How ideas spread – Gladwell may be wrong

Malcom Gladwell shot to worldwide fame with The Tipping Point by suggesting that for ideas to spread you need to attract certain influential and well connected people to get your idea started and to send it viral. He used examples of shoe companies finding trendy kids in New York to start sowing the seeds and so on.

New research however suggests he may have been wrong. A guy called Duncan Watts did some research into how things spread.

Watts set the test in motion by randomly picking one person as a trendsetter, then sat back to see if the trend would spread. He did so thousands of times in a row.

The results were deeply counterintuitive. The experiment did produce several hundred societywide infections. But in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected. Now they could infect 40 times more people than the average citizen (and again, when they kicked off a cascade, it was substantially larger). But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion.

Why didn’t the Influentials wield more power? With 40 times the reach of a normal person, why couldn’t they kick-start a trend every time? Watts believes this is because a trend’s success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend–not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded. And in fact, when Watts tweaked his model to increase everyone’s odds of being infected, the number of trends skyrocketed.

“If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can,” Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it’s less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public’s mood. Sure, there’ll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts’s terminology, an “accidental Influential.”

So it would seem that far more important than whether you can get influential people to spread the word for you is whether society (or your target market) is open to new ideas in the first place. If they’re not then it doesn’t matter who you get to spread the word, it isn’t going to stick.

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