Do “influentials” drive The Tipping Point?

In the past few years, Watts–a network-theory scientist who recently
took a sabbatical from Columbia University and is now working for Yahoo
(NASDAQ:YHOO) –has performed a series of controversial, barn-burning
experiments challenging the whole Influentials thesis. He has analyzed
email patterns and found that highly connected people are not, in fact,
crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading
and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected
person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated
that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly
random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he
argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Here is the full article.  Here is the home page of Duncan Watts.  Thanks to John DePalma for the pointer.

Comments

...Jesus would agree with Mr. Watts.

Watts, I believe, has two significant flaws in his analysis and conclusion:

1) It is the savant, not the connector who starts the trend; it is the connector who initially propogates the concept.

2) Trends must be sufficiently "contagious", the ideas sufficently "sticky" for the end-users, those whom the connector contacts, to act on the trend and begin the true viral spread. There is no way to create a computer simulation that adequately measures this "contagious factor" regardless of the sensitivity analysis that is applied; there is no way to model what it is that made Madonna contagious and Cindy Lauper a flash in the pan.

Watts is doing some really cool work. I would say that "influentials" do matter, but that we just can't predict ex ante (yet) what events or person will set off a tipping point

A really funny social satire by sci-fi writer Connie Willis digs into the science of trend-spotting, chaos theory, and other issues. It's titled "Bellwether," after the sheep that leads the herd http://www.amazon.com/Bellwether-Connie-Willis/dp/0553562967

While light reading, think it has some important points about where trends are likely to come from.

I don't buy this as a problem amenable to simulation. There's so much we clearly don't understand about how trends catch fire -- and there's so many assumptions you have to put into a computer model -- if we understood the problem well enough to make good assumptions, we wouldn't need the model! Here, it seems like the risk of assuming the conclusion is too high.

Much as my pure-mathematician heart hates to say it, this is a problem that wants empirical study, which it sounds like the old-school people have; Watts, less so. (The six-degrees update, while cool, and important from a sample size perspective, doesn't convince me; how information spreads is, while prerequisite, not the same as how ideas get adopted. Being connected is not the same as being persuasive.)

(BTW, do you guys realize how wildly annoying your captcha system is? Sometimes it challenges me two, three times on the same comment. Why not akismet? Works for us.)

The oligopoly of the search engine:

The search engine market is beginning to look more and more like the airline industry or the auto industry. In this case, the big 2. Google and Yahoo soon to be Microsoft will be taking on the leadership and virtually controlling the search engine world now with the muscle of there new parent.

What frightens me most is they will be controlling our searching capabilities and may be unduly influencing what it means to search. This industry is shrinking and consolidating and at some point does this eliminate competition? Will the government view this as anti-competivive as if this restricts competition more than Whole Foods purchasing Wild Oats does. Does this adversely affect the consumer and give too much pricing power?

I will argue this merger will go through easily, because unlike Microsofts problems in the past, the search engine world is an oligopoly and never will be a monopoly, not-atleast until google pays $100 billion to dominate the space.

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