world map of virus

This blog post is about how to go viral and spread social change.

When you read the above sentence, were you thinking that these are one and the same thing? Were you thinking that to spread social change, you have to go viral?

If you were thinking that—as is entirely logical, and as the prevailing view has been for decades—you are wrong.

In his new book, Change: How to Make Big Things Happen, social scientist Damon Centola lays out his startling research conclusion that there are two very different ways that things spread through society.

Some things spread in a quick, viral way. Other things spread in a slow, snowballing way.

Let me explain.

Simple Contagions (Going Viral)

One way things spread through society is quickly, person to person, like a virus. Centola calls this simple contagion:

“Viral metaphors are able to describe a world where information spreads quickly yet beliefs and behaviors stay the same. It is a world of simple contagions—catchy ideas and memes that spread quickly to everyone but lack any lasting impact on what we think or how we live.”

Like a virus that is capable of spreading from one carrier to hundreds of others, a simple contagion spreads rapidly throughout a population. But, as Centola explains, this type of rapid spreading only occurs for simple things, such as breaking news or a funny joke (or an actual virus).

Ideas that require people to change their beliefs and behaviors do not follow such a simple path to implementation among a society.

Complex Contagions (Snowballing to Spread Social Change)

The other way things spread through society is more slowly, through networks of people gradually adopting the new idea or practice. Centola compares this to a rolling snowball getting bigger, and he calls this complex contagion:

“But social change is far more complicated. Innovative ideas and behaviors do not spread virally; simple exposure is not enough to ‘infect’ you. When you are exposed to a new behavior or idea, you don’t automatically adopt it. Instead, you have to make a decision about whether to accept or reject it. And that decision can be complex and emotional. . . . This much-deeper process of social spreading is called complex contagion.”

Centola explains that when a big idea erupts into the public consciousness, as happened recently with the #metoo and #blacklivesmatter movements, it can seem as if an idea suddenly went viral.

But when scientists like Centola studied what actually happened, they saw a gradual build-up, over a long period of time. They also saw that the gradual build-up did not occur among isolated individuals, but among connected networks of people. Eventually, the build-up reached a tipping point, upon which suddenly everyone seemed to be participating in the movement (or arguing against it, or at least aware of its existence).

How to Go Viral and Spread Social Change

The title of this blog post promises to share how to go viral and spread social change. Well, here’s the secret:

First, you have to figure out whether the thing you want to spread is a simple contagion or a complex contagion. This will determine what you do next.

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If it’s a simple contagion, like breaking news or a funny meme, going viral is simply a matter of telling everyone you know. You can do this in person or through social media or another technology. If the piece of news or funny meme is compelling enough, a bunch of the people you shared it with will share it with all of their contacts, and if this keeps happening, you’ve gone viral. Yay!

But if it’s a complex contagion, like convincing more Americans to vote in local elections, your job isn’t so easy. Simply telling everyone you know or blasting out a tweet isn’t going to work. You’ll need to have in-depth conversations and also harness the power of networks. You’ll need to work toward change over an extended period of time. But, eventually, if things snowball all the way to a tipping point, suddenly you will see the change you’re looking for. Everyone will think it was a viral, overnight sensation; but, in reality, it will have been a long, slow process.

What kind of change do you want to see in the world?