Malcom Gladwell's idea that certain influential people can be trend makers has come under fire from Duncan Watts, a network theorist, in a recent issue of Fast Company.
In the past few years, Watts--a network-theory scientist who recently took a sabbatical from Columbia University and is now working for Yahoo--has performed a series of controversial, barn-burning experiments challenging the whole Influentials thesis. He has analyzed email patterns and found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure....
Actually, if you believe Watts, the world isn't just complex--it's practically anarchic.
Influential people can, of course, help a trend along. Watt's point is that they cannot by themselves will a trend into existence.
Part of the reason is that we live together in an increasingly interconnected world. Reading the article, I realized that Watts was the author of a New York Times article that I blogged about last spring. It described a music download experiment that demonstrated that given our preferences and the knowledge of the preferences of others, predicting what music would become the most popular was a practical impossibility. Given constant feedback, huge variability takes hold in such systems.
While Gladwell also points out that the social environment must be ready to accept certain trends for them to "tip," the idea that certain tastemakers can cause that to occur is taken to task by Watts.
Watts is the author of the book, Six Degrees.