Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead
A defining characteristic of modern existence is the degree to which our work and lives are embedded in systems that seem too large and complex for any one individual to understand, much less have an impact on. Many of us work in organizations with hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of employees. We look out on networks and hierarchies that spread this way and that across land and sea, from place to place and mind to mind. Our lives are routed through government bureaucracies, organization charts, global distribution systems, retail chains and online networks. We could hardly be blamed for feeling like mice in a maze that extends in all directions into eternity without leading to any clear destination.
Given the complexity and scale of the economic and social systems in which we live and work, it is not surprising that many of us choose to ignore the big picture and focus on the immediate, concrete problems of daily life. With an unending stream of immediate problems and demands to keep us occupied, it is only natural that we don’t get around to making time to consider what we might do to have an impact on the greater world. Despite our myopia, though, we are actually in constant contact with the big picture whether we notice it or not.
We are more closely connected to the world around us than we realize. It turns out that the big picture is filled with small worlds. Research shows that our social networks are surprisingly intertwined. If we trace our circles of acquaintances and colleagues, we find that we are only a few jumps away from almost everyone else, including political leaders, cultural heroes, company presidents and even (as the old joke goes) Kevin Bacon. It appears that the “small world” phenomenon – in which two seemingly unrelated people are linked by just a few jumps on human networks – is eerily common.
How does the small world phenomenon work?
Small world networks are based on a combination of strong and weak connections. Each of us belongs to one or more groups to which we devote most of our time. The vast majority of us tend to do mostly the same things every day and run into mostly the same people. These circles may be made up of our co-workers, close friends or relatives. We have strong connections with these people. In addition to these strong connections, though, most of us also have connections with individuals whom we know pretty well but who may not fit neatly within our primary circle of friends or colleagues. These people might be friends of friends, colleagues in another department or customers. Though we are familiar with these people, they generally move in different circles from our own. We have weak network connections with these people. We don’t know everyone they know and they don’t know everyone we know.
In aggregate, our weak connections enable information, ideas and feelings to travel surprisingly quickly from one relatively isolated group to another. It is these kinds of random, weak connections along which gossip runs. The strong connections provide us with a stable social group, while the weak connections facilitate rapid and broad sharing of ideas, feelings and actions among those groups. It is through this invisible relationship infrastructure that a society’s common sense, values and aspirations are shaped and updated on an ongoing basis.
Everyone is surprisingly connected to everyone else because we all know someone who knows someone who is not a part of our primary circle. Some people have lots of weak connections. Some people even have lots of primary groups. The point is that anything we communicate to anyone could potentially work its way through a weak connection to another person almost anywhere else in the world.
Small world networks facilitate the transmission of messages from us to the greater world and from the greater world to us. Each of us is constantly receiving messages that originated in some distant place, and it is impossible to not be influenced by some of what comes to us through the network. Most of us are pretty heavily, and often unconsciously, influenced by what is going on around us.
When enough of us are attracted to or guided by the same thing, we form a human swarm.
In the natural world, animals often gravitate toward their peers. Bees form swarms, birds form flocks, fish form schools, and ants march in lines. The pervasive presence of swarms in nature has led some to wonder if animals share some sort of community intelligence, maybe even a group brain. There is no proof of intra-species groupthink, but swarming does not seem to require it. Scientists suspect that swarms are formed through a few basic dynamics. When individually programmed with a few simple equations – such as stay close to and behind another ant – computer-generated ants naturally form themselves into lines. It is possible that some similar set of instinctual equations leads animals to fall roughly in step with their peers.
Experiments with groups of human subjects reveal that human beings are also prone to swarming. In these experiments, individual subjects are given instructions, but are not made aware of what instructions the other participants have received. When all subjects are told to stay together, they stay together. In some cases, most are instructed to stay together, but one is told to move in a specific direction. Unsurprisingly, these groups tend to follow the leader while staying together. However, there is another intriguing variation on this experiment in which a number of individuals are told to move in opposing directions, while the rest are instructed to stay close to the other members. After some initial confusion, even these groups tend to form a single swarm moving in one direction.
