March 04, 2008

Tipping Point Toast for Communities?

Influence There's new research from a Yahoo mathematician researcher which shows that Malcolm Gladwell's 'Tipping Point' theory, where small groups of influential people tip new objects or ideas into the mainstream, may be mere whimsy. In my experience, he may be right.

This provides some further thought not only about why people might (not) join online communities in the first place but who might join online communities. Duncan Watts is published in the latest Fast Company magazine showing how the notion of the Tipping Point, from its incarnation as the "opinion leaders" thesis of 1955 through to the notion of 'six degrees of separation' in 1967, can be proven less persuasive with some maths:

"In 2001, Watts used a Web site to recruit about 61,000 people, then asked them to ferry messages to 18 targets worldwide. Sure enough, he found that Milgram was right: The average length of the chain was roughly six links. But when he examined these pathways, he found that "hubs"--highly connected people--weren't crucial. Sure, they existed. But only 5% of the email messages passed through one of these superconnectors. The rest of the messages moved through society in much more democratic paths, zipping from one weakly connected individual to another, until they arrived at the target."

I subscribe to many ideas from Gladwell's Blink and Tipping point books, mainly the notion that people thin slice (make up their minds on something the instant they see it) and that good ideas require a small targeted group of people to help it spread initially. Gladwell's example was a bunch of influential fashionable hippies who spread the wearing of Hush Puppies around Manhattan in the 90s. My example is of good teachers sharing new ideas about how we can do our jobs better.

It's not how influential you are...
However, I've never believed that the influentual-ness of those individuals is particularly  important. It's more been a case of finding people who believe in the notion, idea or service that I believe in and helping them spread the word on whatever it is to others. Influential people already come equipped with presumably equally influential contacts and that way of explaining things to others, but that doesn't preclude 'non-influentials' (yuck, horrible term) from becoming influential in their own right, simply by being passionate to their friends, colleagues and community. And here's the plus side: with influentials probably 'selling' stuff to other influentials there comes the risk that your idea simply remains in its echo chamber. Get some regular folk together and you have a chance that your idea hits the mainstream.

In the eduBuzz community, where rapid growth in the numbers of teachers sharing their work on blogs and other collaborative sites was initially linked to the Tipping Point notion, we quickly realised that, in fact, there was a chaotic blend of classroom teachers, parents, librarians, students and managers taking the lead - not necessarily our "Top 10% Influencers" that we may have identified beforehand; just good learners or teachers who found plausible the idea that sharing learning experiences was a good thing.

Ultimately, we would understand from the Fast Company story, it has little to do with the person trying to propagate the trend, and everything to do with the trend itself. If a community is ready to embrace a trend then anyone can help kick that trend off. If, however, the culture of a community prevents people from easily getting 'infected' with the new idea, then whether persuasive influencer or Average Joe, you stand little chance of getting that idea to spread.

Ed Keller, author of The Influentials, disagrees with this based on his own experiences, where top 10% influencers happen to be five times more likely to dispense advice, and they're early adopters, too, using mobiles and the net years before anyone else.

If being influential isn't important, wherefore professional organisations?
But he concedes an important point: "Duncan is making a straw-man argument. Because nobody, including myself, thinks that Influencers are the only group of consumers who matter."

This, again, puts a compelling question mark at the foot of communities. What is being part of a community? Tonight I speak at the annual Naace strategic conference, a professional organisation which prides itself on being influential, having that cachet as a group of innovators, the Hush-Puppy wearers of the Education ICT world. Does this stand up in an age where anyone with ideas that society can grasp can take on an influence of their own?

Gareth Davis of Naace already has some ideas on this, although in the light of this research it would be interesting to see them developed further. I think there may be a case of what Mark suggests, that we distort what actually happens in the light of retrospection.

Pic: Uncensored

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Ewan
I wonder what the tipping point for Glow will/willnot be. I think many of us are searching for a 'hook' at present. Of course you've maybe already answered my question.

Hi Ewan !!

Trust you are enjoying Naace ... have just listened to a recording and read the blog transcript of you presentation last evening and wondered, in light of the Gladwell comment re 'tipping point' how you would describe your role currently in terms of Gladwell's three descripters?


Connectors are the people who "link us up with the world ... people with a special gift for bringing the world together

Mavens are "information specialists", or "people we rely upon to connect us with new information."

Salesmen are "persuaders", charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills. They tend to have an indefinable trait that goes beyond what they say, that makes others want to agree with them.

In the eduBuzz community, where rapid growth in the numbers of teachers sharing their work on blogs and other collaborative sites was initially linked to the Tipping Point notion, we quickly realised that, in fact, there was a chaotic blend of classroom teachers, parents, librarians, students and managers taking the lead - not necessarily our "Top 10% Influencers" that we may have identified beforehand; just good learners or teachers who found plausible the idea that sharing learning experiences was a good thing.
And often they didn't have a chance to influence one another directly, even if they were good at it, as they didn't have the time. But by getting on with it, they created on-line materials which did the influencing for them. As the amount of on-line activity increased, this seemed to change the norms of "the way we do things around here". The first schools to get involved using highly interactive blog-based web sites, for example, occasionally felt self-conscious, as though they were breaking some invisible rules. As others joined them, though, and the norms changed, they became proud of their achievements. Other important factors have included strong positive feedback from students and parents, which has added an element of "pester power" ;)

Yup, David. As Watt's ideas suggest, it's the idea that sells, not the person.

@Doug - I think our role in LTS is both as a curator of other mavens' work, to help make the step into this linked world easier for novices. I think that within LTS there are a few people who have that Connector and Salesman part together, who work with Local Authorities directly or who help share what we're doing with the wider world.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

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