The Other Factor that Makes an Idea Spread

How do ideas spread? Previous research has focused on what happens to the sharers of an idea: what emotions they feel, what types of content inspire them to share (practical, funny, “sticky” and so on). And it is true that from memetics to mirror neurons to social contagion, it is likely that for any given idea, multiple factors are involved.  And yet the role of content seems to get all of the focus.  There are scores of books written about how to make your content “go viral” or “become contagious” and take on a life of its own. We seem to overlook — or at least undervalue — the role of the person delivering the idea: the carrier.

But over two years of research we’ve been conducting using TEDx as a case study, what has emerged is the importance of idea carriers. In addition to attending TEDx events in 24 different countries, we created a survey that was shared by TEDx organizers with thousands  of participants in over 50 countries. (Disclosure: many years ago I founded TEDxEast, and remain loosely involved with the organization now.) What we found was that much of the desire to share an idea with others was linked to that idea’s carrier. It’s the carrier who gets the audience to open up, trust, and ultimately spread the idea.

An important distinction: the carrier is the person who brings the idea into the common vernacular, although they may not actually be the one who discovered or researched the idea.  They may be impeccable storytellers, thinkers, or writers. They make fresh connections and present cogent arguments. They are critical in getting ideas to take hold.

Some well-known examples of carriers of ideas would include Daniel Goleman, who popularized the idea of emotional intelligence in 1995 although the concepts and research were actually conducted by John Mayer and Peter Salovey. Malcolm Gladwell has brought forth the ideas of others in nearly all his books from Blink to The Tipping Point and Outliers. Maria Popova of the popular blog Brainpickings  connects different theories and opinions in unexpected ways. What is it about these carriers that gives them the gift of spreading ideas?  Part of it is the storytelling, of course. But there are other factors here as well.

People want to like the carrier. When people feel good, they want to share – that good feeling is what they want to spread.  As Jonah Berger writes in Contagious, “When we care, we share.” While most previous research has examined content that makes people feel good — whether it is a heartwarming video about motherhood or a silly caption plastered over a photo of a cat — carriers who connect with their audiences have the gift of making whatever idea they’re discussing palatable.

People also want to see themselves in the idea. Jesse Preston and Daniel Wegner have done research on what they call the Eureka Error- where people misattribute credit for ideas based on mistaken effort. This can work in the favor of carriers — who often simply want to spread ideas, not get credit for inventing them — because audiences may feel that by sharing the idea with others, that somehow makes them a co-creator. They mentally give themselves credit where credit is not due. That’s not great for the actual originator of the idea, but it is great for the idea itself. For example, if I hear an idea for reducing poverty from Bill Gates and then share it with others, I get a proxy sense of construction/creation. Bill Gates is unlikely to care that he — or the original researcher who came up with the idea– is not getting credit, as long as poverty reduction is getting more attention.

The people who dismiss the work of idea carriers as “nothing new” are missing the point. There are many examples of ideas that have taken off not because they were new or novel but because they were finally discussed in such a way as to make them more compelling to audiences. As Dr. William Duggan of Columbia Business School notes in his book Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement, all ideas stand on the shoulders of those that have come before. Idea carriers create space for ideas in the popular imagination. They connect ideas to the larger intellectual landscape and give them context they may lack standing alone. Carriers like Gladwell, Goleman, and Popova do this expertly for us, as do less household-name carriers through their extensive and influential social networks.

When people like an idea carrier and the carrier shows them how to see themselves in the idea, people are much more likely to share that idea with others. This is powerful information for speakers who want to authentically build a bridge to an audience to create this experience. It also raises questions of who may best introduce an idea–the researcher who uncovers the idea or someone who serves as a carrier.

“All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come,” goes the famous line by Victor Hugo. A skilled carrier can bring ideas into their time that much more quickly.

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