Fanning Viral Flames

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.”

Dipping a toe in the water

I had to laugh when I saw that dear Henry Jenkins has noticed in a month off blogging (what he terms his “own personal writer’s strike“) that maybe blogging upwards of 5000 words a day is kind of, um, time consuming and so, bad news he says, he’s cutting down to only 3 posts a week.

Man I admire that guy.

Myself? In nearly a month off of blogging I’ve noticed it’s easy to fall out of the habit, but here I am again, renewed refreshed all that stuff (or not) and eager to plunge into Blogging:2008.

That said, there’ve been so many things I thought to say in the last few weeks, it’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll ease myself in by linking to David Silver’s recent post about academic reviews of the book Critical Cyberculture Studies, that he co-edited with Adrienne Massanari. He links to three reviews, all very positive. I’ve got a chapter in there about finding the quality in qualitative methods that may be sneak peak into the approach advocated in Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method, the book I’ve co-edited with Annette Markham, which is scheduled for July release. Critical Cyberculture Studies is a very cool collection I’m happy to be part of, so it’s great to see it getting well-reviewed. From the blurb:

Taking stock of the exciting work that is being done and positing what cyberculture’s future might look like, Critical Cyberculture Studies brings together a diverse and multidisciplinary group of scholars from around the world to assess the state of the field. Opening with a historical overview of the field by its most prominent spokesperson, it goes on to highlight the interests and methodologies of a mobile and creative field, providing a much-needed how-to guide for those new to cyberstudies. The final two sections open up to explore issues of race, class, and gender and digital media’s ties to capital and commerce—from the failure of dot-coms to free software and the hacking movement.

This flagship book is a must-read for anyone interested in the dynamic and increasingly crucial study of cyberculture and new technologies.

Congratulations David and Adrienne and thanks for your work putting this collection together!