I recall, back in 1995, trying to decide whether or not to get an internet account. I only knew two or three people who had them. Email sounded like a cool idea, but you still needed to pick up the phone to get in touch with someone. (Remember when the question was: “Do you have an email address?” instead of: “What is your email address?”) Getting on The Net seemed like a good idea for my writing business, especially for purposes of research. I just wasn’t sure it was worth the money. Back then you bought time on the World Wide Web by the hour, and it was deducted by the minute. If you downloaded a file that was too large, you might use up your entire monthly allotment. I really wanted it, but I needed to justify spending the money.
My justification arrived after a phone call with a new client. A magazine publisher in Texas wanted me to write some articles for him. During the conversation, he said, “I only work with writers who are on email.” I made my decision in that moment. The publisher called me back the next day and said he forgot to ask for my email address, by which time, I had one.
Not too long after that I went to see the movie Braveheart. When I got home I wanted to know more about William Wallace, so I went onto Netscape and searched the Web. I found an article about him on the website of a library in Scotland. I was so excited to be getting information from such a long distance away that I called my wife into my office to show her.
When I look back on it I wonder, if I had not had a business reason to be on the internet, how long would it have taken me to do it. According to Everett Rogers, who created the diffusion of innovations theory, the tipping point for mass market acceptance of an idea occurs when 15% to 18% of the participants in a social network have tried it first. So, if we consider Dunbar’s Number of 150, which (as stated by anthropologist Robin Dunbar) is the number of stable relationships one person can have; I would’ve gotten on the internet when about 25 of my friends had done it first.
Other research, however, says it might have taken fewer people. As reported by scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, it only takes 10 percent of the population to create a shift in opinion. If those 10 percent hold an “unshakable belief,” it will always be adopted by the majority of society.
“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas;” said professor Boleslaw Szymanski, Director of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center at Rensselaer, “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.” As an example, Szymanski references the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, “In those countries, dictators who were in power for decades were suddenly overthrown in just a few weeks.”
As a rule people do not like holding unpopular opinions, they feel more comfortable belonging to the majority. This is probably a throwback to our caveman days when acceptance by the clan or tribe meant the difference between surviving or not.
As few as two people can change the opinion of a third person. Sameet Sreenivasan, another researcher at Rensselaer, found that if a test subject heard an opinion or belief from one person, he or she would not accept it, but if it was heard from two people, the subject would adopt it as his or her own.
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, says, “The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” He compares it to how a single sick person can start a disease epidemic like the flu.
A good example is the American Revolution which was far from a majority. At most one-third of the colonists supported the revolution. But it was actually fewer than that. Only 3% actively fought the British. 10% provided material support to the soldiers. Another 20% preferred the revolutionaries but did nothing to sustain them. At the same time, one-third of the colonists supported the crown; while another third were indifferent to either side. By the end of the war there were actually more American colonists fighting for the crown than for the revolution. And, yet the rebels succeeded.
The world is a marketplace of ideas, opinions, and beliefs. When the next new trend comes around, will you be an early adopter or will you wait for consensus? Perhaps it will be your idea that will spread like wildfire - so be careful with your next social media post - it may go viral!
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist/speaker and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is the author of ...and Never Coming Back, a psychological thriller-novel about a motion picture director; The Annoying Ghost Kid, a humorous children's book about dealing with a bully; and the inspirational book: Wisdom in the Weirdest Places. For more information on Robert, please visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.