Online Social Networks are Creating Social Epidemics

Social NetworksThe Law of Six Degrees was championed in a landmark study. 160 people were asked to find one person and get a package to him halfway across the Country. They had to find that person through people they knew and whom they knew. The package was delivered 16 times by the same person, half by three people and the remainder by two others. The average degrees of separation were a little less than six.

If you are curious and fascinated with how little things can make a difference, this is definitely a book for you. When I first read the book, many things caught my attention; it was a gem of a book. It still is. You should buy it. The words epidemic and contagious are used throughout. Epidemics are geometric progressions. Most think the words have a negative connotation. I do not. When used correctly, they can become positive powerful instruments. It describes examples of what a perfect messenger can do with the right message.

The book describes Connectors, Mavens and Salesman. H. Dean Hua thinks I am all three. I am definitely the salesman, most of a connector, and parts of a maven. These three comprise the law of the few and I am honored and privileged to be in such rare company. The secret is to exploit it for betterment. Because of the marketplace I deal in, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of you reading this report and buying the book are one of the few.

Let us first start with a perfect hypothetical example of what a Tipping Point is. One thousand people visit New York City from Canada. They are all carrying a 24-hour untreatable strain of virus. It has a 2% infection rate; meaning one out of fifty will catch it. If 50 is the average amount of people you come in contact a day, the disease will stay in equilibrium. The 1000 will pass it to 1000 the next day, the original returning to health. It continues through summer and fall until the Christmas season. With tourism and shoppers, you are now coming in contact with 55 people a day. The equilibrium is disrupted. The 1000 will run into 55,000, not 50,000. With the 2% infection rate, 1100 become ill on day two, 1210 on day 3, and 1331 on day 4 until you arrive on Christmas with a full-blown epidemic. The Tipping Point was when the virus went from 50 to 55.

I saved an hour on my morning commute after I read this book. I would leave my house at 6:45 AM and arrive at the Verrazano Bridge by 7:15 AM. The problem was that traffic was backed up for a mile and half. It took forty-five minutes to get through it. I would arrive at my desk by 9:00 AM. So I decided to leave a half hour early, getting to the bridge by 6:45 and I encountered no traffic. I was at my desk at 7:30 AM. I gave up a half hour to save an hour. I value the cost of an hour. Curious, a few days later, I parked my car and watched what happened from 6:45 on. The traffic began to build. There were more cars then road to handle them. It was like a watermelon going through a garden hose. The epidemic started to begin, and tipped at 7:15 AM when I used to arrive. It stayed for a half hour until once again the epidemic tipped and subsided by 9:00 AM.

Baltimore experienced a 500% rise is cases of babies being born with syphilis from 1995 to 1996. The housing projects were being torn down and residents were forced to scatter. Up until then, the disease was contained to one area and manageable with medication. It is widely believed to be from crack cocaine use. It didn’t appear on anybody’s radar. The budget for low-income medical clinics was ample to support the disease and keep it in check. 36,000 made visits in 1991. But by 1995 with budget cuts and clinics all but closed, the amount of people visiting dropped to 21,000, and the equilibrium was shattered. It spread as the residents moved. But what makes this example unique, it flared up in the summer and quelled in the winter. Fewer went out in the cold.

In June of 1996 Malcolm Gladwell submitted an article to the New Yorker Magazine about how crime was reduced in New York City, “The Tipping Point.” A few years later he wrote this book, The Tipping Point and now writes for them.

I first purchased The Tipping Point in February 2003. I had heard it about for a couple years and never got around to buying it. I had just finished my greatest business year ever, where I enjoyed nine of my ten greatest business days. People kept telling me I would enjoy it. It was me.

The Tipping Point is 258 pages and an easy read. It is a biography of an idea. How little things cause big effects. It describes The Law of the Few: Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen – the messengers. Connectors I know are Jordan Lozott, Joe Rosenberg, Steve Lichtenstein and Victor Urbach. Steve has yet to catch the online networking virus. He is a face-to-face Master Networker – one of the best. In epidemics, the messenger matters but the message must have appeal and needs to be sticky. Do you remember “Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should?” It went from the fifth best selling brand to Number One. Or Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride with the message “The British Are Coming.” Had it not been, history may be different. Its success began the revolutionary war and a year later to US declaration of independence. The British could have easily defeated a sleeping colony and ended the uprising that night.

