Christakis, Gladwell, and Catalyzing Movements

Last month, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a provocative essay on online networks and social movements. I personally thought it was a brilliant articulation, but he made one problematic claim: “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties.”

This was a gross and unnecessary simplification. Folks on the Internet — including much of my close community — predictably threw a hissy fit, which was justified, but unfortunate. We missed the opportunity to use Gladwell’s piece as a launching pad for thoughtful deliberation on how to make social media platforms even better at facilitating meaningful connections.

I skirted the issue then, but I’m compelled to enter the fray now, thanks to Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, the authors of Connected and two of the leading researchers in the field of social networks.

I am a card-carrying member of their fan club. And so it pains me to say that their essay, published today, on Tweeting and behavior change completely mystified me.

They start with an interesting anecdote. The actress, Alyssa Milano, who has over a million followers on Twitter, tweeted about their book and posted a link to purchase it. The net effect? Zero extra books sold.

Alyssa Milano MLB 2008

As an experiment, they decided to get someone “more influential” — in this case, Tim O’Reilly — to tweet about their book to his 1.5 million followers. Net result? A few extra books sold.

Finally, they had Susannah Fox of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project tweet about their book to her 4,000 followers. This time, they sold three extra books.

What were their takeaways from this sordid experiment?

  1. The nature of your ties is what matters, not the number. Furthermore — and they directly call out Gladwell here — online connections can be either strong or weak.
  2. “Second, it is not just “influentials” who matter, but also “influenceables.” O’Reilly and Milano can both be persuasive, and they are connected to millions of people. But it was the thousands of followers of Fox who ultimately won –granted, not by much — our little contest. To make change happen, we need sheep as well as shepherds.”
  3. Online interactions must feel real in order to cultivate change.

I’m completely on board points 1 and 3. I have no idea of what 2 means, which is why I just quoted them.

My problem with their essay is that none of these points follow from their anecdote.

Their experiment centered around a simple set of desired actions: Click on the link, buy the book. In all three cases, basically no one completed the second step. If anything, this result supports Gladwell’s argument: online connections are mostly weak ties.

But that doesn’t follow either. Case in point: In 1999, the day after Barbara Walter’s interview with Monica Lewinsky aired, the lipstick Lewinsky was wearing (Club Monaco in Glaze) completely sold out. I can’t give you a definitive explanation for why this happened. What’s certain is that everyone who was watching the interview that night was a weak tie, and yet somehow, Lewinsky was able to get thousands of her “followers” to go out and make a purchase.

Here’s my takeaway: Yes, the nature of your ties matter. Yes, authenticity matters. But space matters also. We react to space in visceral, often irrational ways. Rational or not, if we understand how space affects our behavior, we can leverage that space accordingly.

This is why architects installed long stairwells leading up to the entrances of the great cathedrals. (People look up when they walk up stairs, and looking up elicits a feeling of reverence.) This is why you won’t find clocks or windows in Las Vegas casinos. This is why I chose to use a picture of Alyssa Milano in this blog post, even though she is only peripherally relevant here.

And this brings me back to my original point. What we — people interested in leveraging these new tools for social change — really need to start talking about is how the tools themselves can do better at eliciting desirable behaviors, how to transform transactions into meaningful action.

14 replies to “Christakis, Gladwell, and Catalyzing Movements”

  1. I guess what they're saying is that (to use the examples in your post): people were not yet quite ready to buy their book even if some folks tweeted about it, but, instead, the people who saw Lewinsky was ready to buy lipstick, because sex is already on their mind.

    1. If that indeed was their point, I'm still lost. What would that have to do with the nature of ties or social media's potential for facilitating action?

  2. When I stood up and made my comment at the Legacy event in September, it was an attempt to spark a conversation about exactly the points you make in this post.

    Like you, I am a fan of Christakis & Fowler's research and I hope that they or someone else can extend it into the online world (but it's not there yet). I am also a Gladwell fan and wish that he better understood the dynamic of online social networks before writing a sweeping essay that seemed calculated to fire up the digerati.

    If you're interested, here's my side of the story of the Legacy event and what I took from it:

    Here's my opinion: Skip the sideshow of who sold more books. Focus on stuff that matters. That goes for everybody.

  3. I think the key sentence in the piece that we should have made clearer is this:

    "These anecdotes comport with the more formal mathematical study of online interactions that we and others have been conducting over the past few years."

    The anecdote was an entry into discussing our scientific studies of 1700 Facebook users and 5000 people in Framingham. The points we make at the end are based on those results, not the story about Alyssa Milano. I see now that the transition got whittled down to the point where it was not as clear as it should have been.

    Thanks for the thoughtful feedback.

    1. I definitely see that, and in retrospect, I may have been a little unfair in my tone. I could just as easily have written, "Well, the writing could have been a bit tighter, but their essential point is what's important. And here's my riff on that…"

      Thanks for responding, and thanks for all of the incredible work you and Nicholas are doing.

