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curating resonant agents
September 2, 2009, 6:27 am
Filed under: Experience

I’ve been ruminating on complex systems science and the small world theories of Duncan Watts for a while now since falling in love with their elegance and potential after watching the documentary How Kevin Bacon Cured Cancer ( you can watch it here)

Here is my delicious file on network thinking:

What got me started? What did I fall in love with?

  • the notion that everything is much more interconnected than we thought
  • the idea of mapping the amount of nodes you need in a system before you achieve synchronicity
    • like: how few mobile phones do you need in a football stadium before anyone can instantly pass a message to any other person?
  • the democratisation of where trends start and how information flows
    • the hierarchical top down notion of Gladwell’s Tipping Point theory strikes me as having very little rigour and a lovely fairytale of post facto rationalisation
    • I’ve worked in industries that trade on the currency of cool…but I’m much more interested in the architecture of effectiveness

In 2006 Duncan co wrote a paper Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation:

A central idea in marketing and diffusion research is that influentials—a minority of individuals who influence an exceptional number of their peers—are important to the formation of public opinion. Here we examine this idea, which we call the “influentials hypothesis,” using a series of computer simulations of interpersonal influence processes. Under most conditions that we consider, we find that large cascades of influence are driven not by influentials but by a critical mass of easily influenced individuals. Although our results do not exclude the possibility that influentials can be important, they suggest that the influentials hypothesis requires more careful specification and testing than it has received.

A key finding of the paper is:

Large-scale changes in public opinion are not driven by highly influential people who influence everyone else but rather by easily influenced people influencing other easily influenced people.

Since writing this paper Watts has become a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, where he directs the Human Social Dynamics group. The presentation above show some of  the Big Seed thinking he is developing there and my favourite (well apart from the notion of ‘mullet strategy’) is this juiciness:

  • Bad news is that complexity of influence networks means we can’t predict either what will succeed, or who will make it succeed
  • Good news is that we don’t need to….

…and so this this is how I get to my thinking around ‘curating resonant agents‘:

  • A resonant agent is a stakeholder that is easily influenced to take action on your message
  • Curating is partly Watt’s notion of “DIY Influentials’- promote those who promote you- but more active than merely recognising them and using them as part of your broadcast/ blogger outreach strategy.
  • Curating is about creating experiences for resonance. It’s about Kurt Lewin’s wonderful equation:
    • B=ƒ(P,E).
    • Behavior is a function of the Person and his or her Environment
    • It’s about the more you understand people, the better you can design environments that they can experience in order to deliver the impact on their behaviour you’re after.

19 Comments so far
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Some great insight there, Katie. Thanks for sharing.

Comment by jyesmith

Love this! “It’s about the more you understand people, the better you can design environments that they can experience in order to deliver the impact on their behaviour you’re after.”

I think that the idea of ‘understanding’ an audience shouldn’t be taken lightly however, a lot of people/brands think they do this part well but there is a major disconnect.

Thanks @jyesmith for the tip on twitter.

Comment by Meghan Stuyvenberg

I agree- understanding your audience is a vitally important part of delivering to the potential of Lewin’s equation.

What I love about this kind of network thinking is that you can have a program of continual improvement: the more you can observe, measure and subsequently understand people the more pointed the behavioral outcomes become.

Comment by katiechatfield

There’s an interesting point to be made about how you understand your audience. Traditionally you put asked them questions (e.g. surveys) or observed them. In a complex environment, you have to interact with them & see what happens…

Comment by innotecture

My thoughts exactly…

Comment by katiechatfield

Jye is right: awesome (21stC sociology)insights and so v.elegantly presented. thank you.

Comment by @suzieis

Great post – totally agree.

