily influenced individuals, it took hold and continued to spread to other easily influenced individuals. In some networks, it was far easier to get an idea established this way than in others. The entire structure of the network mattered, not just the few influential people.Dodds compares the spread of ideas to the spread of a forest fire. When a fire turns into a conflagration, no one says that it was because the spark that began it was so potent. “If it had been raining,” Dodds says, “that same match wouldn’t have had an effect.” Instead, a fire takes off because of the properties of the larger forest environment: the dryness, the density, the wind, the temperature.
The upshot of the study, Dodds says, is that “in the end, you don’t have control over how people spread your message.” The best way to increase the odds of person-to-person transmission of an idea is to make it a good idea and to give it “social worth,” he says. “Some things are just fun to talk about.”
This leaves me with two points worth unpacking. First is that this means targeting key individuals (say, people who write popular mp3 blogs or maintain popular fan sites) is not enough. Better to spread an idea far and wide. Or better still, better to target those individuals AND places you might not expect an idea to catch hold. To use the ‘sparks start fires’ metaphor, different social ecosystems are going to have different environmental conditions, and a spark might only catch hold in one or two of the many places it’s seeded, yet spread effectively to those other spaces once launched elsewhere.
The other point I take from this is the point about “social worth.” If you want people to carry sparks around, you have to give them a reason. The sparks have to be appealing. This is what indie labels do so right when they give their singles away. People will proselytize with glee if they’re benefiting already from what you’re trying to spread AND if they think those they tell will be able to reap that same benefit. Give them good treats to spread and fans will happily… fan the flames. And to think we used to think the word “fan” came from “fanatic.”