How to Use Networks to Spread Ideas

Here’s a question for you: imagine that you have a package that has to be delivered to someone that you don’t know and you’ve never met that lives across the world from you – let’s say a particular lawyer in Antinanarivo, Madagascar. The only way to get it to them is to pass the package along to someone that you know on a first-name basis, and you ask them to do the same. The chain continues to grow using this method until the package eventually reaches the shop owner.

If this sounds familiar, it’s basically a version of the small-world experiment that Stanley Milgram ran in the 1960s. He had people from the Midwestern US trying to get letter to a banker in Boston. This experiment was the first test of the six degrees of separation idea – that any one of us is only six handshakes away from anyone else in the world.

But now, think about this: if you had the actual task of getting that package to Madagascar, who out or your friends and acquaintances would you actually send it to?

Do me a favour and take a minute to think about this and come up with an actual name.

Do you have a person in mind?

Good, now here’s a question – did you think of someone that is highly connected? Here’s what I mean – here are Facebook pictures for four people that I know (the stats are all from about 18 months ago):

At the time, the average number of connections that people had on Facebook was about 100. The for people are me, with 111 connections, and my friends Kate (75 connections), Siri (1320 connections) and Robert (2178 connections).

So the question about your choice in trying to get the package to Madagascar is this: did you pick someone that is less connected, like me or Kate, but which may have a particular connection to our target? Or did you pick someone that you know is highly connected, like Siri or Robert?

The story that we often hear about getting ideas to spread through networks is that the best way to do this is to find the influencers. Often, these are the superconnected people. This is how Ed Keller and Michael Berry describe it in their book The Influentials:

One in ten Americans tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy…. Few important trends reach the mainstream without passing through the Influentials in the early stages, and the Influentials can stop a would-be trend in its tracks.

Duncan Watts has been right in the middle of the development of social network analysis over the past 20 years or so, and he’s not so sure that this is how things actually work. In his new book Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer), he describes an experiment that he put together with some colleagues to test how influential the Influentials were. They recreated the small world experiment, this time using email chains – they had over 20,000 chains trying to reach 18 targets in 13 different countries.

Here is how he describes the results:

We also asked people why they chose the next person in the chain, and here, too, we discovered little evidence of hubs or stars. Subjects in small-world experiments, it turns out, do not typically pass messages to their highest-status or most-connected friends. Instead, they pass them to people they think have something in common with the target, like geographic proximity or a similar occupation… Ordinary individuals, in other words, are just as capable of spaning critical divides between social and professional circles, between different nations, or between different neighborhoods, as exceptional people. When you want to get a message to a graduate student in Novosibirsk, Russia, for example, you don’t think about whom you know who has a lot of friends, or goes to lots of parties, or has connections in the White House. You think about whether you know any Russians. And if you don’t know any Russians, then maybe you know someone from Eastern Europe, or someone who has traveled to Eastern Europe, or has studied Russian, or who lives in part of your city that is known for its Eastern European immigrants.

If I were trying to get that package to Madagascar, I’d probably pick Siri to send it to next. Not because she’s highly connected (though she is), but out of the four of us in that picture, I know that she’s been to Africa most recently and that she has good connections there.

Which type of person did you pick?

These are important questions for anyone trying to get ideas to spread. They do spread through networks, and the structure of these networks is important. If we can’t target the Influentials to get our ideas to spread, what should we do?

Watts’ solution is to try using a Big Seed Strategy. Instead of using money and resources identifying and paying to get the Influentials to spread your idea, he suggests spreading the effort out across a wide range of “normal” people. In other words, his data suggests that rather than paying Kim Kardashian $10,000 to tweet your idea, you’d be better off paying 1,000 people with lower profiles $10 each.

This experiment was actually run once recently, when Connected, a book about how things spread through networks by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler was spontaneously promoted by Alyssa Milano to her 1.2 million twitter followers (read the full details here). Unfortunately for Christakis and Fowler, the extra publicity didn’t sell any more books.