The second law is that epidemics must stick.

Sesame Street would have died had they followed the advice of professionals to keep adults and characters separate on the street. Adults with the characters made it memorable and created the stickiness. Sticky is repetition. You cannot create an epidemic if it doesn’t stick. Careful attention to structure and format equals stickiness. In the late 60’s, Joan Gantz Cooney set out to start an epidemic. She didn’t realize it, but she did. Her creation was Sesame Street. Her target was 3,4 and 5 year olds; the agent of infection was television; and she wanted to spread literacy, giving to the disadvantaged a leg up when starting school. She created a social epidemic.

Direct Marketers are experts at stickiness. They measure it. Internet Affiliate Marketing is a measurable form of Direct Marketing and I am pleased to report I am beginning to master it. Rosalind Gardner, whom I consider a master of affiliates, taught me in her book to use a search engine Overture. Melody Campbell, the Small Business Guru introduced me to her in a conference call a few weeks ago.

I type in keywords and see if they are widely used. It is one of their many tools. I focus on the best sellers. Why sell something no one is interested in? Almost like a connector, you want to use only the connected. There is a lot of noise with Internet Marketing. You can drown in e-mail messages loaded with hype. You don’t know what is good and what is not.

Melody caught my attention by signing 60 people in her first day on Ecademy. A week later, after signing up for her mail list, she invited me to join a call with Rosalind as her guest. She would be on the call an hour. I expected hype and salesmanship. What I got was friendly informality and pages and pages of free information to start using the following day. I bought her book. She indicated if you sell product you need to buy it and write about it. I didn’t understand Affiliates before I listened to her. Prior, I had attempted affiliate marketing with no success. What I failed to do is include the word of marketing component. A decision to spend is heavily influenced by the recommendation of a friend. Now I do.

Stickiness is going from abstract to concrete. You must test what works. College students in an experiment were told of the risks of tetanus. If you weren’t inoculated, serious consequences could occur. Yet, 3% actually and went and got a shot. In another group, they repeated the same experiment, only this time inserted a simple map where the clinic was located and times when they could get the free shot. 28% responded. It became concrete.

Word of Mouth epidemics are the work of Connectors. When an idea or product meets a connector, their potential for success increases. When a product never meets a connector it dies. A connector can be described best by knowing 90 or more out of 250 random last names in a phone book. The average is about 40, 20 for young adults and for some, only ten. Few know as many as connectors do. If 400 were polled, only 4 would know over 100 and 8 over 90.

Paul Revere was a connector. Connectors give us access to opportunities and worlds to which most of us don’t belong. Taken from page 53 of the book, “Connectors see possibility, and while most of us are busily choosing whom we would like to know and rejecting the people who don’t look right or whom we haven’t seen in 65 years. Connectors like them all.” They are the masters of weak ties, or acquaintances. Weak ties will find you that job.

Friends occupy the same world as you do. We associate with those of similar activities, not attitudes. Most think it is the other way around. Acquaintances are more likely to know something you don’t. Most acquaintances come with no strings attached. They are in your life for an evaluation to see if you would like to turn them into friends. Connectors see value in the casual conversation. Connectors are collectors of people. Only a handful of people truly have a knack for making friends and acquaintances.

