Science magazine published a recent report by MIT Sloan Professor Damon Centola, “The Spread of Behavior in an Online Social Network Experiment.” A companion podcast is also available.
The reports sheds some light on social networks and behavior adoption, as well as controversy. Currently, the research community has competing thoughts over the “best” network structure: in one camp is the opinion that many shared connections mean ideas and information flow is actually slowed down. To speed information flow, it is suggested that it’s better to have connections to different groups in different parts of the network. To simplify the concept, if I’m only talking to people on the East Coast, then ideas are not flowing to the West Coast.
But ideas are not behaviors. As Professor Centola’s report shows, people with many more shared connections (in other words, a support group) are much more likely to adopt a new behavior. The idea here is if I’m on the East Coast and my friends are all subscribing to a new website service, I’ll be more likely to join than if my friends are spread out across the world.
Intuitively this makes sense. Once you hear about something new, you probably need to hear it two or three times before it really sinks in. If your connections are all in one group it doesn’t take much before the idea is bouncing back and forth within the group. In a more diffuse group, ideas can travel very far very fast but they have a lower chance of bouncing back and forth and resonating.
So next time you look at your social network, make sure you understand the work-group clusters and who is connected to whom. Design programs to create opportunities for key people to work together and form their own work-groups, which in turn should help to strengthen adoption of both new behaviors and new ideas.
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