Sunday, March 29, 2009

Social epidemics. Contagious ideas on a social market.

I have just finished listening to Malcolm Gladwell's audio book of The Tipping Point. I definitely recommend this to everyone. This is one of those books that teaches you to visualize social networks from a different perspective. It's a glimpse into realizing how certain friendships are not entirely symmetric and how it is rather a complex web that could not have formed had you not met certain people.

A few people in the world have a special social role. There are certain individuals who bind assocations between whole groups of people, they are 'connectors'. Connectors are social specialists. They know everybody, or it seems like it. They are 'social hubs' that are connecting points between many people. People 'connect' with them so easily and it seems like their network is extensive even though they may not know everyone that well. The ability to connect people is an intrinsic value of the person being likable. The theory of connectors falls along Gladwell's concept of 'interactional synchrony', paired with the pattern of 'rhythmic physical dimension'. I believe that people have their own frequencies, like physical objects, where we all radiate at a certain rhythm. For example, people who talk fast, will probably get along with others who talk fast as well. Some people just 'click' with some people and not get along with others. Connectors seem to transcend that and just 'click' with everyone. Gladwell notes that being socially likable to be an intrinsic trait. If we are not a connector, can we change our physical appearance, attitude, or social behaviour to become one?

The Tipping Point assigns two other social types of people, 'maven' and 'salesmen'. Mavens are classified as information specialists and brokers that help to spread and disseminate information and knowledge. In a sense, everyone is a maven because we are all connected to our own subcultures. However, the mavens that the book describes is about the mavens who share knowledge about something that will affect the general population. A new technology, product, or idea that has the ability to be trendy or innovative. Salesmen on the other hand are the natural leaders. They are people you would follow even without rational reason. They are charismatic and persuasive without effort.

These three social types are the central structure of what creates 'social epidemics'. "The Law of the Few" as explained by the book, depends on this small set of people with the particular set of social skills that they possess. These people, the 'epidemic set' are able to create an overwhelming influence over a large group of people very quickly. The result of transmitting ideas through these people is what are called 'social epidemics'.

Social epidemics are ideas that normally would not create any type of shock wave. However, if the idea is transmitted through the 'epidemic set', it will set off a chain reaction and propel the idea into the mass population at an exponential rate. An epidemic of social proportions. This is similar to a video going 'viral'. Social epidemics works on the same principles of contagion and viral epidemics and outbreaks. It is the dissemination of a disease or idea into the general population and infects and only accelerates as it progresses.

The most common modern examples of social epidemics are fads. Fashion trends that only last for a small amount of time. With the modern transition into the communication age and the Internet, the most visible examples of social epidemics that occur on a daily basis are created by sites like Digg and StumbleUpon. These are concepts brought to a central hub (the website) and creates an artificial connector.

The use of Twitter is also, but not exactly an example of a social epidemic, but rather a visualization of the epidemic happening in real time. Tweets going out every second and every minute infect their ideas to the people following the person making the tweet. The followers then also send their own response and infect it to their own followers and etcetera. Infecting ad infinitum. The social epidemic can now be seen in its raw form.

Now that we understand how these social epidemics are created, is it possible to leverage this knowledge to create it? As far as we've seen, most social epidemics are random and occur based off a few people willing to try it. But what if you had an idea, or a product. Assume you are the maven, can you access a small set of connectors and salesmen and somehow boost your product into popularity?