Curious, they then had Tim O’Reilly (1.5 million followers) and Susannah Fox (4700 followers) send out tweets about the book as well. The one that produced the biggest bounce was Fox – and she was chosen because her followers were the ones that seemed most likely to be interested in the book.

It seems obvious that the best way to get ideas to spread is to find influential or highly-connected people to buy into the idea. However, this doesn’t seem to be the way that things work in practice. It’s a topic about which we still have much to learn. However, since networks are so critical to spreading ideas, it’s a good topic to keep up with – especially if you’re coming up with your own great new ideas.

Other resources:

There are all kinds of good resources on the importance of influence within networks – some good ones include:

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

11 thoughts on “How to Use Networks to Spread Ideas

  1. Tim,

    Good post about an important point. Duncan Watts has been working on this idea for years. One of the concepts that seems to have been lost is “networks of association” which are very situational and contextual.

    The book is still not out in Europe, but I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the preview!

    – Greg

  2. I agree with you Greg about the networks of association idea – I didn’t dig into that too much because I thought you did such a good job with it in the post I linked to. But it is a crucial idea in all of it.

    The book is good – I think that Watts is always worth reading. That said, it’s the worst of his three so far. On the other hand, I guess that still leaves it as better than the vast majority of books that are out there!

  3. Also Greg, the book hasn’t been released here yet either – I got it from amazon in the US. Not sure if you have that option or not. For some reason, we’re able to order from the US & the UK sites here. Still can’t figure out a way to take advantage of the arbitrage opportunities there though…

  4. Tim,
    Another interesting (& good) post.

    I agree that leveraging networks & “influencers” is not about connectedness. In fact, how you decide to go about it or ‘seed’ your initiative really depends on your final objective & desired result.

    So extending your example, my contact would be different depending on whether I want to get a packet to Madagascar as fast as possible vs getting something to Madagascar to as many people as possible vs getting a packet to a certain community within Madagascar vs getting something to Madagascar for a charitable relief etc.

    Having said this, you touch on a very important point – the fact that common people do not think in terms of “social networks” or academic terms like degree centrality. As you point out, the commonsense approach is more intuitive in nature – geo proximity, relatives, colleagues or school buddies etc.

    Great read

  5. Thanks for the comment Ned. I agree that strategies will vary depending on your objectives. Ironically, Watts contends that the “go for the hubs” strategy is the commonsense approach, while the geo proximity, relatives, etc. approach is less obvious, but better.

  6. Tim,
    I have great respect for Duncan and of course love his research. But in this particular case, my thoughts are that “commonsense” could mean different things to different people depending on the background, profile etc.

    I am not saying that the “go for the hubs” is wrong – but that whether it is the first approach someone picks or down the line would depend.

    So for example, if you were to ask my mom about the ‘package to Madagascar’ problem I am pretty positive she will first try to think if she knows someone in Madagascar and then if not, work backwards to folks who might (coming back to the hubs). Or if she does know many folks in Madagascar, then try to find the one that has the best probability of accomplishing her objectives (again moving towards the local hubs).

    Anyway, just my thoughts :-). Irrespective, I think this is an interesting topic & discussion.


  7. It’s definitely an interesting topic Ned. To be fairer to Watts, his main point is that in the social sciences, any outcome can be made sense of retrospectively – which is why we’re able to have a discussion about which approach is more commonsense!

  8. Great, informative post! Bookmarked!

    I wish to add the following:
    This post is more about “how to spread ideas”. As regards “why people spread ideas” (which is a question that will most definitely run through an influencer’s mind before he/she decides to spread your idea): read Seth Godin’s post :

    This post goes well with the topic of this post:

    This guy says ‘going for the hubs’ (of influencers) is outdated, and “small, connected groups” are whom that should be targeted for spreading ideas:

  9. Thanks for the links Mohan – those are all great (and quite different in their approaches). You’re correct in saying that “why” is a separate question.

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