Is your Community Contaminated?

21 07 2010

[tweetmeme]This morning I found myself at the W Hotel in Hoboken, accidentally (no really!) listening to an interesting story on one of the many breakfast shows on at that time. On that show, author James Fowler was describing research he had done that showed how social networks surrounding us can impact each of our lives in a much deeper way than most people realize. To make his point, (and the news presumably) he used as an example that divorce can be “contagious” amongst friends – mentioning that having a close friend experience divorce, increases the chance of your own divorce by 147%. Needless to say shock and horror ensued from the hosts and other assorted pundits on the show who naturally dislike the idea of someone asserting such high correlation to such a dreadful outcome.

Yet when I thought about it, I don’t think I was really surprised. After all, it kind of makes sense. Your social circle represents more than just a group of people you like to get together with for a beer. Your social circle represents the segment of society (or community) with whom you most closely identify and associate.

As with any society, the activities of one affect the activities of the many – word of mouth campaigns are one of many business efforts to capitalize on this effect.  Communities and Societies have social norms and unspoken rules that govern membership – and it’s only natural when an outlier emerges (say, the first of your group goes bungee jumping on holiday, learns how to scuba dive, or, god forbid, gets divorced) that the community takes a moment to reflect on whether that new behavior or activity is a true outlier or simply a leading indicator of something they too should be trying/considering/experimenting.

The elements of peer pressure and groupthink are not new either – it’s well known that many people get into/stay in gangs, or conform group actions against their natural wills because of the innate fear of rejection/fear of social stigmata/fear of ridicule/fear of the unknown that we all suffer from. Humans are inherently social creatures, so why would we be surprised that the social actions of someone we know, like and respect would also impact our own decisions?

Take the divorce case – the first person to get divorced in a social group of couples challenges the group norms. All of a sudden the group has to decide whether or not they approve – whether or not to maintain the two separates in the combined. Once that norm has been broken, it’s only normal for the rest of the group to question their own commitment to what they had considered a societal norm of marriage.  I daresay that if the author had dug further (and he may well have by the way, I haven’t had a chance to read his book yet, and it was a short segment on the program), he would’ve actually gone on to find that whether or not other couples in the group started to consider divorce would also have been impacted by the relative happiness exhibited by the two singles that initiated the first divorce. Did the initial sadness give way to euphoria commensurate with a perpetual trip to Hedonism III? Did the two newly single people now face a miserable existence akin to that of a lonely penguin in the Sahara?

Our understanding of alternative realities in the communities to which we belong influence our own decisions by opening up an understanding of what those alternatives actually look and feel like in real life. If we find our close friends being happier single than married, then it’s only natural for us to consider a similar move.

There are implications of course, for the Social Business World in all this of course (I bet you were wondering when I’d get to the point of all this, eh?).

Social communities maintained (or not) by businesses are fickle things – more akin to organic creatures than to mathematical formulas (which adds to my confusion as to why so many companies seem to be lumping in the Social Media functions with their SEO functions internally – but that’s a different discussion) – and the analogy of new societal norms spreading through a community like a virus is just as accurate, if not more so, in the social world.

Engender a strong goodwill and feeling within your community, and you’ll find that it’ll be resistant to negative vibes. Take the iPhone 4 – despite all its difficulties and problems, people are still buying it – not because it’s that much of a better phone than anything else on the market (nor even its previous version the 3GS) – but rather because Apple’s conditioned its community to be resistant to negative viruses by ensuring that they not only respond, but also try to over-satisfy the customer whenever possible. As a result, the community of Apple buyers continues strong, and continues to grow in number.

Cross your community though, and that bad feeling will spread far and wide like wildfire. You only have to look at the many Facebook faux pas of the likes of Nestle and others to see that at work.

It strikes me then, that we might well start seeing a new type of competitive behavior showing up in the future – that of setting up deliberate social viruses to attack and/or convert the social networks of competitors.  I can certainly envision ways in which companies could manipulate a few key individuals to enable them to corrupt a competitor’s user community for example – sowing seeds of discontent, and setting up the consumers to be virally vulnerable to the possibility of alternative realities.  Could we then be on the verge of a new weapon in the Corporate Strategic Arsenal?

