How Ideas Spread

Whether we are helping others interpret the news of the day or trying to market our own ideas, we’re all interested in how ideas spread. Robert Shiller recently told FT Alphachat that ideas spread like diseases. He’s currently studying the “narrative contagion” that occurs alongside manias, panics, and crashes in stock market history. Derek Thompson wrote extensively in his book Hit Makers on how ideas spread (particularly online and in the arts). We can take a lot away from each of their insights.

The key variables to understand are “one-to-one” and “one-to-many” relationships. If we take Shiller’s concept of the idea as a disease, we can think about how a cold spreads from person to person until the whole school/office/family is sick. This is one-to-one spreading. If, however, the sick person gets on a plane or goes to some crowded area and starts coughing and sneezing, now the virus has a chance to spread from one-to-many. It’s important to separate these two forms of distribution. 

When an idea is spreading on a one-to-one basis, it’s limited by the speed and quality of the interactions. The credibility and storytelling abilities of the person doing the spreading is everything. A great communicator can serve as an accelerant, while a terrible communicator can serve as a roadblock. When we hear a story directly from a person, we should consider their value as an informant. When we want to spread a story, we should consider who the best accelerators that we know are, and avoid the dead ends. 

When an idea is spreading on a one-to-many basis, it’s limited by the interest and availability of the audience. The size of the audience and the passion of the platform are everything. When a great communicator has a platform, the one-to-one spread of the message to the leader can mean immediate acceptance by their audience. Just think of Oprah promoting anything. When we want to spread a story, we should consider where the most desirable audiences are and ask, “Who is their “Oprah?” 

Whether we are breaking down an idea or spreading what, where it came from, how it got here, and where it’s going are all valuable insights. Shiller is exploring this topic for a very good reason – markets and marketing go hand in hand. Thompson said it best in his book, “content may be king but distribution is the kingdom.” True professionals always know their way around the kingdom.


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