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Color Spread

A workshop for the 2013 British Science Festival conducted an experiment in the form of a game called Color Spread to model and teach about the diffusion of information within social networks.  At the start of the workshop, participants were given numbered labels to be able to track who spread particular colors.  A few seeds received one of three colors, and they were to find other participants and persuade them to take that color from the designated color station.  At first they assumed a neutral model, where choosing a color doesn’t put you at an advantage or disadvantage because it was simply a color, with no incentive behind it.  Even with this neutral model, some participants started their own mini campaigns, attempting to persuade others to choose their color, yet the distribution of colors was fairly even.  However, once they added an incentive (if at the end of the game a participant held the most popular color, they would get a piece of candy), the network changed dramatically.  When this incentive was provided, nearly everyone chose the same color.  The participants were able to monitor the network and change their  actions accordingly, eventually buying into the color that would win.  This experiment highlights how individuals imitate the behavior of others based on direct-benefit effects, where for some decisions (in this case, what color to choose), you incur an explicit benefit when you align your behavior with the behavior of others (in this case, a piece of candy).  The value of many products relies on this effect, including social networking sites, stocks, and many new apps and technologies – they are valuable to the extent that others are using it as well.

Because each participant had a number, the color spread experiment was also able to show who was spreading their own color the most.  Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point suggests the idea of “connectors”, or people who have a knack for social networking and are able to easily influence others.  In the experiment, usually the color with the most connectors would win.  This idea of connectors, or “super spreaders”, can be seen in a range of examples in politics, culture, religion, and many other areas.  For example, fashion trends and hair styles may catch on because of the influence of someone famous starting to wear a certain style or do their hair a certain way.  Politicians with many connections are likely to have a higher influence and receive more votes than someone with fewer connections.  These connectors are an integral part of starting popular trends, which can lead to a rich-get-richer process, where the probability that something increase in popularity is directly proportional to its current popularity.  According to this process, the more well known something or someone is, the more likely you are to end up knowing about it yourself.  Just as in the color spread experiment, connectors can greatly influence what becomes popular and spreads, and what does not.



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