‘Reality Mining’ in a Real Social Network

6 08 2008

“Reality Mining” is a new form of research that employs real data, such as cell phone use, to learn about trends that might otherwise be overlooked.  The method seems to be particularly effective in dispelling the myths of conventional wisdom.

It also reveals the gap between reality and virtual reality. MIT student Benjamin Waber used the technique to study social patterns among a group of workers. Instead of asking people about their social habits, Waber outfitted each employee with an electronic monitor that tracked the location and duration of all their conversations.

Waber’s results, as documented in Wired magazine, show that social networks in the real world function differently from social networks in cyberspace; sometimes the two are diametrically opposed.

On the Web, the best way to solve a problem is to engage an extensive network; the person who provides information, advice, or answers is often someone you know only vaguely — a weak link.

In the face-to-face world, though, Waber says, groups are more productive when the team members know each other well, sharing extremely strong links. That’s because face-to-face teamwork requires intimacy, he says, and “when you’re among friends you can really capitalize on preexisting protocols” — nods, grunts, in-jokes — for talking and listening.

The research also gave Waber strong insight into how information flows through the company. Waber found that one person in each network serves as a super-connector, getting news out to the team. Not surprisingly, that person is almost never the manager. It’s usually the person working below the radar who’s getting the real stuff done.

Of course, the knock on reality mining is the obvious infringement of privacy, which will only increase as the method grows and continues showing imperssive results. But according to MIT researcher Nathan Eagle, the key is finding ways to use the information that serve the common good. 

“Right now practically the only use for it is for law enforcement to use it to investigate crimes and put people in jail,” he says. “I just think it can be put to better use to deliver services that are interesting or that help people.”


Does an Idea Spread Like a Virus or a Forest Fire?

4 02 2008

Conventional word-of-mouth wisdom sees information spreading like a virus, infecting the masses through a small group of influential individuals. Bring a few “influentials” on board with your product or idea, the concept goes, and they will spread it for you on their own through their large social networks and natural enthusiasm. 

The virus model itself spread like a virus across the field of marketing. It sits at the heart of popular marketing books such as The Tipping Point and The Anatomy of Buzz, and has spawned a whole new field of marketing, called viral marketing.

But according to network-theory scientist Duncan Watts, the virus model, and especially its reliance on influentials, fails to account for important aspects of how information travels. Influentials may increase the number of people exposed to an idea, but there is little evidence to show they are vital to the start of any trend.

A better model, he suggests, is that of a forest fire. Thousands of fires begin in forests each year, but only a few grow into massive blazes. The key factors that determine whether the fires spread, he said, are environmental – whether the forest is ready to ignite. If the earth is dry and the wind is blowing in a favorable direction, any match could could create a major catastrophe. But the same match dropped on a rainy day would have no effect at all.  

Bringing Out the Base

24 11 2007

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the best way to spread your message is to target your established base. Those are the people who care the most about what you are saying and the ones most likely to tell their friends.  They are also the ones who are likely to act on your message, bringing it out of the realm of pure rhetoric and into the real world.

Stephan Covey, in the Seven Habits of Hightly Effective People, refers to a similar concept when writing about the Circle of Influence. He asks readers to make a list of the things they care about enough about to expend some of our mental or emotional energy on them. That is the Circle of Concern. Within that list, he suggests making a division between the things they can change and the things they can’t. That is the Circle of Influence.   

“Proactive people focus their efforts on the Circle of Influence,” he writes. “They work on the things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging, and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to increase.”   

Playing to the base works the same way. The more ideas are reinforced, the more relevence they accumulate. This concept is particularly true in politics. A centrist, Middle-of-the-road candidate may not offend people from either side, but he’s unlikely to inspire them either. Candidates who clearly articulate the views of their supporters have a greater chance of bringing them to the polls. The strategy worked for George W. Bush in the last two elections.

The Washington Post analyzed Bush’s strategy, as guided by his advisor Karl Rove.

Rove has argued that tending to your political base and reaching beyond it are not incompatible. He talks of raising “bold colors” on conservative issues such as tax cuts, the protection of unborn life and the appointment of originalist judges. At the same time, he has advocated policy innovations to appeal to new voters… From 2000 to 2004, this approach excited conservative enthusiasm; boosted President Bush’s support among Hispanics, Asian Americans, Catholics and women; and increased his popular vote total in his reelection bid by 23 percent.

By keeping the base firmly in his corner, Rove had no difficulty finding common ground with other demographic groups. Had he pursued the new voters without taking care of his base, he would have lost both and probably the election as well.


Who Are the Influentials?

25 02 2007

A word of mouth campaign is the most most basic and effective way to spread information. People believe their friends’ suggestions about products or services, particularly when the advice is based on personal experience. But even if the advice comes from someone outside our social circle, there is still something seductive about information passed on without ulterior motives. 

The same is true about the spread of ideas. When people talk about something they heard about or read somewhere, their interest in the idea is communicated along with the idea itself. That package makes the idea much stickier – and much more likely to be passed along to other groups of friends. 

The key, then, to spreading any brand or concept lies in finding ways for people to talk about it to their friends.  But not everyone is equally likely to spread the news. Some people – the influentials – are far more likely to form strong opinions and pass them along to anyone who will listen. Those people, according to Louise Rijk, co-founder and Vice-President of Marketing and Sales at Advanced Media Productions, are the 10% who influence the choices of the other 90%.

“They are sitting at the top of the WOMM pyramid and possess usually three main characteristics: larger social networks than the average person, persuasive power and the drive to disseminate product or service information within their expertise,” she wrote. 

Of those three characteristics, the third may be the most important. Today’s influentials are people who are likely to comment on a blog or forward something they like to their e-mail list. They do not have to be persuasive; they simply need to want to push ideas forward. Anyone looking to spread ideas needs to identify the influentials in their field. But that shouldn’t be too hard. Influentials don’t tend to be the types who work behind the scenes.

The important thing is to keep an eye out for them and then supply with sticky ideas they’ll want to spread.