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Influencers and Your Social Network

I only recently got around to reading “Tipping Point”, Malcolm Gladwell’s book about what it takes for an idea or product to become hugely popular. The book’s title has become a cliche (like “perfect storm”) but Gladwell’s an engaging writer and the content is interesting for anyone who wants to understand how ideas might spread. The book came out in 2002 so I’m late coming to the party, but the timing was perfect in another sense, because a researcher has apparently tested and debunked some of the science (or assertions) that underlie the book.

Fast Company has Is the Tipping Point Toast?, a discussion of the role of Influencers in the process of spreading ideas.  Gladwell‘s book describes four types of people or roles involved in viral communication.  The people who are well-connected in social terms are Gladwell’s Connectors.  The theme of the book is that a Connector can have a huge impact on the dissemination of an idea.

The FC article discusses research that claims something entirely different:  that trends are essentially random, and a Connector is no more likely to start a trend than any other person.  The researcher, Duncan Watts, created computer simulations of social networks with different levels of influence between individuals.  Watts found that the Connector’s trend would spread further, but that “the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion.”  Watts is focused on the Law of the Few, one of three “rules” in the Tipping Point; I’m not sure that his research renders the idea of the tipping point any less powerful.  The concept of the little having a great affect (makes me think of the dead butterfly in Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder) would appear to be valid.

From a marketer’s stand point, that would seem to be good news, right?  If you can plug into a social network and any given node on that network might start to generate interest, you’ve got many more opportunities to push out your idea.   The downside is that it’s probably a lot easier to shop a concept to a small group of people “in the know” and have one of them try to run with it.  And if trends are essentially as random as Watts suggests, it means companies may look at marketing very differently.

It made me think more about social networking sites like Facebook or, on the professional side, LinkedIn.  Obviously, this is where Watts is finding practical application for his work at Yahoo!  If you are trying to get an idea to spread across a network, you will not only have to identify the person with 3,000 friends, but look at some of the other nodes on that network for getting traction.  Does that mean you should narrow your initial marketing or information sharing efforts to as targeted a pool as possible, and then grow it, or hit a many more people in a much larger pool.

I can see the enjoyment that might come out of a generic social network like Facebook or MySpace, but it seems to me that networks like LinkedIn or ZoomInfo – which focuses on people making business connections – or even more narrowly tuned social networks will be more important in the future.  If it’s a matter of time and efficiency, I want to balance the richness of the network’s participants connections and the number of those connections.  But if one of the benefits of these social networks is the serendipitous – or 6th degree-removed – connection that you didn’t know was there, you can’t be overly restrictive in the size of your network.

Aside No. 1: how cool is it that there is a field of research focused entirely on characteristics of social networks!  Watts works at Yahoo! (hopefully Microsoft will keep him on!) as a research scientist.  Kids:  that’s what you want to be when you grow up!  Never mind law, medical, or B-school!

Aside No. 2: Gladwell did really well with Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and is an excellent story teller.  I actually read his book Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking first, and found it much more interesting to read (and, thank goodness, no-one should be able to turn THAT into a hackneyed term).  I honestly have no frame of reference about the science, but he’s knit the stories together so well it’s hard not to whip through it.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.