Olson’s Observations

Technology. Innovation. Science. VC. Media. :: by Eric Olson

Book Review: Six Degrees

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Six DegreesReading Time: 6 minutes 30 seconds

Do you ever wonder about Milgram’s six degrees of separation experiment? Or about the spread of disease? Or about the spread of products and marketing messages? I am sure most people reading this site have thought of one or more of these things at length at one point or another. Specifically I am sure that we have all thought about how products, mainly consumer web products, spread and attract more users.

The typical themes we run into as we delve into the idea spreading space come from books like the Tipping Point or The Influentials. These books state that it is a small group of people, Gladwell’s connectors and Keller’s influentials, that cause a product to spread virally or in other words cause a cascade (since products don’t technically spread virally most of the time but that is a whole other post).

However, none of these books take a look at the science and math behind networks. In other words, they don’t really provide any hard evidence that the theory of influentials is actually how things work.

Enter Duncan Watts and his book Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. Watts, a mathematician-turned-sociologist currently on sabbatical from Columbia University and working at Yahoo! Research, was unsettled by the lack of actual testing of things like Milgram’s Six Degrees experiment and the idea of influentials and how they are the cause of viral product adoption. He was so unsettled in fact that he has spent the last decade studying the science of networks.

The last decade of his thoughts comprise the bulk of Six Degrees in which everything he has worked on is put into layman’s terms. Watts uses easy to grasp examples and personal narratives to help the reader understand the mysteries behind networks. The book is very conversational making it very approachable even for people with no science background.

That said, Watts’ findings are very interesting making this book a must read. I will speak about his findings on internet marketing here since that is what I think most of us are interested in although he does describe many more areas in which his theories apply.

What’s big revelation you ask? Well, Watts has found that influentials don’t really matter (at least in terms of starting trends - they can make trends bigger though). Yes, you read right, while more and more marketers pour dollars into targeting influentials Watts is saying that all of that may be a waste.

Unsurprisingly there are a lot of advertising industry folks who aren’t appreciative of Watts’ work but his computer models and research are pretty compelling. Even if you don’t think the models he’s built represent society in a realistic way just think about this:

All Watts is really saying is that average people are influentials at any given time in their lives. It isn’t the hyperconnected that are starting all of the trends.

Watts argues that a lot of the cases that support the influentials theory were analyzed after the fact (revisionist history). Gladwell’s Hush Puppies example is a good one. Gladwell says that Hush Puppies broke out in 1994 (5000% growth in sales) because a handful of influential Lower East Side hipsters started wearing them and spread the trend.

Watts, on the other hand, logically states that those hipsters were wearing a number of other items but the only thing that popped were the Hush Puppies. If they were influentials in the classic sense you would think more than just the Hush Puppies would have popped. So, why didn’t anything else the hipsters were wearing pop?

Watts figures that the answer to that question lies with society as a whole.

Watts says that society needs to be ready to embrace a trend and if it is anyone can tip the scales. However, if society isn’t ready no amount of influencers pushing a product can force a cascade to break.

Take a look at this excerpt from a recent article in Fast Company to get an idea of one experiment that Watts conducted. I think it will get the point across:

As Watts argues, there are a lot of ways an Influential could convert the masses. Merely talking to a friend once could infect her with an idea. Or it might take several conversations. Or maybe Influentials are so persuasive they’re like trend vampires, and each victim they bite becomes hyperpersuasive too. Depending on how you define the specific mechanics of influence, you’d get totally different types of epidemics–or maybe none at all. But gurus of the Influentials theory never directly clarify these mechanics.

“All they’ll ever say,” Watts insists, is that a) there are people who are more influential than others, and b) they are disproportionately important in getting a trend going.

That may be oversimplifying it a bit, but last year, Watts decided to put the whole idea to the test by building another Sims-like computer simulation. He programmed a group of 10,000 people, all governed by a few simple interpersonal rules. Each was able to communicate with anyone nearby. With every contact, each had a small probability of “infecting” another. And each person also paid attention to what was happening around him: If lots of other people were adopting a trend, he would be more likely to join, and vice versa. The “people” in the virtual society had varying amounts of sociability–some were more connected than others. Watts designated the top 10% most-connected as Influentials; they could affect four times as many people as the average Joe. In essence, it was a virtual society run–in a very crude fashion–according to the rules laid out by thinkers like Gladwell and Keller.

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 society wide 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.

Interesting isn’t it? Yet, it seems as if this is something we always knew was true but we ignored those feeling because we wanted to believe that we could simply hit a few influentials and things would pop. As we know, the world is a complex place so it stands to reason that influentials wouldn’t be the only cause for a viral outbreak (although Watts does say, and has found, that they do help make things big).

Another case for Watts’ theory that is a little closer to home is the Tech Crunch effect. Arguably the Tech Crunch crowd are the influentials in the tech space and yet, after they all try a product and add thousands of users quickly, the rush typically fades and the product fails to cross the chasm into the main stream.

Surprisingly this all leads to mass media being the best way to get a message out since, if you believe Watts, you want to touch as many people as possible and make your message easily shareable in the hopes that it will be shared and a cascade will ensue. This is, of course, counterintuitive to a lot of top marketing wisdom of the day that says you should target a small group of influentials (of course this doesn’t relate to niche products where very targeted transactional advertising makes a lot of sense - it relates more to products developed for a broad audience i.e. Nintendo Wiis, computers, consumer web apps etc.).

Well, I am afraid this book review has gone on too long. I will close by saying that anyone working in the web space, and especially those in the consumer web space, should read Six Degrees. Whether you believe Watts’ work or not the book will still help to further your thinking on the spread of ideas and products in society.

Written by Eric Olson

January 31st, 2008 at 10:22 am

Posted in Books, Web

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