In many ways we need to nurture a new skillset in corporations – that of the Social Doctor – Able to diagnose potential viruses prior to them taking effect and injecting the corporate social world with the virtual equivalent of vitamins to re-enforce it.

Part strategists, and part social scientists, this new breed of business executive will need to show a sensitivity and concern for customer communities that is currently alien to the majority of companies who still treat their social networks as a sales and marketing tool rather than a living, breathing symbiotic organism.

Mix that social awareness and responsiveness with corporate strategic ability though – and you get the ability to build and maintain a Social World that will drive unrivalled competitive advantage in your direction. What do you think?



14 responses

21 07 2010
David Wallace

Bravo! Other than the implausible notion of you in New Jersey, this idea ties up nicely with both a ‘halo effect’ that can inoculate communities in times of crisis or infection (besides iPhone 4, I’d include crib recalls handled well by Graco and mommy bloggers). Many companies find even ‘loyal fans’ running for exits – especially where the product has easy competition/defection potential. It’s not enough to have a group. You have to reinforce why that group (product, service, community) can’t be duplicated elsewhere and that you care about maintaining the relationships.

Now about those people you’d like to have a beer with . . .tell me more.

23 07 2010
Boris Pluskowski

LOL – thanks David – appreciate the comment 🙂

I thought you might also be interested to read this article in the FT (subscription required unfortunately) – – describing recent problems that Vodafone UK have had with a hack of their Social Media community – as well as the issues Domino Pizza had last year after several employees posted videos of themselves tampering with food.

All interesting examples of the way communities can be infected and what you can do about it!



26 07 2010
Drew Marshall

Boris – nice work outlining the hazards of community to innovation! The impact of socializing and normalizing processes on innovation practices should not be underestimated. And rather than vitamins I think what your Social Doctor needs to employ are social antihistamines or anti-allergy medications because the illness you describe is often (hot) wind-blown. I took another look at this same issue recently from a different perspective. My focus was the herd effect, but I see the impacts both ways.

Thanks for an insightful and entertaining perspective.

28 07 2010

Great article!! The divorce example is a good one. Woody Allen made a movie (husbands & wives) about that same subject, the impact and social consequences of those situations and he certainly agrees with those statistics. Good reading!

30 07 2010
Could ’social viruses’ ruin your company’s reputation? How to build resistance - SmartPlanet

[…] Pluskowski in a recent post, raises the possibility that some companies may attempt to manipulate social networks to undermine […]

31 07 2010
Conrad L. Jones

Good Morning Boris,

I was reading your recent article of community contamination and though it
was a really interesting look at how our connection with others we know,
like, trust and respect, can affect our values and what we believe. The
idea of social communities and the way they affect the lives of the
individuals within those settings, have been around for centuries and
seemingly influence everything from religious organizational behavior, to
family beliefs.

The part that really stood out to me was about planting seeds of discord
within these settings to destroy them from within, by breaking the patterns
of what is thought to be the “norm”, and replacing it with something
contrary. I have seen this at work first-hand in my work non-profit
organizations and community programs, and it is not a pretty sight. It
leaves people questioning their entire belief systems and what they have
held onto most of their lives, and leaves them confused, and directionless.

However, I believe that as bad as that may seem, there are seasons when
new seeds need to be planted into social communities to create change and
to move the entire community forward. The process may not be easy, because
again the challenge is in overcoming commonly held ideals and beliefs with
the group, but it can be done – and there are times when it must be done
for the group to survive.

So, I agree that indeed many times our decisions and values are driven by
our community settings and that adding the wrong elements to these social
communities can wreak havoc, but I also add that sometimes, adding contrary
elements to these communities are necessary for their growth and survival.
After all, life is a continual learning process, and as more valuable
knowledge becomes available, it becomes necessary to abandon old ideas and
embrace new ones that produce growth and sustainability in all of our
social communities – whether they are business, family, political,
religious groups etc…

Conrad L. Jones
i3 Leadership Magazine

31 07 2010
Could ’social viruses’ ruin your company’s reputation? « The World of a Crazed Writer

[…] a recent post, raises the possibility that some companies may attempt to manipulate social networks to undermine […]

4 08 2010
Steve Hill

I think many social media communities are becoming contaminated with over-the-top narcissists. The catch 22 of social media is that it allows people to broadcast anything. This means that although people have the freedom to share information, they also have the freedom to act like they are more important than they really are. When a few individuals begin to dominate a social media community, the masses get turned off and leave.

