I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. This is a national bestseller that’s been in circulation since 2000. From the back cover: “The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire,” like an epidemic.
I can draw many parallels to what we’re seeing with the growth of Front Porch Forum’s membership. It’s fascinating to watch as neighborhoods “tip,” one after another. A few dozen have passed the threshold already… now they have enough members and enough message traffic to sustain their neighborhood-wide conversation.
I also just read The Accidental Influentials in the latest Harvard Business Review about the work of Peter Dodds and Duncan J. Watts. They offer a different view of the mechanics of a social epidemic:
… Gladwell argues that “social epidemics” are driven in large part by the actions of a tiny minority of special individuals, often called influentials, who are unusually informed, persuasive, or well connected. The idea is intuitively compelling—we think we see it happening all the time—but it doesn’t explain how ideas actually spread.
The supposed importance of influentials derives from a plausible-sounding but largely untested theory called the “two-step flow of communication”: Information flows from the media to the influentials and from them to everyone else…
In recent work, however, [we] have found that influentials have far less impact on social epidemics than is generally supposed. In fact, they don’t seem to be required at all.
… marketing dollars might better be directed toward helping large numbers of ordinary people—possibly with Web-based social networking tools—to reach and influence others just like them.
I’m not sure which social theory best explains what we’re witnessing with the spread of Front Porch Forum. It’s not unlike a dry forest… lighting strikes one neighborhood and its forum bursts into a flame of activity. Other neighborhoods (parts of the forest) smolder for weeks or months before igniting a slow burn. Hmm… I’ll have to work on that comparison.