Network Effects: Waiting for the Tipping Point

Twitter changed my life
. As an introvert I have never been eager to talk about myself. But on Twitter it’s different. At times it seems the channel from my brain to my Twitter feed is wider than the one between Holland and Britain. And I have to take care that my social networking activities on-line aren’t taking over my “normal” life in the physical world, where my off-line social network has a size comparable to a meter box.

Research into network theory and social network analysis has uncovered a number of interesting phenomena in (both on-line and off-line) social networks. For example: a tipping point is the moment in time when something which was previously rare suddenly becomes widespread across an entire population, like the popularity of the Avatar movie, the Susan Boyle video, the Harry Potter books, or… my book. (I’m Twittering about the book until my fingers turn blue, so I’m sure it’s not my fault when it won’t fly.) In physics the tipping point is called a phase transition, but the meaning is the same: a sudden transformation of a system from one state to another.

A second example is the strength of weak ties, which says that information often better reaches populations in a network through many weak connections instead of few strong ones. Twitter followers are a perfect example of weak ties. They sometimes talk to me, but they never ruin my good mood with birthday party invitations.

And then there is the example of the long tail, which says that the sum of the value of sparsely available information can be larger than the value of stuff that is ubiquitous throughout the social network. Or, in other words, the Twitterers with few followers are together more powerful (and from a business-perspective more valuable) than the few with many followers.

But I think that one of the most interesting phenomena in small-world networks is the homogenization effect. Researchers found evidence that the long tail effect does not mean that people’s attention is shifting from the “head” (the most popular stuff) to the “tail” (the least popular stuff). Instead, it is the other way around: in a well-connected network information which gets copied around, gets copied around even more. What is popular becomes ever more popular:

It is a phenomenon known to economists as the Matthew effect, after a quotation from the gospel of that name: “For unto every one that hath shall be given.” […] easy digital replication and efficient communication through cellphones, email and social networking sites encourage fast-moving, fast-changing fads. The result is a homogenisation of tastes that boosts the chances of popular things becoming blockbusters, making the already successful even more successful. – Richard Webb, NewScientist

Homogenization in social groups, in societies, and in organizations, is the mechanism that enables shared culture, fads, and fashions. It is why, despite tremendous diversity in the social network, many people start liking and disliking the same things. It is why there’s a good chance that all development managers in the world will either love my book or hate it. Some researchers call it “social contagion”: the carrying over of ideas, likes, dislikes, and desires, from our friends, and from our friends’ friends.

It is becoming clear that a whole range of phenomena are transmitted through networks of friends in ways that are not entirely understood: happiness and depression, obesity, drinking and smoking habits, the inclination to turn out and vote in elections, a taste for certain music or food, a preference for online piracy, even the tendency to attempt or think about suicide. They ripple through networks “like pebbles thrown in a pond” […]. By being aware of the effects of social contagion we may be able to find ways to counter it, or use it to our own benefit. – Michael Bond, NewScientist

The same researchers found that the homogenization phenomenon usually loses its effect after three degrees in a social network. This means that you copy ideas from your friends, from the friends of your friends, and from the friends of friends of friends. But then the effect fades away.

Nevertheless, we can assume that there is a maximum of three degrees of separation in most if not all organizations, meaning that the homogenization of an idea, fad or fashion, can easily take place throughout an entire organization. This is something we can definitely use to our advantage.

And now you understand why I have been sharing so much of myself and my projects on Twitter. My 140-character brain emissions tend to increase the number of weak ties with people in the long tail, which has significantly increased the number of people separated from me by just three degrees or less. And now I’m eagerly looking forward to the tipping point…

(image by jurvetson)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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