How Ideas Spread and Take Hold, Part 2

Stephen DeAngelis

August 5, 2014

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I discussed some of theories about how ideas spread and what makes them take hold. I ended that article with a quote from Giselle Weiss who wrote, “Every human advance, and what we call culture, relies on the human capacity to embrace new ideas en masse.” [“How Ideas Spread,” Credit Suisse, 13 November 2013] In an interview Weiss conducted with Duncan Watts (@duncanjwatts), a principal researcher at Microsoft Research NYC, they discussed how ideas spread. Watts told Weiss:

“The spread of information and the spread of cooperation are both examples of social influence, so they’re related, at least in principle. But it’s also important to understand that different types of influence are likely to spread in different ways. Me persuading you to change your political views is very different from me persuading you to click on a video. … People do not easily adopt ideas that involve changing their conception of themselves. Not accepting the idea of climate change might be tied up with your political ideology, your suspicion of government and your dislike of elite intellectual types. When is an idea something that you can adopt just because it’s obviously right or obviously interesting? And when is it something that is going to be very difficult for you to adopt because it’s tied up with all these other things? … Understanding how that happens is one of the big questions of social science. It’s frustrating that we’ve been thinking about this for so long and have very little in the way of concrete answers. But maybe this particular period of history is different. That’s the hope.”

The reason that Watts believes we may soon learn more about how ideas spread is that we have so much more data to analyze than in any other point in history. Although lists of traits, like the one provided by David Burkus (@davidburkus) [“The 5 Common Characteristics of Ideas That Spread,” 99u], and the research conducted by RPI [“Minority Rules: Scientists Discover Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas,” by Gabrielle DeMarco (@gmdemarco), RPI News, 25 July 2011] would lead you to believe that we have all the answers about how ideas spread, Watts’ position is closer to the truth. We still have a lot to learn. Atul Gawande (@Atul_Gawande) writes, “In our era of electronic communications, we’ve come to expect that important innovations will spread quickly. Plenty do: think of in-vitro fertilization, genomics, and communications technologies themselves. But there’s an equally long list of vital innovations that have failed to catch on. The puzzle is why.” [“Slow Ideas,”The New Yorker, 29 July 2013] Julianne Wurm (@juliannewurm) agrees that the subject of how ideas spread is complex; but, she believes the single most important factor is often the most overlooked — who is doing the spreading. She writes, “Previous research has focused on what happens to the sharers of an idea: what emotions they feel, what types of content inspire them to share (practical, funny, ‘sticky’ and so on). And it is true that from memetics to mirror neurons to social contagion, it is likely that for any given idea, multiple factors are involved. And yet the role of content seems to get all of the focus. There are scores of books written about how to make your content ‘go viral’ or ‘become contagious’ and take on a life of its own. We seem to overlook — or at least undervalue — the role of the person delivering the idea: the carrier.” [“The Other Factor that Makes an Idea Spread,” Harvard Business Review Blog Network, 17 February 2014]. She continues:

“The carrier is the person who brings the idea into the common vernacular, although they may not actually be the one who discovered or researched the idea. They may be impeccable storytellers, thinkers, or writers. They make fresh connections and present cogent arguments. They are critical in getting ideas to take hold. … Part of it is the storytelling, of course. But there are other factors here as well.”

Marketers are starting to accept that in the connected world some people may hold more sway than others. “Online influentials who provide sole or ‘exclusive’ influence over consumers are the most valuable to companies,” reports Robert Berkman (@RobertBerkman). [“Valuing Influentials Means More than Just Counting Connections,” MIT Sloan Management Review, 10 July 2013] Berkman makes that assertion based on “the finding from research conducted by Zsolt Katona, [an] assistant professor at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley.” Berkman continues:

“Conventional wisdom, reflected by influence-ranking sites such as Klout, is primarily to count the number of a person’s connections to assess his or her ability to influence others. But Katona’s research has discovered that determining the value of a particular influencer is more complex, and that finding the value of an influencer depends on several underlying factors in the network structure of that individual with the target set of consumers.”

The study’s results sound similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s (@Gladwell) conclusion that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” He calls this “the Law of the Few.” [The Tipping Point] Watts disagrees with Gladwell’s conclusion about the Law of the Few. He insists that influentials play “no special role in trends at all.” [“Is the Tipping Point Toast?” by Clive Thompson, Fast Company, February 2008] We’re not likely to resolve that debate; but, I tend to agree with Wurm that carriers play a special role in the spread ideas. She states:

“People want to like the carrier. When people feel good, they want to share — that good feeling is what they want to spread. As Jonah Berger writes in Contagious, ‘When we care, we share.’ While most previous research has examined content that makes people feel good — whether it is a heartwarming video about motherhood or a silly caption plastered over a photo of a cat — carriers who connect with their audiences have the gift of making whatever idea they’re discussing palatable. People also want to see themselves in the idea. Jesse Preston and Daniel Wegner have done research on what they call the Eureka Error — where people misattribute credit for ideas based on mistaken effort. This can work in the favor of carriers — who often simply want to spread ideas, not get credit for inventing them — because audiences may feel that by sharing the idea with others, that somehow makes them a co-creator. They mentally give themselves credit where credit is not due. That’s not great for the actual originator of the idea, but it is great for the idea itself. For example, if I hear an idea for reducing poverty from Bill Gates and then share it with others, I get a proxy sense of construction/creation. Bill Gates is unlikely to care that he — or the original researcher who came up with the idea — is not getting credit, as long as poverty reduction is getting more attention.”

If what Wurm writes was untrue, there wouldn’t be super-salespeople, or exceptional motivational speakers, or dynamic political leaders. Wurm adds, “The people who dismiss the work of idea carriers as ‘nothing new’ are missing the point. There are many examples of ideas that have taken off not because they were new or novel but because they were finally discussed in such a way as to make them more compelling to audiences.” Lots of pundits who speak and write about innovation note the importance of having a champion that can promote good ideas. Often the champion isn’t the person who comes up with the idea, but the person best-suited to explain it to others. Wurm continues:

“As Dr. William Duggan of Columbia Business School notes in his book Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement, all ideas stand on the shoulders of those that have come before. Idea carriers create space for ideas in the popular imagination. … When people like an idea carrier and the carrier shows them how to see themselves in the idea, people are much more likely to share that idea with others. This is powerful information for speakers who want to authentically build a bridge to an audience to create this experience. It also raises questions of who may best introduce an idea — the researcher who uncovers the idea or someone who serves as a carrier.”

In the long run, both the content of an idea and the talent of the carrier are important. The content has a better chance of getting transmitted if it contains the five common traits identified by David Burkus and discussed in Part 1 of this series, namely: relative advantage; compatibility; complexity (or simplicity); trialability; and observability. But, as Wurm asserts, the carrier of the idea is also important. She concludes her article with quote from Victor Hugo, “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” She adds, “A skilled carrier can bring ideas into their time that much more quickly.”