PopTech Editions I: Duncan Watts on social contagion: What do we really know?

Recently, PopTech announced a new initiative called Editions, which explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. Over the next few weeks, we'll be highlighting individual pieces from our first Edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good. Today, we're excerpting a contribution from Duncan Watts, a research scientist at Yahoo! Research.

The phenomenon of social contagion—that information, ideas, and even behaviors can spread through networks of people the way that infectious diseases do—is both intuitively appealing and potentially powerful.

It appeals to our intuition for two reasons. First, it is obviously true that people are influenced by one another. Reflecting on our individual experience of life, it is easy to recall any number of instances in which we have been influenced, whether by our parents, our teachers, our coworkers, or our friends, and corresponding instances when we have influenced them. And second, once you accept that one person can influence another, it follows logically that that person can influence yet another person, who can in turn influence another person, and so on. Influence, that is, can spread.

Its potential power arises mostly from this second idea. We know that in the world of infectious disease, global pandemics, infecting millions of people — the Spanish Flu, HIV, and maybe one day Avian Influenza—can be triggered by a single individual, a “patient zero,” from which all subsequent infections are derived. If social influence can spread like a disease, then it is only natural to suspect that “social epidemics” can take place as well, and that they too have their patient zeros who trigger them.

In the 19th century, writers like Charles Mackay and Gustave Le Bon viewed social contagion with alarm, seeing it as the cause of collective madness, whether in financial markets or mob violence. By the arrival of the 21st century, however, the prevailing view of contagion had become far more positive—particularly in marketing and related fields. If only an enterprising marketer (or some other change agent) could create the conditions for a social epidemic, the reasoning goes, and if only they could find the right people to trigger it, awesome change could be unleashed for relatively little cost.

One belief that hasn’t changed over time, however, is that social epidemics are responsible for dramatic, possibly sudden social change. But is this assumption really true? And if not, then what exactly can social contagion accomplish?

Read the full article and check out the complete Edition.

Image: An electron micrograph showing recreated 1918 "Spanish Flu" influenza virions via Wikipedia

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