Robert Scoble has a good post that has got me thinking way too much for a Sunday morning: Early adopter angst
If I get arrogant about the role of early adopters (some people call them influencers, or “passionates”) it’s because I’ve seen they are the ones who drive society. You really think that guy who I saw the other day on the plane using Windows 2000 and an old version of Lotus Notes is driving society? Riiiigggghhhhtttt.
At a gut level this makes so much sense. I can so relate to much of what he says. I had even started a little social networking research project around this whole concept that WAS making good progress. All before I started reading the work of Duncan Watts a professor of Sociology at Columbia, and currently a Principle Research Scientist at Yahoo Research. His reseach (pdf warning): Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation
But what exactly does the two-step flow say about influentials, and how precisely do they exert influence over the (presumably much larger) population of non-influentials? In the remainder of this article we argue that although the dual concepts of personal influence and opinion leadership have been extensively documented, it is nevertheless unclear exactly how, or even if, the influentials of the two-step flow are responsible for diffusion processes, technology adoption, or other processes of social change. By simulating a series of formal models of diffusion that are grounded in the mathematical social science literature, we find that there are indeed conditions under which influentials are likely to be disproportionately responsible for triggering large-scale “cascades” of influence, and that under these conditions, the usual intuition regarding the importance of influentials is supported. These conditions, however, appear to be the exception rather than the rule—under most conditions that we consider, influentials are only modestly more important than average individuals. In the models that we have studied, in fact, it is generally the case that most social change is driven not by influentials, but by easily influenced individuals influencing other easily influenced individuals.
And therein lies my dilemma. Watts' research challenges the predominant thinking on how the diffusion of innovation occurs. Watts' work changes the game completely, and even challenges the reasoning that has led to the creation of entire institutions.
For me personally, his work has left me in a state of suspended animation. I want to completely understand his findings before I continue charging blindly along the old path. Which totally makes me sad because what we were working on was way cool, but if the assumptions the work was based on are not true--what's the point?
Which brings me back to Robert's post. If there is "early adopter angst" it may very well be occurring within an echo chamber.
For a less academic read on the subject I recommend this Fast Company article: Is the Tipping Point Toast?