Is the Tipping Point Bullshit?

New research suggests the Malcom Gladwell-popularized theory of “Influentials” (or Gatekeepers) doesn’t hold water. Really interesting article in FastCompany about research Duncan Watts:

Watts, for one, didn’t think the gatekeeper model was true. It certainly didn’t match what he’d found studying networks. So he decided to test it in the real world by remounting the Milgram experiment on a massive scale. In 2001, Watts used a Web site to recruit about 61,000 people, then asked them to ferry messages to 18 targets worldwide. Sure enough, he found that Milgram was right: The average length of the chain was roughly six links. But when he examined these pathways, he found that “hubs”–highly connected people–weren’t crucial. Sure, they existed. But only 5% of the email messages passed through one of these superconnectors. The rest of the messages moved through society in much more democratic paths, zipping from one weakly connected individual to another, until they arrived at the target.

Why did Milgram get it wrong? Watts thinks it’s simply because his sample was so small–only a few dozen letters reached their mark. The dominance of the three friends could have been a statistical accident. “And since Milgram’s finding sort of made sense, nobody even bothered to redo the experiment,” Watts shrugs. But when you perform the experiment with hundreds of successfully completed letters, a different picture emerges: Influentials don’t govern person-to-person communication. We all do.

There’s a really interesting bit about how they experimented with ForwardTrack, which makes viral forwarding activity transparent to the users. It massively increased pass-along traffic. I really want to start working this into more online activism work.