Friday, March 16, 2007

We didn't start the fire

Took the time last night to read this eyebrow-raising piece by Sociologist Duncan Watts of Columbia. I've always questioned the Buzzmaniacs. A small percentage of people don't influence the rest of the world. Especially not across all topics and verticals. I might trust Friend in car advice but would never ask him what he thinks about Gadget A. Just like everybody has friends for bar nights and other friends for a movie night.

Watts bases the paper on various simulations that tests some of our common assumptions about influencers and how they spread their message throughout the world.
He claims that our mass society doesn't support the claim of buzz agencies that a few individuals spread the word more efficiently than others. The influentials don't have that much influence after all.

"In our models, influentials have a greater than average chance of triggering this critical mass, when it exists, but only modestly greater, and usually not even proportional to the number of people they influence directly."

Ultimately, he flips the buzz philosophy upside down by explaining that it doesn't matter who is particularly influential, but rather who is particularly susceptible to being influenced. And supports this claim with the image of forest fires:

"Some forest fires, for example, are many times larger than average; yet no-one would claim that the size of a forest fire can be in any way attributed to the exceptional properties of the spark that ignited it, or the size of the tree that was the first to burn. Major forest fires require a conspiracy of wind, temperature, low humidity, and combustible fuel that extends over large tracts of land. Just as for large cascades in social
influence networks, when the right global combination of conditions exists, any spark will do; and when it does not, none will suffice"

But, Duncan Watts understands where this idea of influentials is coming from: "...anytime some notable social change is recognized, whether it be a grassroots cultural fad, a successful marketing campaign, or a dramatic drop in crime rates, it is tempting to trace the phenomenon to the individuals who “started it,” and conclude that their actions or behavior “caused” the events that subsequently took place.

Indeed, because the outcome is already known, it is always possible to construct what looks like a causal story by picking out some of the defining details of the individuals in question—even when success is completely is tempting to assert that these individuals must have been special in some way—otherwise, how could the striking event that we now know happened have come to pass? Just because the outcome is striking, however, does not on its own imply that there is anything correspondingly special about the characteristics of the individuals involved or that their participation was either a necessary or sufficient condition for a change of the kind that occurred to have taken place."

These are just excerpts and I encourage everyone to read the whole paper. And, if time allows, read Brandweek's interview with Duncan Watts.

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