  4. Dr. Fowler, I appreciate you weighing in here. And Susannah, I appreciate you highlighting this blog post on – what else? – Twitter.

    As a fellow card carrying member of the Christakis/Fowler research fan club, I also felt this article didn't fully grasp the complexity of social media and how its used. Or, perhaps, looking more at how people successfully use it to garner action.

    What I would add to the discussion is that Twitter, or any medium for that matter, is still entirely dependent upon the human element. Quality over quantity matters. And quality is created by being able to mix substantive content with personality in such a way that followers feel like they know you in more than a weak tie way, even if you would disagree.

    The point I'd like to hear more on is the goal "how the tools themselves can do better at eliciting desirable behaviors, how to transform transactions into meaningful action." I do think this is significant, but would err on the side of how the tools are leveraged by people to transform transactions in to meaningful action.

    Twitter is just SMS. But SMS in Susannah's hands is much different than SMS in Alyssa Milano's hands.

    1. That's exactly the point this article was trying to make. The anecdotes were just that: anecdotes. But they were used in the service of the broader point (backed up by other work not shown — e.g., in Chapter 8 of Connected), which is that to the extent that online interactions provide the means for people with real ties (=ties where something is at stake) to stay connected, then online interactions can be powerful indeed. So Gladwell was, to some extent, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It's like saying that because some phone calls are from telemarketers and hence ignored, then the phone is a useless device.

  5. I must say the dialogue among readers have served to enhance this post quite a bit. I've enjoyed reading everyone's comments. I think the third point, "online interactions must feel real in order to cultivate change," really says a lot. If it's not relevant to needs, expectations, desires for the space we're in at the time, then it's not going to effect an immediate change regardless of who's testifying. Isn't that true across all media? (I'll venture to add that Lewinsky's lipstick would have felt relevant to most any woman breathing at the time.)

    And actually, having stumbled upon this conversation, I'll probably now go buy the book.

  6. It would be useful to recreate the experiement with, say, lipstick. My hypothesis is the Alyssa Milano would sell more lipstick than Tim O'Reilly, because lipstick is in the domain (glamour) where she is a leader. Tim is a leader, but not in that domain.
    There is more to characterizing networks ties than strength or weakness . They have shared contexts, interests, etc. (Scott Feld has a great paper called "The Focused Organization of Social Ties" on this topic). Strength and weakness are more amenable to quantitative analysis, which is perhaps why these characteristics dominate a lot of discussion about networks.

  7. Thanks for the great post, Eugene. And thank you all for the great comments on this issue. The question "how social media can influence large crowds" may well be at the top of the ranking for managers of non-profits and private companies alike.
    I think Susannah summarizes on her post the key question everyone wants to answer: "what is the “pixie dust” for successful communities?". I can clearly remember my colleague Niki Kittur, at WikiSym 2009, talking about the same ideal concept, the "pixie dust" for successful online communities that everybody want to find.
    I admit that most of us think social media technologies can be a final answer. But the more I learn about virtual communities, the more I'm convinced that technologies are just means, not ends. People are the real ends. They have goals, they have concerns, they have genuine willingness to help others… The list of motivations is endless.
    Sometimes personal motivations can be intertwined with business or economic motivations (like an open source developer working on a project of her choice that, in turn, creates benefits for the company employing this developer).
    These anecdotal experiments just come to confirm this point. To be really influenced, people must want (or let, somehow) to be influenced. People who want to give up smoking have a clear goal that can be reinforced with social interaction. Then, social media jump in to make that interaction simple, effortless and instantly rewarding (3 important benefits in this example to reinforce the new healthy habit). "I'm not alone in this battle". "The more we are, the stronger we get".
    Selling books is something different from giving up smoking, collaborating in an open source/open content project or civil activism. In this case, the authors (or the publisher, or both) do have a clear goal, but people may don't share it. Unless they share some interest at first, they will be little influenced. I'm pretty sure that, no matter his 1,5 millions followers in Twitter, if T. O'Reilly recommends buying the book "The reproductive behavior of the river crab" most people would dismiss the advice. Even when he recommends something we might think is aligned with the broad interest of most of his followers (like "Connected"), we get similar results (by the way, I follow Tim and he frequently tweets about books, so a saturation factor might also be considered here).
    Wikipedia became a success, and it's still a success, because many people share the same motivation of compiling as much open content as possible in a free encyclopedia. The same is true for Wikimedia Commons. Photo adicts love Flickr. And many other cases. Successful communities succeed when you find many others sharing your same concerns, and then the amplification of social media, collaborative technologies and the Internet completes the magic equation. However, as myriads of non-first-rate open source projects teach us, you never know what will happen in advance. The very few people who figured out a new compelling goal in advance are simply called leader innovators and visionaries. And you know folks, I believe social media cannot substitute them, but can only amplify their wave of change by orders of magnitude.

  8. Buying is a process that begins with awareness. It's common PR knowledge that a message needs to be repeated seven times just to get to awareness. One tweet isn't going to generate a lot of sales if you follow these tried-and-tested communications/marketing models.

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