Liz Gannes

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Avoid the Temptation of Common Sense, Says Researcher Duncan Watts (Video)

Social science researcher Duncan Watts says we are too trusting of common sense. We fool ourselves into thinking we can explain how influence and innovation happen, when we really have no idea.

Watts’s new book, “Everything is Obvious, Once You Know the Answer,” argues that the problems of social systems require rigorous study just like physics and engineering (where Watts started his career). But because we are all humans trying to make sense of the world and how we relate to each other, we tell ourselves stories about why things inevitably happened that seem to suffice.

The good thing is, now that we’re putting all this personal data online and having all so many of our interactions documented, we may be able to better study ourselves.

It’s common sense to think that influential people start social trends, a la Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” But Watts points out that marketers have trouble identifying “influencers” in advance, and more specifically, in his research, “ordinary influencers” can more efficiently and predictably spread influence on Twitter than Kim Kardashian.

“I’m not saying that people don’t influence each other, but actually trying to show influence in real life in social networks or social media turns out to be a very difficult problem, and often the results are disappointing,” Watts, who is a principal research scientist at Yahoo, said in a video interview with NetworkEffect.

On the other hand, Watts said he is more inclined to side with Gladwell’s skepticism about social media inciting recent revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. But, of course, he thinks the topic merits further study.

Watts is extremely well respected in his field for his study of social networks. Lucky for readers, Watts’ bias against storytelling doesn’t extend to his book. He uses anecdotes about how the Mona Lisa became famous, why drunk driving crimes shouldn’t necessarily be judged on the outcome, and how Cisco fell from glory despite consistent management and strategy–with only a few charts and graphs.

Watts’ right-place-at-the-right-time explanations are dramatically different from the Silicon Valley canon, where we “lionize the strong intuitive leader, the guy who goes with his gut and has a clear vision,” as Watts put it in our interview. (His book is kind of the anti-Quora, which is full of fascinating anecdotal recollections and lessons of the recent history of Silicon Valley.)

But successful companies often have as much in common with unsuccessful ventures as they do with other success stories, Watts said. “The difference between making sense of things and predicting things is where we run into trouble.”

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work