4 08 2010
Chris Andrews

Steve- That’s a pretty interesting point…But is someone with, like, 17K Twitter followers powerless? I’d argue that they have a lot of power. I think your question is whether its merited or not.

Boris, an interesting point and one that reminds me very much of some points in Dan Ariely’s book “Predictably Irrational”. At one point in the book, Ariely argues that companies are marketing themselves more like friends (using social networks and community tools)…but this raises a potential disconnect in the real value of the relationship they provide — which is an economic relationship, not a long-term friend relationship. What I see you saying is that Apple did a better job of stressing the “friendship/companionship” side of this angle — Friends forgive their friends.

And to your last point, about the doctor, I will shamlessly plug my colleagues, Suresh Vittal and Zach Hofer-Shall, who have written some great work about the technologies and agencies that monitor brands in social media. Whether you see this as simple brandwashing/PR or an important part of acting responsibly in a social landscape is up to you to call, but read the blog…

9 08 2010

Well, marriages happen at the same time in any given social group. Maybe this is the place to nip divorce in the bud.

“How Hits Happen,” by Winslow Farrel documents the author’s use of agent-based simulation to determine when a market needed the injection of a marcom event, so a hit happened. The agents were imbued with behavior consistent with Moore’s technology adoption lifecycle.

12 08 2010
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 2.0 « Blog HD

[…] (Boris Pluskowski) […]

14 08 2010
Should we really go Enterprise 2.0? « Anthony's Blog

[…] is that of social networks becoming contaminated with attacks. Expert in innovation management, Boris Pluskowski, said, “I can certainly envision ways in which companies could manipulate a few key […]

14 08 2010
Is your Community Contaminated? (via The Complete Innovator) « Anthony's Blog

[…] This morning I found myself at the W Hotel in Hoboken, accidentally (no really!) listening to an interesting story on one of the many breakfast shows on at that time. On that show, author James Fowler was describing research he had done that showed how social networks surrounding us can impact each of our lives in a much deeper way than most people realize. To make his point, (and the news presumably) he used as an example that divorce … Read More […]

16 08 2010
Boris Pluskowski

Thanks for the comments all 🙂

Drew – loved the post, thanks for sharing!

Andrea – loved that movie – had completely forgotten about it – thanks for the reminder 🙂

Conrad – I fully agree with you – I think companies need to actively manage that community with respect to the norms and shared beliefs that are encouraged and supported. I almost think that companies should consider community building in the same way they would build a religion. It’s more than just providing the community with the venue to meet (in this example, a church, or network of churches) – but also of providing it with Leadership – both from the very top level (a Pope type who provides the overall direction, and communicates what the desirable traits and goals of the community are) and also at the micro levels (individual pastors who spread the communication, provide the personal touch, mentor and guide their individual communities). At all times though, the Pope, like a company, needs to revisit the rules and shared goals and decide whether or not they’re still relevant to the modern world – should contraception be allowed now? how about same sex marriage? – sowing the seeds of change when needed, and re-enforcing values in order to keep the community healthy and vibrant. If you do it successfully your religion/community prospers and grows. Fail and create discord, and you open the door for competing religions to convert your flock… Similar story for companies.

Steve – I agree with you, but I think that most communities are self policing – an over dominating (and unwelcomely – so) individual will simply be marginalized by the group and discouraged from participation. At least that’s been my experience so far. Having said that, if they do have a lot of followers, you do have to admit there is a chance that they do have a lot of actual influence – after all, you’re talking about someone who is, in essence, the gateway to getting your message out to thousands (through RTs for example in the case of twitter)…

Chris – Thanks for your comments – and yes, I agree. Apple however has done more than just stress the friendship elements – but by overserving/oversatisfying the market, they have also raised the bar and made you not want to seek out other “friends”. I’m not sure if it’s loyalty that they enjoy, or devotion to the experience that they receive.
And thanks for sharing the link, I’ll make sure to check it out 🙂

David – thanks for your comment – I’ll have to check out that book too!



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