Thomas Power, Chairman of Ecademy uses a signature line, “The more connections, the more transactions.” People who have acquaintances are more powerful. Thomas believes 1000 connection equal $180,000 a year in potential income employing social networks. If you analyze the top 30 people in your life, and trace them all the way back, through chains of people, sometimes 8 to 12 levels deep, you will wind up with the same two people who introduced them all to you. Thomas Power is a connector. On the same night Revere rode through the woods near Boston, William Dawes, rode a different path. No one recalled his ride. He didn’t know which door to knock on. Paul Revere did. It is why with business networking you need to visit with the big guns, not the small guns. I call them evangelists. Gladwell calls them tippers. Paul Revere created a Word of Mouth epidemic in less than 12 hours

Mavens control word of mouth epidemics. Connectors don’t discover information. Mavens feed information to Connectors. . A little boy was the connector and Paul Revere knew enough mavens to confirm it. Melody Campbell, Rosalind Gardner and Scott Allen are Mavens. Maven comes from the Yiddish meaning one who accumulates knowledge. The small number of mavens (the law of the few) keeps the marketplace honest for the masses. Mavens want to tell you about it. They are helpers to the marketplace. They are the ones who “correct” the Editors at “Consumer Reports” Magazine and are avid readers of it. Mavens know what the rest of us don’t. Zagat’s built a “best selling” “must have” yearly restaurant guide based on the work of volunteer mavens.

Mavens are databases. Connectors are glue – they spread it. Mavens are not persuaders – they educate and help. You always take advice from a maven. You may not from a connector. A connector will tell ten people and five will do it, while a maven will tell five and all will do it. They make the case emphatically and passionately.

The third person in the law of the few is the Salesman. They are into relationships. Salesman love helping, love people, have energy, enthusiasm, charm, likeability, are happy and most optimistic. Can’t is not a word they use. They ask, because they have no downside. To them a no is where they started out. Walt Disney’s family in 1948 wanted to have his affairs be put in the hands of a receiver. They thought he was out of his mind, wanting to build Disneyland in the middle of orange groves. Why couldn’t he stay making cartoons with the lovable adorable Mickey Mouse?

On the witness stand, testifying in his own behalf, he asked the judge if he ever played the trombone. He replied no. He then asked if he knew how to play it. The judge replied no again. Walt Disney then replied well how do you know if you never tried? Moments later, the judge dismissed the case. Walt Disney is a salesman.

Fred Smith, creator of Federal Express is another. In the mid 70’s FedEx almost didn’t survive. Smith was born wealthy and was caretaker to his Father’s estate. He was custodian for his sister’s inheritance. Their goal was to live richly for the rest of their lives. Fred’s term paper at Yale was about overnight mail delivery. He received a “D.” Not realistic or workable was scribbled on the paper. Undaunted he took the paper and brought it to the banks and offered up his own money as well. Federal Express’s first night of operation delivered ten packages. He went back to the bank several times and each time they funded him. Until one day. He “borrowed” money from his sister’s share. Only they didn’t know it. He blew that and one day, the banks told him it was over. The following day, if he couldn’t meet payroll, they would shut his doors and put the company into receivership. By then, the sisters had had him arrested and he was facing a trial. Sitting in his office, with his senior staff, all but him gloomy, he pondered and ordered his financial officer to go the bank and retrieve all the money they had left. It didn’t matter he had some. Tomorrow he needed all. It wasn’t there. A decision was made not to fly that night. Hours later, the cash in a large briefcase – several hundred thousand, he got up grabbed the bag and announced he was going to Vegas and was anyone coming. All followed.

Flying back the following morning, he deposited enough for payroll and the rest is history. No one ever doubted Fred Smith again. Fred Smith is a salesman. I am a salesman. Ally Hill and Pat Graham-Block are saleswomen. So is Steve Sigman, whom I’ve known for five years now.

It takes a salesman five minutes to build trust and rapport. It takes others an hour. If you are in a good mood, it is contagious. It is infectious. We infect each other with our emotions. Try yawning in a crowd. Watch what happens. Just thinking about it, you are going to yawn. Senders are people who have an enormous amount of influence over others. A former boss told me she hired me for my energy. People tell me my energy comes through these articles.

Paul Revere was a connector and part maven. A few salesmen joined him to make that famous Midnight Ride. A word of mouth epidemic was created in twelve hours.

Epidemics are geometric progressions. The virus spreads rapidly. Sharp introduced a low priced copier in 1984. It sold 80,000 in the first year. By 1987, enough businesses owned them for everyone to now need one. One million fax machines were sold and the following year two million. Most people don’t realize that faxes were not the norm until the late 80’s. Cell phones tipped in 1998.

