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Trend-setting: Viruses or Wildfires?

June 11, 2008

I’ve been thinking a lot about trend-setting lately. In many ways, Progressives are seeking to develop lasting national “trends” that attracts new allies and results in lasting positive change. Other politically progressive trends such as the Civil Rights movement and even the current interest in everything “Green” have inspired advocates in many areas.

For more than fifty years, advertising and marketing experts have conceptualized trend setting with the “Influentials” frame, based on the research of Paul Lazarsfeld, Elihu Katz, and colleagues. Proponents claim that highly connected individuals facilitate a “two-step information flow” (see left) between message-generators and the general public. Further propagating this thesis, Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book “The Tipping Point” claimed that “some of us count more than others” in developing trends. This conceptualization is part of the foundation for the concept of “viral marketing” in which advertisers target the most effective “carriers” for their viral message. In many ways, Progressive advocates have cast themselves in the role of “Influentials” in propagating a national “trend” that results the recognition of human rights and true opportunity for all.

Recent research by Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds refutes the idea of “Influentials” and claims that trends are started much more randomly, much like wildfires (see left). Watts and Dodds argue that we do not discuss the quality of a match in starting a fire but whether or not the conditions are right to make a fire spread quickly and broadly. Certainly Nativists and others are capitalizing on national conditions (i.e. fear over terrorism/crime and economic decline) that permit their messages to be disseminated effectively. In order to create a reverse “progressive” trend, it seems to me that we need to engage fully with new forms of collaboration. Watts calls his approach the Big Seed, which is basically mass marketing with a word of mouth component. I wonder if it’s about creating the right sort of platform where the conditions are created for a human rights wildfire.

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