Sociologist Duncan Watts is getting some press for his challenge to science journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s famous “Tipping Point” argument, in particular Gladwell’s “Law of the Few”: the idea that a few well-connected people, dubbed “Influentials,” make or break trends.
Fast Company’s Clive Thompson describes Watts’ work:
[Watts] has analyzed email patterns and found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.
Ars Technica’s Julian Sanchez recounts an interview with Watts from 2004:
“We knew 50 years ago that this model was wrong. After the fact, and this is why Gladwell’s book is so beguiling, you see that crime rates dropped or Hush Puppies took off and then you can always find the people with whom it started,” he told me. “But if it’s something about them, why aren’t they driving all the other trends? What turns out to be the deciding factor is not the ‘influentials’ but the people who are easily influenced. You might have someone who influences five times as many people as the average, but the total numbers relative to a population are still very small. Almost all of the action is away from the center.”