Molecular conception of emotional contagion

In October, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker that the relationships fostered through social media are "weak" and cannot lead to any real social change. "The revolution, he says, will not be tweeted." The ties created by social networking are too insignificant to have real impact, and the lack of structure and leadership across networks lead to the inability of network groups to strategize and follow through on goals, resulting in very little actual activism taking place by so-called supporters.

But my co-author, Jennifer Aaker, a Professor of Marketing at Stanford Business School, and I question Gladwell's claim. In our book, The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Powerful and Effective Ways To Use Social Media To Drive Social Change, we outline the ways in which platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have changed the game for social causes -- and pushed the envelope of the ways for-profit businesses can engage in the social good sphere to create meaningful change. In the following excerpt from our book, we discuss the power of emotional contagion to spread enthusiasm and action for good across social networks.

The following is an adapted excerpt from The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effect, Powerful Ways To Use Social Media To Drive Social Change

We all know that social media provides a platform for viral message spreading, whether it be that irresistible picture of a LOLCat or a today's version of the Numa Numa guy. But the same platforms that can spread these messages can also be used to change the world. Small acts can cause ripples through networks leading to big change.

Consider the following stories:

The Dragonfly Effect was inspired by the story of Sameer Bhatia, a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008. Sameer was told his only chance of survival was to undergo a bone marrow transplant; however, as an Indian man from a rare blood group, his odds of finding a match in the US registry were less than 1 in 20,000; only 3% of the National Bone Marrow registry consists of minority donors.

Charged with the seemingly impossible task of finding a donor in only a matter of weeks, Sameer's friends, a tight-knit group of young, driven entrepreneurs and professionals, decided they would approach the situation as they would any business challenge. If the doctors said that the odds to find a match were 1 in 20,000, all they had to do was get 20,000 South Asian individuals into the bone marrow registry. With focus, efficiency, and hyper-utilization of social media, "Team Sameer" engaged web 2.0 tools like Facebook, Google Docs, and YouTube to mobilize support and empower others to organize bone marrow drives all over the country. As a result of their inspirational campaign, Sameer's supporters across Facebook and YouTube registered 24,611 South Asians into the bone marrow registry in just 11 short weeks. Sameer not only found a perfect 10/10 match, but in the first year following the drives alone, these newly registered donors yielded over 250 matches for other leukemia patients as well.

Not all campaigns are worldwide or national: sometimes social media can inspire infectious action closer to home, as well. This was the case with Carolee Hazard, who started her organization The 93 Dollar Club after a chance encounter at her local grocery store. Carolee noticed that the woman in front of her at the grocery store had lost her wallet, and offered to pay her $207 grocery bill. The next day, she received a check in the mail from the woman she had helped for $300 -- $93 more than she had originally paid. Uncertain about what to do with the money, she published the story on Facebook; someone then suggested she donate it to charity, and Carolee gave the money to her local Food Bank.

Within a day, inspired by Carolee's generosity, over a dozen of her Facebook friends had joined in to help. And as they spread the message, donations of $93 flooded in, and the project quickly grew. As a result of Carolee's simple act of kindness shared across the web, The 93 Dollar Club has since raised over $100,000, providing over 220,000 meals at the food bank - ranging in donations from just 93 cents all the way up to $9,300. One small act -whether it be online or off --can have a ripple effect and lead to big change. The power of a ripple effect - a message transmitted that can spread like wildfire - is what makes social networks so powerful.

Sociological research by Christakis and Fowler, authors of "Connected:" showed that behavior really is contagious across networks. In their landmark study in Framingham, MA drawing on over 50,000 relationships amongst 5,124 subjects, they identified that when a Framingham resident became obese, his or her friends were 57 percent more likely to become obese - and furthermore, that a person was roughly 20 percent more likely to become obese if the friend of a friend became obese. A person's risk of obesity rose roughly 10 percent even with 3 degrees of separation - that is, if a friend of a friend of a friend gained weight. Christakis and Fowler write, "You may not know him personally, but your friend's husband's co-worker can make you fat."

Luckily, this type of contagion exists for positive behaviors, too. In a study of more than 4,700 people followed over a twenty year period, researchers found that happiness really is contagious: people who are happy (or become happy) significantly boost the chances that their friends will become happy. And the power of happiness can span up to two more degrees of separation, improving the mood of that person's husband, wife, brother, sister, friend, and even friend's friends. Further, these contagious effects have a lasting impact. One individual's happiness can affect another's for as much as a year. That happiness is also more sustained than that which comes from a momentary financial gain. As James Fowler, coauthor of the study, explains, "If your friend's friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on your being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket."

Understanding emotional contagion is important in social media for two reasons. First, the fact that your feelings of happiness or meaning can actually infect others helps explain why some initiatives work and others don't. How did Barack Obama mobilize so many young people in the last U.S. presidential election, while as John McCain had a significantly muted effect (despite running-mate Sarah Palin's brief interjection of high-energy drama)? Why does Kiva, a revolutionary marketplace for microfinance lending to entrepreneurs, successfully empower so many, whereas a similarly spirited (but considerably more rational) product, MicroPlace, hasn't cultivated nearly as large a community, or inspired similar brand recognition? Why does a viral video campaign like the recent "It Gets Better" series sweep the nation and garner millions of views in just weeks? How can Team Sameer organize over 20,000 donors (and The 93 Dollar Club raise $100,000) simply through enthusiasm, a focused goal, and a wireless connection? To understand these successes, you must first recognize how the contagion of emotions can lead others to help, and how one post on Facebook or Twitter really can lead to a revolution.

Emotional contagion is also pivotal because it underscores the importance of cultivating social good, which is often most resonant with happiness and meaning. People don't have to give something away for free to do good; they can instead create a business that does good. (Type "social entrepreneur" into Google, and the 15 million hits reveal that this concept has garnered significant attention.) The for-profit and nonprofit worlds are merging, creating an opportunity for masses of people who drive more profits and create greater good.

Research shows that a multiplier effect can result when social good is linked to profit-making endeavors. Many people currently labor under the delusion that creating good in the world can't align with making money. It's time to discard that false belief. Making a profit and creating social good are not opposite poles on one continuum. They are two independent, orthogonal dimensions and thus two goals that can and should coexist and be pursued together. With this bigger-picture perspective, companies can better align their business models with their greater good goals. Currently, most large companies have a "corporate social responsibility" arm that is disassociated (often completely) from the business model and the brand. However, when companies integrate social good goals into their business model (as eBay, Word of Good, Starbucks, Nike,, and Google have), they make more money and create more good.

When social good aligns with profit making, every stakeholder benefits. One way to think about this is how Jeff Clavier, founder and managing partner of SoftTech VC, frames it around passion. You can engineer a company for social good, he says, which can increase feelings of passion in all stakeholders. If you scale sustainable models (like TOMS Shoes, who donate a pair of shoes for every pair purchased, that social good becomes self-perpetuating and infectious. )

Individuals and companies alike can engage social media to make an impact. Consider the ripple effect of reaching the people who share your passion, across the social media platforms we engage on each day. Such ripples resonate and though they come from weak ties they can create, outcomes that are both powerful and infectious.

To learn more about engaging social media for impact, visit

About the Author

Andy Smith

Andy Smith, author of The Dragonfly Effect, Quick, Effective and Powerful ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change, is Principal of Vonavona Ventures.

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