A few exceptional people drive Tipping Points. Stickiness makes messages more contagious. They are driven through social connections, energy, enthusiasm and personality. Tiny percentages do the work of many. 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. The 80/20 rule. 20% of crooks commit 80% of the crime. 20% of motorists cause 80% of the accidents. 20% of beer drinkers drink 80% of the beer. When Louie Carnesecca retired as Coach of the St John’s Basketball program he went to work for the University President, Father Donald Harrington. Louie asked Father how many worked at St John’s, his reply was “about 20%.”

A small close-knit group can magnify an epidemic. In 1780, Methodists grew from 20,000 to 90,000 over six years. John Wesley was the founder. George Whitfield was an orator and he wasn’t known for being exceptional at it. Wesley was. What Whitfield was good at was organization. He delivered open-air sermons to thousands. He stayed long enough to form groups of converts into societies. A group abided by strict rules or risked expulsion. They created a community around themselves. George Whitfield was a connector.

In 1996, Rebecca Wells wrote a book called “Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood.” Two years later, in 1998, when most books are long forgotten, it entered the bestseller list and by 2001 had sold 2.5 million copies with 48 printings. A movie based on the book, starring Sandra Bullock was released as well. Rebecca and her publishers began to notice women bringing 7 to 10 copies to her book signings. Then Mothers of the WWII generation and there 40 something daughters were coming together. Then it was the daughter’s daughters. Four to five generations were starting to appear everywhere. Her readings were attracting 700 to 800 people – something unheard of. It is the compelling story of friendship and mother daughter relationships. Rebecca Wells was an actress. She acted out her readings. She was a saleswoman. Book groups throughout tipped it. Group dynamics took over. It became sticky when friends were raving about it. The epidemic began. It traces back to San Francisco, where book group cultures are prominent.

Small close-knit groups can magnify an epidemic.

The third law is the Power of Context – a way of making sense of epidemics.

Crime in New York City began to rise in 1965. There were 200,000 serious crimes committed that year. By 1967, it had doubled. It rose to 650,000 by the mid 70’s and stayed steady for two decades. As sharp as it rose, it began to fall. It was contagious, the little causes had big effects and what happened was dramatic. Twenty years later in 1992, there were 2514 murders and 626,182 serious crimes. In 2003, murders fell to 770 and serious crime dropped to 145,661.

Its roots trace back to 1984. Crime peaked. Two things occurred. Bernard Goetz shot 4 thugs in a subway and was hailed a hero. He was found not guilty. Today, his behavior would never be tolerated and probably the event wouldn’t have happened. David Gunn took over the Metropolitan Transportation with a goal to remove graffiti from trains. It would take six years.

The Power of Context is sensitive to the time and place it occurs. Paul Revere’s ride in daylight may not have worked. At midnight, most were in bed. A call in the middle of the night is dramatic. By 1990, William Bratton, now the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department was hired to be the NYC Transit Police Chief. He was a student of the “Broken Windows” theory. If a window is broken and no one fixes it, the belief is no one cares. Why not break one yourself, nothing will happen. Soon more will be broken and anarchy spreads.

Crime is contagious; it starts with a window and spreads to an entire neighborhood. The Tipping Point was physical – graffiti, pan handling and public disorder. By 1990, 170,000 people beat paying the fare daily, and the Police would sometimes watch. They ignored the petty crime, as it was only for $1.25 and processing would take a day, taking the police officer away from potential crime. Or so they thought.

The Tipping Point occurs with the smallest things. Bratton streamlined the process and brought processing down to an hour. Being arrested, you were publicly embarrassed and made to stand – cuffed – in full public view until there were enough to bring upstairs to a waiting bus for processing. They started to check records. They found one in seven had warrants out for their arrest and one in twenty were carrying weapons. Three years later, he became New York City Police Commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. You may recall Giuliani was Time Magazine’s 2001 Man of the Year.” It is interesting to not that jaywalking is against the law. No one enforces it and everyone does it. Mayor Giuliani tried once, and it was the one of the few times he failed. Maybe there are things that are better not enforced.