The instructions we follow in real life are more complicated and nuanced than those used in the experiment. Nonetheless, people in the real world also seem to follow instructions that result in swarm behavior. Some of our swarming is guided by obvious mechanisms and rules. The infrastructure of modern life nudges us to make certain choices that are very similar to everyone else’s. The availability and design of road systems or other transportation networks determine the route of our coordinated cyclical swarms through spaces devoted to production, consumption, recreation and habitation. The 9-5 (or 9-9 as the case may be) workday pushes us through these spaces at roughly the same times.
Much of our swarming, however, occurs in less obvious ways. Our brains are equipped with mirror neurons to keep us attuned to the feelings and intentions of our peers. As we observe their actions and preferences, we tend to adopt or adapt them for our own use. We buy a certain brand of jeans or suits because our friends like them. Or we stop buying brands altogether because our friends are not into materialistic conformity. A lot of our preferences probably come to us below our conscious radar via a long stream of connections. It is not absurd to conceive of our preferences and the feelings that underlie them as impulses moving along a network of strong and weak connections until they ignite in us the urge to switch from cargo shorts to no-pleat straight legs.
Duncan Watts, one of the leading researchers on the small world phenomenon, explains an experiment in which pop songs were introduced to communities of listeners to test the dynamics by which one song became more popular than others. The same songs were fed into the various communities, but it turned out that in each community a different set of songs caught on. In the end, it came down to momentum gained at a relatively early point after introduction of a new song. If that song was recommended by a few early adopters, it took off. If it didn’t catch on with the early adopters, it didn’t catch on in that community. The upshot was that it was not the quality of a particular song but rather the momentum created by the early adopters of that song that triggered its rise in popularity. If someone we trust is willing to vouch for a song, we are willing to learn to like it.
Simply put, when someone in our network makes a conscious choice to lead us toward a certain idea, choice, or objective, we often help them simply by noticing what our friends are doing and staying close to them. The actions taken by a person with a conscious objective start a wave that cascades outward via networks of strong and weak connections, inducing a decidedly less conscious swarm in that direction. We participate in swarms like this all the time, and there are many people who get paid to trigger them.
What about the rest of us? Is it our collective destiny to be carried away by waves or is it possible for us to make a few too?
Clearly, not every conscious individual choice leads to the formation of a swarm. We all take actions and make choices, but the resulting waves generally don’t grow very large or travel very far. Nor is it easy to predict exactly which actions will lead to waves that grow into a tsunami. Huge amounts of money and time have been devoted to discovering secret formulae for generating waves to move the masses, but the random aspects of human networks sometimes confound even the most intrepid marketeers.
Still, you don’t have to believe that all of your actions will realign the universe to consider that some of them might have a significant impact. The pervasiveness of small world and swarm phenomena suggest that some of your actions might create waves that travel much further and create much broader impact than you might initially expect.
This brings us back to Margaret Mead and the power of a few thoughtful committed citizens. The same nexus of strong and weak network connections, mirror neurons and swarms that enable us to careen together toward a tiny tattoo or the latest emoticon can also be consciously harnessed by each of us to generate swarms toward things of greater significance to each of us.
Here are some simple practices we could each use to increase the odds that we get the best results out of the swarms we generate:
1. Reflect on what you care deeply about and take action that is consistent with those convictions.
Act only according to the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. – Immanuel Kant
Okay, the Categorical Imperative is kind of a heavy standard to apply to your choice of party clothes or tennis rackets. However, when you consider that even your small actions could travel a long way, it may be worth reflecting and looking around a bit before you leap. Research on networks indicates that your actions and words could travel to all sorts of unexpected places. Why not consciously trigger a swarm toward something that you really care about? If you occasionally used the categorical imperative as a standard, how would this impact your choices? What if rather than unconsciously obeying your instinct to stay close to the crowd, you chose to move in a specific, virtuous direction and took a shot at bringing the crowd with you?
2. Find or form a core group of people who share these strong convictions.
If you already have such a crew, start with them as you will naturally tend to reinforce the message and you will be more amenable to helping each other realize the change you are hoping for. If you don’t have a core group of people to work with, reach out through your network of weak connections to find the the right individuals and form a core group. If your convictions align with those of others at the organization you work for, you might be able to form a group of thoughtful employees committed to increasing employee autonomy, mastery and purpose, reducing the environmental impact of your operations or promoting some other worthwhile cause. Otherwise, look more deeply and broadly in your network for people to enlist.
