With a bit of trepidation I am entering the conversation about Duncan Watt's research, as profiled in the Fast Company article, "Is the Tipping Point Toast?" I say “trepidation” as there has been a great deal already written about this, much of it by smart, influential people. However, as it is easier for me to really grok what I read by writing about it, I thought I'd share my perspective for those who are interested!
The battle fronts forming online run along the lines of “the theory of Influentials is dead” vs. “Duncan Watt's research is bunk.” Or, to put it another way: word-of-mouth marketing targeting a small group of highly connected/influential individuals vs. mass marketing “target everyone” campaigns. Does influentials marketing work or not? Actually, how does influence work?
After reading a variety of articles/responses on this subject, I have come to the conclusion that we don't really know “scientifically” how influence works. We do know that highly connected people can push a story/meme/trend along faster than non-connected people. But when it comes to starting a meme/trend/story, it seems that luck has a lot to do with it. Watt says that it comes down to the social setting being ripe for a trend to take off. And the so-called “influentials” have little to do with actually starting a major trend. From the article:
Mind you, Watts does agree that some people are more instrumental than others. He simply doesn't think it's possible to will a trend into existence by recruiting highly social people. The network effects in society, he argues, are too complex--too weird and unpredictable--to work that way. If it were just a matter of tipping the crucial first adopters, why can't most companies do it reliably?
Actually, if you believe Watts, the world isn't just complex--it's practically anarchic. In 2006, he performed another experiment that chilled the blood of trendologists. Trends, it suggested, aren't merely hard to predict and engineer--they occur essentially at random.
Word of mouth and social contagion made big hits bigger. But they also made success more unpredictable.
A trend can be started by any “Average Joe.” If the social conditions are ripe, it will take off. If not, it won't, not even with the help of Super Joe Influential. To me, this makes sense. I am increasingly of the opinion that communication, as it actually works among people, is illogical, unpredictable, or, as Watt says, anarchic. Even – perhaps especially – mass communications. Philosopher Alain Badiou writes:
Our world also exerts a strong pressure on the dimension of logic; essentially because the world is submitted to the profoundly illogical regime of communication. Communication transmits a universe made up of disconnected images, remarks, statements and commentaries whose accepted principle is incoherence. Day after day communication undoes all relations and all principles, in an untenable juxtaposition that dissolves every relation between the elements it sweeps along in its flow. And what is perhaps even more distressing is that mass communications presents the world to us as a spectacle devoid of memory, a spectacle in which new images and new remarks cover, erase and consign to oblivion the very images and remarks that have just been shown and said. The logic which is specifically undone there is the logic of time. It is these processes of communication which exert pressure on the resoluteness of thinking's fidelity to logic; proposing to thought in the latter's place a type of imaginary dissemination. (p. 30, Infinite Thought)
Badiou offers philosophical thought as a defense against the anarchic, frenetic content of mass communications. Now, it is clear that his statement above does not take into account social media; it refers more to the old comment/control communications. And yet, to anyone who spends a little time online, his mad, disconnected universe is a familiar, perhaps even comfortable, place. And I am increasingly skeptical of the existence of a dualism between social and mass communications. There are too many similarities (more on that another time.) Now, Badiou is noted for his placement of philosophical truth (ontology) in the realm of mathematics: set theory to be exact. Not for him the philosophy of difference (Derrida) or desire (Deleuze, Lyotard). And yet, he doesn't leave behind difference and desire, as it simply cannot be left behind. Rather, his subject is defined, actually created, by his/her decision to be a witness to something, acting in fidelity to an event, a decision born of difference or desire.
Badiou's subjects are the true influentials. You can find them, according to Badiou, in the fields of politics, science, art and in love between two human beings. These type of influentials interrupt the temporal madness with long thought, which in today's day and age, is actually a revolt. Through their fidelity, their constant witness to something life changing (an event), they define themselves and influence those around them. Can we find them in business as well? I think it is possible, although Badiou would probably have a hairy conniption at the thought.
Wow, I have gotten a little off base here in the long grass of philosophy. What can it tell us about marketing? Well, at the very least, it leaves me skeptical of traditional influencer-style marketing, at least when it comes to starting an important trend. Rather, perhaps it is passion that starts it off, passion that is reflected and rebounded within a social context ripe for it. Passion that actually creates the subject who speaks of it: Average Joe becomes Subject Joe Passionate/Dedicated to (political event, scientific event, art event, love event – business/commerce/market event?).
I am not sure it is really possible to manufacture a trend via word of mouth marketing to influentials. I welcome Watt's research as it starts to question some sacred cows of marketing, which is always a good thing. For those seeking to start trends, I wish you luck. I think you'll need it.