Humans are more sophisticated in a concrete way. There is a theory of seven. Your mind is hotwired to remember no more than seven things at a time. It is why the phone company started out and had seven digit numbers to get the largest capacity. They are easier to remember. I used to remember numbers and dial them to the amazement of friends. With the continual dividing of area codes and more and more numbers each of have (my house has a total of ten personal phone lines – cell and land), I wonder if Palm and PDA’s took off because of it. Good question.

I have been espousing and advocating about “My Top 10” list for sometime now. The Tipping Point validates this. I have identified the top 10 people in my business life who have done significantly more for me than anyone else. They care about me, are happy when I succeed, root for me, and we share in confidence my goals and aspiration. They are my strategic counsel, my own personal Board of Directors. People often are stumped by this, because they don’t know whom theirs are.

Write some names down over a period of days. Think about whom you converse with most and what are the subjects you discuss. Do you do business together? Are they givers? Will they come get you if you call them at 4:00 AM – no questions ask? Are they ever jealous of you? Would you do the same?

Reciprocal relations will happen with most. Don’t be offended if it doesn’t. Now that you have identified the group, you have at least ten active people who should be on your call list daily. Let them know they have been selected. You will be amazed when you consciously identify it and track it.

The Tipping Point writes that any more than 10 really close relationships, we begin to overload. Think of a death that truly devastates you. 12 are generally the highest number (family) of a sympathy group. We devote most of our attention to those twelve. If there were 24, we could only devote half our time to each one. Caring about someone deeply is exhausting.

In order for it to be contagious, it must start in small groups. We concentrate on what we do best. One of the many reasons divorce or death of a spouse is so devastating is that couples have a joint memory system. People lose this when separated. You can only remember certain things and you rely on your significant other to recall things you don’t. Almost like an external hard drive, to store more information.

Another way to look at little things meaning a lot is to look at close relationships of five and twenty people. With 5, you relate to 4 others and 6 other two-way relationships in order to know everyone in the inner circle. Some call it a “Brain Trust.” With 20, you have to master 190 relationships – 19 singular relationships and 171 involving two. It is a 5-fold increase of people, but a 20-fold increase in the amount of info. You have significant additional social and intellectual burdens.

This is why we have acquaintances or weak ties. Humans have larger brains to be capable of socializing in larger groups. They can engulf the complexities of the social arrangement. Animals cannot.

Without ever thinking about it, I have my list of more than 2000. I have my top 10, who comprises my A Team. I have my B+ team, totaling about 150. I know them and who have the qualities to someday move up and another 150 or so who, if I walked past them, I wouldn’t know them. They have reacted or responded to me once, and have become part of my B list. The list never grows as people drop out at the same rate people enter. The rest receive my e-mails and have never reacted. They never said remove, yet they never said anything else either. When they do, they move up.

I found this book fascinating because it details what I preach. A naturally gifted baseball player knows how to smack a ball over the fence instinctively. It is nice to receive validation and learn why you do it. It has been a life long journey to understand why. At 150 people, it has been studied, a group overloads. Early hunter groups had on average 148.3 members. At or above 150 the group divides and alienates. A small increase over 150 creates significant social and intellectual burden. Functional fighting groups are no more than 200. You personally have a network of 150 people you will feel quite comfortable bunking into and staying to have a conversation or a drink. That is why online communities have clubs and blogs have become so important. They are communities within communities.

When any one of the Hutterites, (similar to the Amish and Mennonites) a religious group, gets larger than 150, they break them into an additional new group.

In order to achieve higher search engine rankings for my business, my strategy is to create a lot of small links, cross referenced to create a much larger group.