Comment by Mike Hickinbotham

Some nice thoughts – interesting use of the word “curating” given this neat definition of a “curate” from – “any ecclesiastic entrusted with the cure of souls, as a parish priest”. What does the soul of a curating resonant agent look like..and what are the design components of an experience

Comment by Ralph Kerle

My thoughts around ‘curating’ is as a verb around the object: so it’s about curating the agent, like curating an art exhibition. I like the notion of ‘organizing and overseeing’ that this term involves- and the reason is that I like where the output of curation takes us: it is an experience observed by people who may or may not have been part of the content creation, it is thoroughly bespoke designed to show off the artist (the output of the resonant agent) in the context of the gallery and for a specific audience.

So my initial thought is that as guardians of brand advocates we could act as curators, but I’m liking the added spice of acting as Curates as well….

Comment by katiechatfield

Great post. A clear way of explaining an oft complicated topic. Would love to chat on this and mt post about employing influencers…. lunch next week?

Comment by Lauren Cassar

you are SO on!

Comment by katiechatfield

Hi Katie, great post. It’s great to see someone actually THINKING about this stuff rather than regurgitating back Gladwell – who wrote a good book, but it’s more of a foundation piece that needs critical thought applied to it, not the final answer on diffusion theory.
I saw the Watts article early on and pretty much thought ‘yeah, this guy is onto something’. But at the same time, his argument is far more about environmental structure than cause and effect. He’s kind of saying you need water to see a ripple, but not why. Hence the need to build on it.
IMHO, there is another researcher who wrote a seminal paper/book on this back in the 60s – Thomas Schelling. He was an economist more concerned with the ‘why’ of group behavior. His theories largely ignore the issue of ‘influencer/ease of influence’ and concentrate more on how the basic needs of individuals drive behavior in concert with other individuals following the same basic needs. It’s all about reaction-counter reaction and the macro outcomes that result –
In Schelling terms, not everyone needs to be an influencer or easily influenced to think a message is worth spreading – some people might only spread a message if they believe enough OTHER people have already done so. Hence you have a feedback loop with some people reacting to the perceived popularity of something only after it reaches some threshold of acceptance. Thinking of a viral message’s success as partly due to its own success makes a lot of sense and if you think about it, needs no theory of influencer/easily influenced to make it work.
Watts may have touched on some of this, not too sure. It’s been a while since I read his paper.

Comment by Paul

you give great comment Paul!
I’m working towards sharing my thinking on emergent behaviour- which answers to your notes on reaction-counter reaction…should be sometime this week.
Watts talks about a critical mass notion that determines the success of viral messaging…looking forward to following up on Schelling’s thinking to see if/how the two thoughts might intersect

Comment by katiechatfield

[…] the less, your friend and mine Katie Chatfield has a stunning piece up about this, citing research suggesting the important thing is not key […]

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Katie, you rock! I’ve been struggling with using a term of “node” but a) no one understood it and b) it seemed so cold and inhuman.

I LOVE “resonating agents”!!! Be neat to find a way to reference spaces within which this resonation is occurring as sometimes it’s not an individual but a space.

I’m wondering if we can turn to some of the work in designing more human and livable spaces for a term?

Comment by Sean

oooh- spaces…that’s a fertile thought

it seems to me that assembly of resonant agents is the key (and yes I’m biased towards live and XM at the moment)…look out for the expansion of this thinking + its intersection with ‘verbatim theatre’ sometime this week

Comment by katiechatfield

How Bacon cured Cancer struck me hard as well. Great piece, focusing on those small few that can really help spread your message and providing content/support/tools is a simple idea that is helping all my clients understand the benefit of social media/planning.

Comment by Alex

There’s a lot to be said for getting to that level of 1000 fans before trying to share a message much further than that. I’d be interested to hear how, in your thinking, the idea of “critical mass” interplays with the kind of social proof that seems to be needed for resonating agents to heard / influenced in the first place.

If that makes any sense.

Comment by cafedave

[…] the less, your friend and mine Katie Chatfield has a stunning piece up about this, citing research suggesting the important thing is not key […]

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