Friday, August 30, 2013

Why Ideas Go Viral

In “The Picasso Effect: What The Success of Cubism Teaches Us About Radical Innovation,” Ian Leslie describes the impact on the art world of Picasso’s shocking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the first work of an astounding new style which broke with centuries of aesthetic convention: “Within a few years, Cubism had become the dominant art movement in Europe, and Cubist artists were commanding sky-high prices for their work... The name ‘Pablo Picasso’ became synonymous with ‘genius.’” By contrast, Vincent Van Gogh, another artist whose extraordinary vision challenged the status quo, died without having ever sold one painting in his miserable lifetime. “What makes one brilliant iconoclast wildly successful,” Leslie asks, “and another ignored?”

Naturally, when certain innovations “reset reality,” as Leslie puts it, “our instinct is to hail their creators as godlike visionaries, and their success as somehow inevitable.” But there is more to the equation than genius. For ideas to catch fire, there must be a synergy of the idea, its creator, and its environment.

In a recently published paper that examined radical innovation through the lens of art history, French professor Stoyan Sgrouev searched for the reason that “Cubism burst out of its niche and into the mainstream, and did so with extraordinary force and velocity.” Understanding why, says Sgrouev, requires “looking beyond the individual, however gifted, and beyond even the idea itself. Innovators always operate in a market of some kind,” he points out, and therein lies the key to their success or failure.

Leslie sums up Sgrouev’s take on Cubism: “Paris’s art market had become receptive to the commercial possibilities of risk-taking. Artistic innovation was becoming economically viable for the first time. Breaking with the past was starting to be encouraged... This was the environment in which Picasso made his leap into the unknown.” The analysis shows that Picasso’s brilliance alone wasn’t enough; instead, his talents and energy meshed perfectly with “the movement of the market... At a time when it was cool to bend the rules of art, Picasso smashed every one.”

“For radical innovation to succeed,” Leslie concludes, “the moment has to be moving towards the innovator. But the innovator must still reach out and seize the moment.” Or, to paraphrase Sgrouev, the periphery must move toward the core just at the moment the core is moving toward the periphery.

Jonah Berger’s recent book Contagious: Why Things Catch On addresses a similar phenomenon: what makes things go viral? An Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, Berger has identified six characteristics of viral ideas that operate singly or in combination:

1)         Social currency – we share things that make us look good to others;

2)         Triggers – ideas that are at the top of the mind or the tip of the tongue spread. For example, more people search online for the song “Friday” on Friday than on any other day of the week;

3)         Emotion – when we care, we share. Susan Boyle’s appearance on Britain’s Got Talent went viral on YouTube because it elicited such an emotional reaction;

4)        Public – people tend to follow others, but only when they can see what those others are doing. So ideas that are “built to show are built to grow”;

5)         Practical value – news you can use. So a man’s video demonstrating how to shuck a corncob, for example, exploded due to its usefulness.

6)        Stories – information travels under the guise of idle chatter. People tell stories, and stories carry ideas, brands, and information.

There is a lesson in these conclusions for today’s artists, thinkers and entrepreneurs. Want your idea to go viral, to “reset reality”? Timing, as comedians can attest, is everything, so you must have the foresight to recognize what is approaching you at the horizon, the energy to push your idea to collide with it, and the right strategy to ride the shock waves to success.

Oh, and it helps to be a genius.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 8/28/13)