3. Once you have your core group, work together to hone the message. Look for appropriate and effective ways to communicate about what you care about.
Preaching to others about what they are doing wrong or crooning arrogantly (or even cheerfully) about your own moral superiority doesn’t seem to resonate for most people. However, if you can find ways to engage others in dialog or mutual exploration of the things you care about, your sincere concern might just turn out to be contagious. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you care about. But don’t expect everyone to agree. You can’t force all those horses to drink, but you may be able to get a few of them to come to the water. Then, they may bring a few more horses, and those horses may bring a few more horses and so on and so on…
4. Use your network of weak connections to take your message to the world.
The very same bureaucracies and organizations that can seem so large and intimidating are actually made up of mostly nice, normal people like you, and they also hang out with other mostly nice people. Why not use these networks to get your ideas and actions out into the world? You don’t need to go through official channels like the government or wait for your company’s executive committee to take initiative. Just start talking about the things you care about. If it works for multiple-level marketing organizations, why can’t it work for you?
As we all have experienced, the potential for influence via online communities is mindboggling. Why not help Facebook and LinkedIn reach their full potential as spaces where a few thoughtful committed netizens can gather to change the world?
5. As you notice other people working on themes they care about, encourage them and support them when you can.
The world is full of (sponsored) swarms toward mundane items like pointy shoes and little sound boxes for those who aspire to join the ranks of the hearing-impaired. If you notice someone else taking action to realize something closer to your ideals, either emulate them or at least be willing to chat with someone else about what they are doing. Getting caught up in a swarm toward something you actually care about has got to be at least as rewarding as rushing along with the herd toward the latest meme or re-formulation of last year’s fad.
It’s a big mazelike world out there, but there is one huge difference between a maze and the real world. Mazes are designed to limit your options for action by cutting off connections with other paths. In this respect, the real world could not be more different from a maze. There is a virtually limitless number of destinations you may be able to get to via the connections in your small world networks. If you clearly articulate the idea or action you want to spread and intentionally engage with your strong and weak connections, you may be able to open up pathways carrying you and many others to a promised land of your own design.
The hardest part may be remembering that you have the potential to be a wave maker. Once you have chosen an objective or message you really care about, take the risk of acting on it and don’t be afraid to communicate your ideas with genuine passion and humility to others. Every action starts a little wave and you never know how far that wave may go or how large it may grow.
2017 addendum – Now that you know you can make waves, you may be wondering if there are hints that can help you make bigger ones. When I originally wrote this post, I wasn’t able to find much research on concrete mechanisms you could use to create waves of influence through social networks. Recently, though, the research has started to emerge. One book that shows a lot of promise is Contagious by Jonah Berger. He identifies six principles that you can utilize to create bigger waves. He calls them STEPPS and they include: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories. I’ll explore this and other ideas for driving change through networks in another post.
For a discussion of the concept of “effective altruism” see this interview with Peter Singer, professor of philosophy at Princeton University on the Ted radio hour:
For a discussion of how to construct a narrative that uses altruism to inspire change see this interview with George Monbiot on the Ted Radio Hour:
Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
The Talk Market: How Stories and Psychology Shape Our Economic Lives, Hidden Brain, Nov 4, 2019 – interview with Robert Shiller on how economic stories sometimes drive economic trends. His calls the study of this phenomenon narrative economics. See: https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510308/hidden-brain
For an exploration on how our ability access other human beings’ minds is a key ingredient to the success of the human species, see:
TED talk – Yuval Noah Harari: “Why human run the world”
“Book Review: Exploring the Biology of Friendship” by Lydia Denworth, Review by Elizabeth Svaboda featured on undark.org Feb 7, 2020
“What We’re Missing, by Missing Strangers Now” on Shortwave, npr.org: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/06/851698307/what-were-missing-by-missing-strangers-now
For two features exploring the networked intelligence of forests, see: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/from-tree-to-shining-tree?fbclid=IwAR18XagzLnjTcPZ23iMoJ8x8-DUrqU9svI4oy00018jRovUlF3Gso5-YPmw
From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm, by Carl Zimmer, Published: November 13, 2007
Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage? by Duncan J. Watts, Published: April 15, 2007, nyt.com
Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age by Duncan J. Watts
Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks by Mark Buchanan
© Dana Cogan 2009, 2017-2020, all rights reserved.