Accidental influentials meet life extension: a breakthrough idea for 2007

socialMost of us believe that the massive spreading of an idea through the channels of society, say, ‘big-scale life extension technology is possible and worth realizing’, depends on highly influential people’s production and characteristics. So hardcore life extension supporters tend to think if Aubrey de Grey or Ray Kurzweil will hold another 120-120 presentations in front of highly influential people this year and the next and so on and so forth… then this fact will guarantee that one day we wake up, and see that the majority of people support our former niche topic, eager to do something for it. Make no mistake, these guys are doing their best for life extension, but according to Duncan J. Watts and Peter Dodds network researchers, it is not enough for this idea to become mainstream. What we need is a critical mass of easily influenced people to make some real great progression in life extension support. And in that respect, the Web is a par excellence medium for all of us, when everyone with a bandwidth and a computer can do their best. In the light of the above I hope soon there will be a critical mass of easily influenced life extension bloggers, wikipedians, other content generators, and so “global cascades”(see below) for LE. The responsibility is ours.

Watts and Peter Dodds are publishing their work on Influentials, Networks and Public Opinion Formation in Journal of Consumer Research, but it will be in press only in December, 2007. Nevertheless you can read the text in html or download in pdf now. Their theory on the role of the so called Accidential influentials was listed as the No. 1 in the Harvard Business Review list of Breakthrough Ideas for 2007 and here are some enlightening excerpts out of it to make the above application clear /warning: the theory was originally applied and invented in a marketing context/:

In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argues that “social epidemics” are driven in large part by the actions of a tiny minority of special individuals, often called influentials, who are unusually informed, persuasive, or well connected. The idea is intuitively compelling—we think we see it happening all the time—but it doesn’t explain how ideas actually spread.

In recent work, however, my colleague Peter Dodds and I have found that influentials have far less impact on social epidemics than is generally supposed.

Simple observation about social influence: With the exception of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey—whose outsize presence is primarily a function of media, not interpersonal, influence—even the most influential members of a population simply don’t interact with that many others.

Building on this basic truth about interpersonal influence, Dodds and I studied the dynamics of social contagion by conducting thousands of computer simulations of populations, manipulating a number of variables relating to people’s ability to influence others and their tendency to be influenced.

Our work shows that the principal requirement for what we call “global cascades”—the widespread propagation of influence through networks—is the presence not of a few influentials but, rather, of a critical mass of easily influenced people, each of whom adopts, say, a look or a brand after being exposed to a single adopting neighbor. Regardless of how influential an individual is locally, he or she can exert global influence only if this critical mass is available to propagate a chain reaction.

Any focus on individual attributes alone overlooks the importance of network effects.

Understanding that trends in public opinion are driven not by a few influentials influencing everyone else but by many easily influenced people influencing one another should change how companies incorporate social influence into their marketing campaigns. Because the ultimate impact of any individual—highly influential or not—depends on decisions made by people one, two, or more steps away from her or him, word-of-mouth marketing strategies shouldn’t focus on finding supposed influentials. Rather, marketing dollars might better be directed toward helping large numbers of ordinary people—possibly with Web-based social networking tools—to reach and influence others just like them.

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2 thoughts on “Accidental influentials meet life extension: a breakthrough idea for 2007

  1. I assume the 80/20 rule holds up in most places – it’s a time-honored stat that became that way through multiple tests – but are you saying even that number is too high? Sure, an Oprah or a Steve Jobs can influence their base at a much lower rate ( millions:one) but in most cases you need a solid core, not casual interest.

    So I don’t think widespread attention is the answer. I’m on a community science site that’s in beta and we will have some big-name people writing on it when it is fully live – but the 900 Diggs and 10,hits their articles will get each time are empty stats, really. The 200 solid science writers read by 2 million is more valid. Is that about the ratio you think would impact pimm? I assume 2 is not enough and 400,000 is impossible.

  2. Well, I haven’t run a specified simulation to get exact numbers. The emphasis is on “a critical mass of easily influenced people, each of whom adopts, say, a look or a brand (or an idea) after being exposed to a single adopting neighbor” and tend to influence other people with that.”For a social epidemic to occur, however, each person so affected must then influence his or her own acquaintances, who must in turn influence theirs, and so on; and just how many others pay attention to each of these people has little to do with the initial influential.”
    The blogosphere could be a good model of this type of interpersonal influence since the chain of outbound links (the sign of influences) are often discontinuous, and so the initial source is hidden.
    “The 200 solid science writers read by 2 million is more valid.” Maybe.

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