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Principles of creativity > Diffusion

The principle of diffusion | Networks of people | See also


How do ideas spread? How do you get all of those people out there to understand and be excited by your idea or product? How can one person communicate with so many others? It is a common problem that has stymied innovators everywhere.

The principle of diffusion

An important metaphor that helps to explain how ideas spread is that of diffusion.

Atomic diffusion

Ideas 'diffuse' through society much like atoms diffuse through the air. When you breathe in, you take in many millions of argon atoms which you then breath out again without change. Those atoms gradually spread out, first in your neighborhood and then across the country. Within about a year, they will have spread to the furthest reaches of the world.

The tipping point

Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book, The Tipping Point, how, when enough people know about an idea, it suddenly takes off. Everett Rogers noted that this point is around 25% of a population. The implication is that for you to get your idea widely adopted, the hardest part is over once you have got a quarter of the people bought into the idea.

Memes and viruses

Richard Dawkins, in his Darwinian masterpiece The Selfish Gene, noted how ideas spread like viruses, almost having a life of their own. An effective virus spreads by infecting almost everyone it meets. Likewise, ideas that diffuse faster are infectious, such that people are fascinated by them and are motivated to pass them on to others.

Networks of people

People are connected together with one another through social and other relationships. Spreading ideas means first of all getting people to connect together and secondly to talk about your idea. 

The rule of six

In a classic experiment, psychology professor Stanley Milgram sent letters to acquaintances with the name of another person elsewhere in the world that they did not know, and with the simple instructions to pass the letter on to someone who 'might know' the target person. His remarkable findings was that, in most cases, the letter found its target within about six 'hops' between people.

This experiment has been repeated more recently using the internet and email, and has come up with the same conclusions: we are only about six steps away from anyone else in the world.

Network hubs

In social networks, not everyone has the same role. Some people in particular seem to be particularly well connected with others and act as hubs through which much information passes.

Hubs vary in type. Some are general broadcasters, passing on everything they hear to everyone they know. Others are more selective, for example filtering the information for usefulness or passing information only to people who they think will appreciate it.

Marketing buzz

Something that all marketers know is that if you can create a buzz about your product, as described in The Anatomy of Buzz, then everyone is talking about it (the 'buzz' of conversation is the sound of the idea spreading).

Buzz happens when things become cool and fashionable, when they are included in gossip and when they are the latest new thing. Creating buzz about your idea means seeding it in the right places, with the right social leaders and with the right amount of chic.

See also

Adoption Checklist, Diffusion Lifecycle

Everett Rogers, The Diffusion of Innovations

Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

, The Anatomy of Buzz

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene,


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