Rumors are the most contagious of all social messages. The Tipping Point explains in detail epidemic transmission. In the early 1930’s, 259 farmers were offered to plant a new “Miracle” corn seed. Over the next nine years all but two used the seed. As Geoffrey Moore, explains in “Crossing the Chasm,” there are innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. For planting corn seed, 72 comprised the visionaries – the innovators and early adopters over four years. For the next three years, 143 formed the early majority and finally 42 were the late majority the final three years. This is the perfect epidemic curve if you graph it. It tips when the early adopters join.

In the Oscar winning movie, “The Beautiful Mind,” based on a book about the true story of Princeton University Professor John Nash’s adult battle with schizophrenia and awarded the Nobel Prize for Mathematics in 1994. It was based on his mathematical theory and genius of how they were applied by others. When told he was receiving the honor, he remarked he would have never known people would use it in such ways. Baltimore’s needle exchange, while well intentioned had known limitations. Limited availability, a skeptical public, and lack of funds to distribute far and wide were some of the many things that in theory may have doomed the program. To their amazement, only a few people were showing up not with one or two needles, but bags full of them, sometimes as many as 400. The street smart few who were connectors had figured out they could create an efficient means of distribution. They would sell them for a dollar and availability would be 24/7. Not unlike Paul Revere, they knew where to go. The drug user was on one side, the medical community was on the other and the connector was in the middle knowing both sides. The Government unwittingly became a wholesaler and kept AIDS and other infectious diseases from spreading.

Teenage smoking is a phenomenon that leaves experts stumped. Why does it occur when everyone knows it is dangerous? Is it? The Tipping Point studies this in great detail. In a nutshell, teens smoke not because it is cool, rather cool people smoke. They want to emulate. Cool smokers are the salesmen, the permission givers. I want to be just like . . Teens will continue to do this because we are not trying to stop cool people from smoking. Everyone knows it is bad.

Yet, the good news is it may not be as addictive as we believe it to be. Teens experiment. A third continue. Two–thirds stop. We need to make sure the consequences are less dangerous, such as reducing levels of nicotine, the cause of addiction. One-fifth of smokers don’t smoke everyday – ever. They do it for the buzz smoking seldom brings. Seldom smoking can be memorable. Some smoking is contagious, but not sticky. Teens tend to do things in groups where peer pressure is evident; you are often infected by your peer group. A teen smoking is so memorable; it is sticky. Contagiousness is the work of the salesman; stickiness is the work of the message. If the cool people stop or go away, the epidemic collapses. Teens gravitate as the habit of smoking is contagious, cool kids do it and they want to fit in. It takes teens three years of smoking to become a regular smoker. They don’t smoke more than a few cigarettes a day. It is below the nicotine threshold of addiction. In the next 5 to 7 years there is a gradual escalation. It takes 5 years to smoke a pack a day. You body generally can’t take it prior.

To most of us, smoking is not cool. The few – the salesman who smoke are cool. They are permission givers. Adults don’t respond as teens do. Adult smokers, the third that stayed and became addicted, have shown greater sex drives and a greater need for it. In a study done once, 15% of 19-year-old college females had experienced sex already. But 55% of 19-year-old college females who smoke had sex. It has been studied that smokers are high on the anti-social indexes and are rebellious and defiant. Smokers tend to be: extroverts, sociable, like parties, have many friends, have a need to talk, thrive on excitement and chance, does things on the spur of the moment, are impulsive, have a temper and not always reliable. They are however more honest, as they don’t care what you think. Smoking households spend 73% more on coffee and two to three times more on beer.

Marilyn Monroe was a saleswoman. Suicides spiked 12% after hers.

Starting epidemics you must concentrate resources. The Law of the Few – connectors, mavens and salesman start word of mouth epidemics. Visit my site often, as you will see me forming a club on ecademy for further distribution. Join it. Buy the book too! Slow and steady wins races. Let us begin to think in new ways.

If you are looking for work and you want to employ new ways using social networks, please read Mark Granovetter’s book, “Getting a Job.”


About the Author

Billy McDermott is a business networking expert and writer. To develop his hosting, viral marketing and public relation businesses, he practices social networking and has become a master at developing relationships. What he does is all inter-related and connected. http://www.williammcdermott.com

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