Twisted about Firestarters?

At some point I’ll take issue with Mark Earls to prove that he’s not paying me to shill for his book. But for now I’m really digging his stuff.

His latest post points to Duncan Watts’ fascinating analysis of influencers. The research suggests that we easily overestimate the power of “key influencers”. Mark does a good digest. Read the whole thing for the argument, but here’s Watts’ handy metaphor for seeing his alternative paradigm:

Some forest fires for example, are many times larger than average; yet no-one would claim that the size of a forest fire can be in any way attributed to the exceptional properties of the spark that ignited it, or the size of the tree that was the first to burn. Major forest fires require a conspiracy of wind, temperature, low humidity, and combustible fuel that extends over large tracts of land. Just as for large cascades in social influence networks, when the right global combination of conditions exists, any spark will do; and when it does not, none will suffice.

As a former planner, like Mark, I’m all too aware of our talent for post-hoc rationalisation and therefore our ability to come up with plausible but actually quite mistaken stories about how stuff happens. This gives rise to what I’d call the cult of leadership, a tendency to exaggerate the role of charismatic figures in making stuff happen. It’s also why I generally avoid the management porn in airport bookshops.

What this opens up for me is the possibility that those we identify as the firestarters are themselves the effect of a series of more complex causes. We might be confusing cause and effect; they may be bellweathers of trends but not the people we need to influence to make things happen.

And apart from anything else, it might be another reason to take Hugh’s advice and not to get all gnarled up about the influence of A listers.

(There may be a pun about the fires and the futility of cool-hunting but I’ll spare you that.)

5 thoughts on “Twisted about Firestarters?

  1. Jon Husband

    Another solid point, nicely made. I remain flabbergasted (North American for gobsmacked ?) at all the jockeying for attention and position that goes on, using what ? … links to other people who are high-profile, formulaic brief stories about presentations and others met/ talked to, brief reviews of new tech or new services, and snark-masquerading-as-some-form-of-critical thinking.

    I imagine I do it, too, though I’d like to think that it is unconscious or a by-product. I do link to people whose thinking I respect or who have written something that (I think) helps me make a point I am trying to make.

    I can vouch for the fact that it (getting more noticed, more traffic) is not a primary goal per se. I couldn’t tell you bugger about my stats other than a once-a-day check on T’rati to see if anyone may have linked to something I posted.

    I do love and have very much enjoyed meeting all the smart and engaged people I have met in this linky environment over the past five years, some of whom are far from A-listers but are important firestarters in other contexts.

    But to one of your points, it seems that people (a wider or critical mass) need something or someone to instantiate and sustain interest in new things and new ways ? High profile and / or charismatic people probably offer that .. maybe our societies should reward them with more recognition and less remuneration, and then spread some of the moolah saved out and around into infrastructure and services for all us other poor suckers’ ?

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for pitching in Jon! I suppose that behind my posting is a half-articulated sense that maybe the best thing to do is not get too “instrumental” in the way we relate to people. It might be pointless, as our notion of who is and isn’t the right person to suck up to maybe quite wrong.

    So why not just link to the people and stories that genuinely engage you, with the side benefit that this will probably give you a deeper connection than you might get by trying to be too clever and figure out how the complex system works.

    It sounds like you’ve made that choice yourself and I like to think that’s essentially what I do too. (Though even this starts to sound like a strategy if I think about it too much)

    As for the remuneration… hmmm, here’s hoping!

  3. Phil Dourado


    These are still early days in understanding the dynamics of social networks.

    On the one hand, Duncan Watts has done some interesting simulations that suggested that the susceptibility of social networks to memetic messages is critical to message transmission. On the other hand our own experience (and a lot of academic research by solid SNA researchers like Krebs, Wassermann & Cross) suggests that individuals are important too.

    It’s probably too early to draw hard and fast conclusions yet.

    I posted about the Watts paper over at CRMGuru earlier and followed it up with another post after a brief conversation with a respondant to our friend James Cherkoff’s posting on the same subject too. Its a ‘small world’. Now where have I heard that before?

    Graham Hill

    Independent CRM Consultant

    Interim CRM Manager


    I used to be a historian a long time ago and Duncan Watts’ undermining of the notion of influencers reminds me of the (welcome) decline of the ‘Great Man’ school of history. From the rise and fall of civilizations to the mass adoption of flat-screen TVs, with one or two exceptions maybe, none of the big social or consumer waves of change are really down to a small group of ‘special’ people influencing the rest of us.

    Watts’ explanation of the cascade effect as being ‘easily influenced people influencing easily influenced people’, rather than a few influential people influencing many easily influenced people actually makes far more sense. To be literal-minded about Mark Earls’ ‘Herd’ theme, I live in the country and there is a herd of high-spirited heffers in a nearby field that constantly charge around the field, wheeling around in close formation like a flock of starlings. They move as if they are following the will of one. But the heffers at the back aren’t following the lead heffers who happen to be at the front. They are following the easily-led heffer right in front of them. Apart from the two or three at the front – and randomly at the front, since any one of them will kick off at any time and the others will follow like a football crowd – they are all following each other. There, I knew I was too literal-minded.

    As for your point about leadership being largely illusory, Johnnie, Lord Byron put it this way: “And when we think we lead we are most led.” This may at first glance appear like that old saw, “Quickly, I must hurry, for there go my people and I am their leader.” But, it’s not about populism or tails wagging dogs. It’s about tapping into and being part of the zeitgeist, being synchronized or in tune with the state of things. It’s about leaders being part of things, not an external change agent acting on them. Surfers don’t make the waves they surf on. They just catch them at the right time and they know how to ride them.

  4. Johnnie Moore

    Graham: Yes, I think it’s good to keep an open mind about this and be wary of magic formulae. We need to be willing to keep trying different things, see what works, keep learning…

    Phil: Ah, we are so on the same page here. I love that Byron quote. There’s something about being in tune with the state of things, and also about being curious about any dissonance…

  5. AdPulp

    Toppling The Tipping Point

    Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociology professor, is rocking boats with his challenge to the influencer model that much modern day marketing relies upon. Brandweek endeavored to speak with Mr. Watts abou this ideas. Brandweek: Why aren’t influen…


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