Thursday, June 24, 2004

Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age

Six Degrees by Duncan Watts provides a lively overview of the emerging science of networks within the context of the lives of the scholars who are making it happen.

I was immensely predisposed to like this book, and it did not disappoint me. Like the author, I studied networks and received a PhD at Cornell University in the mid-90s. Six Degrees provided me a perfect introduction to how graph theory and network algorithms (which I have studied in depth) relate to sociology, psychology, biology, and physics. For those without formal mathematical training, Six Degrees will probably be tough going at times, but Watts consistently brings the story back to real people to keep things interesting.

For those interested in pursuing networks and their applications, Watts provides a fantastic bibliography. Book titles are organized by subject and each title receives a "degree of difficulty" rating to help guide the search.

As I mentioned in my last post, Watts takes on some similar issues addressed by Gladwell in The Tipping Point and arrives at slightly different conclusions.

Both authors take great interest in how social phenomena spread from individual behavior to epidemic proportions. By describing the importance of connectors, mavens, and salespeople, Gladwell paints a picture where careful consideration of the social landscape makes all the difference between sales flop and hot fad. Watts incorporates Gladwell's thinking into a more scientific point of view, and then shows that even if we have a great product and know who the connectors, mavens, and salespeople are, the boundary between flop and fad is invisible and often completely outside our control.

The crux of Watts' argument is that everyone has a threshold for adapting new behavior. Some people are avid trendsetters and jump at new styles and products impulsively. Others refuse to jump on new trends no matter what. The rest of us fall somewhere in between, each person somewhere on the spectrum from impulsive trendsetter to die-hard traditionalist. We don't jump first, but we do jump eventually, or at least some of the time. We instinctively wait until a certain percentage of our associates jump, and then we become open to the idea of following. Each of us has a different threshold. (Watts is not making this up. He cites a great deal of sociological and psychological research.)

Given this psychological model (which is disturbing but hard to refute) what happens in a social network filled with many interconnecting relationships? The answer is that if there are too many interconnections, then new trends cannot jump to become fads. Except for the impulsive trendsetters, everyone else knows too many people holding back, and so everyone holds back.

Gladwell's model of connectors, mavens, and salespeople still applies in a social network with relatively sparse interconnected relationships. But as the level of interconnectedness increases, the boundary between flop and fad becomes increasingly invisible and impossible to predict, until at some extreme level of clique-i-ness, group-think becomes entrenched and change is all but impossible.

Watts also gives a fascinating description of how the chaotic unpredictability of networks can save us in a time of crisis. I'll say more about that next time.

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