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Network Theory Lets You Geekify the World

By Garth Sundem

Jobs did it.

For better or worse, Gates did it.

Seth Rogen is doing it.

The “it” in question is changing social norms – tipping the very playing field of society in the direction of resplendent geekery.

The question is, how can you do it?

For my book, Brain Trust, I interviewed Princeton evolutionary biologist and network theorist, Simon Levin, who has the answer. And as an example, he points to something distinctly non-geek: skateboarding.

In 1972 Tony Alva jumped a fence to covertly skate a dry pool near California’s Venice Beach neighborhood. Soon, a core group of Venice surfers-turned-skaters, including Stacy Peralta, made pool poaching a habit. When the police came, they ran. But now in the recessed pools of skate parks around the country, kids have made Alva’s once innovative moves the norm. You know the story of Dogtown and Z-Boys. But how did Alva pull it off? How did this illegal, harebrained stunt become the social norm?

Simon Levin explored the question from a slightly different angle: “In bird flocks and fish schools, you have a few individuals who think they know where they want to go, and the vast majority of individuals who are imitating,” he says. Levin builds software models of these schools with his collaborator, Iain Couzin.

Basically, he tags individuals as leaders or followers (or percentages thereof), connects them to others in the school, and then flips the switch on individual fish to see how the change propagates through the group. By tweaking the model until it acts like a natural school of fish, he discovers the mechanisms that allow change to flow through groups. It’s like setting up a very detailed crowd of dominoes—when you knock one brick, how far and how fast does the ripple travel?

Or, that’s what Levin used to do.

Now he applies the mathematics of fish changing directions to groups of people changing opinions.

“First, social change relies on distributed networks,” says Levin. The opposite of “distributed” is a “well-mixed” network like that of a country with an authoritative central government, in which top-down control quickly suppresses novel opinions—nails that stick up are pounded down. “These systems are robust over short periods of time,” says Levin. But when top-down control fails, the whole system is shot.

Now imagine Venice Beach in the 1970s. In this far-flung node of a distributed network, when Alva had the idea to skate a dry swimming pool, the sheriff wasn’t able to kill it before it grew. These distributed networks, with pods of far-flung autonomy and an absence of top-down control, “have the capability for novel opinions and attitudes to spring up,” says Levin.

So if you want to change cultural norms, you need to live in a place where the seed of your idea can take root without being summarily hit with Roundup by authority or the power of strong social norms. Perhaps innovating from a home base in Berkeley is easier than creating the same shift while based in Salt Lake City.

And the idea thus rooted can take over a population the same way a school of fish changes direction.

“Individual fish or birds are attuned to the seven to ten fish or birds around them,” says Levin, “thus the first to imitate a behavior are those most similar to the individual in which the behavior arises.”

In the case of skating dry pools, these similar individuals were Alva’s neighborhood friends, who coalesced into the Z-Boys, defining themselves based on this new skate culture. And just like closely following a leading fish’s tight turn keeps following fish in the relatively safe center of the school, group members who quickly conformed to the new skateboard norms earned benefits. The Z-Boys had turf, they got girls, they were cool.

But in order for your innovation to spread beyond your posse, you need another important network feature: connectivity. The Z-Boys earned this connectivity at the 1975 Del Mar Nationals, where the pod of long-haired, Vans-wearing ne’er-do-wells rocked the socks off the clean-cut competition.

The newly reformed Skateboarding magazine wrote a series of articles on Dogtown, and suddenly the Z-Boys had direct domino connection to kids across the country who wanted a piece of the action. The dominoes fell, and social norms changed course.

Levin points out the same progression of innovate-coalesce-connect in neckties, disallowing smoking in public places, tattoos, fingernail polish, gender equality, and recent rapid changes in the caste system of India. Today, you don’t wear a tie because it’s comfortable, but because it signals your membership in a group of professionals. What started as an affectation of Croatian mercenaries and earned fashion connectivity in Paris is now the social norm.

If you want to drive social norms, start by jumping a fence—any fence.

Then push the idea on the seven to ten fish closest to you. Then connect your dominoes to the world at large. In that way, you like Jobs and Gates and Rogan can reshape culture in the image of your personal brand of geekery.

@garthsundem is a TED speaker, Wipeout loser, Wired GeekDad and author of books including Brain Trust: 93 Top Scientists Reveal Lab-Tested Secrets for Surfing, Dating, Dieting, Gambling, Growing Man-Eating Plants and More which is available from stores and online retailers now.

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