Not Very Many

Michael Metzger

Scientists have discovered that when 10 percent of a network is committed to an idea, it spreads throughout the entire network. Any 10 percent can do it. Social media enthusiasts say this explains Facebook and Twitter’s effectiveness. They are effective—at spreading ideas. If however the aim is to change institutions, it still requires only 10 percent of a network—but not just any 10 percent.

In an article titled “Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities,” scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion.1 “When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas,” reports Boleslaw Szymanski, a professor at Rensselaer. Once that number grows above 10 percent, regardless of how or where that opinion starts and spreads in the society, “the idea spreads like a flame.” Social media enthusiasts point to the Arab Spring as an example of this phenomenon.

The Arab Spring is a good example of how ideas spread. It’s not an example of innovation. Innovation is not simply inciting upheaval. It is renewal. We have yet to see renewal in Libya or Egypt. That would require overlapping networks of ideas, images, items, institutions, and key individuals—the 10 percent that changes institutions. They are described in Jon Berry and Ed Keller’s The Influentials: One American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy. This group is not necessarily wealthy, or made up of CEOs. Berry and Keller describe the “influentials” as a diverse group, largely college-educated, that collaborates with other “influentials” as “engaged activists.”

Activists is the definitive word here. Social activism has supposedly been reinvented, writes Malcolm Gladwell. “With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate and give voice to their concerns.”2 Yet in studying the activism of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, Gladwell began to see how social media undercuts what is necessary for changing systems.

For starters, the civil-rights movement was hierarchical. The N.A.A.C.P. was a centralized organization. In his 1984 study, “The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement,” Aldon D. Morris points to a carefully demarcated division of labor, with various standing committees and disciplined groups. “Each group was task-oriented and coordinated its activities through authority structures,” Morris writes. “Individuals were held accountable for their assigned duties, and important conflicts were resolved by the minister, who usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation.”3

Social media is not hierarchical writes Gladwell. “Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite of hierarchies. Networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus.” Consensus does not foster accountability, nor does it create a mechanism for resolving conflicts.

Additionally, the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project was high-risk, creating a “strong-tie” organization. Thousands of white Northerners joined the movement, hundreds were beaten and shot at, three were killed, and 37 black churches were set on fire. A quarter of those in the program dropped out. “Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.” Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam discovered those who persevered said it was personal contact with hierarchical leaders. He calls this high-risk activism a “strong-tie” phenomenon.

In social media groups, the ties that bind people are loose. Gladwell says it’s low-risk activism, creating a “weak-tie” network. He points to the Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition. It has 1,282,339 members who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

Any 10 percent of a population, if committed, can spread an idea inside a network and the majority will buy it. But this doesn’t change the world. David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner, vigorously spreads the idea of “eat healthy” in his book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Yet he acknowledges that, since the 1980s, the food industry, overlapping with the advertising industry, has short-circuited the body’s self-regulating mechanisms. There’s hardly an individual who doesn’t buy Kessler’s ideas. There’s hardly an institution that does. A Chipotle grilled chicken burrito has 1,200 calories. A Chick-Fil-A Cookies and Cream milkshake has 770 calories.

“The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history,” writes historian Robert Darnton, “or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.”4 The tools of social media make us more efficient, but they produce a false consciousness about what makes movements effective.

In Daniel 1:4, we read that precious few of the Jewish population were selected to serve Nebuchadnezzar. These weren’t just any Jews. They had demonstrated “ability for serving in the king’s court” and are described as “youths in whom there was no defect, who were good-looking, showing intelligence in every branch of wisdom, endowed with understanding, and discerning knowledge.” These Jewish “influentials,” collaborating with Babylonian “influentials,” constituted not very many—no more 10 percent of Babylon’s population. But they weren’t just any 10 percent.

1 Online edition of the journal Physical Review E, July 22, 2011.
2 Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” The New Yorker, October 4, 2010, pp. 42-49.
3 Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movements: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York, NY: Free Press, 1984), p. 6.
4 Robert Darnton, Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2010), p. 1.


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  1. This is a very interestiing and provocative piece. I would only suggest that besides producing a false conscieousness about what makes movement seffective social networks for the most part lack an inherent method for assurring authenticity of the ideas being communicated.

  2. Mike, could you clarify the following statement: “Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam discovered those who persevered said it was personal contact with hierarchical. He calls this high-risk activism a “strong-tie” phenomenon.” Specifically, what does McAdam mean by “personal contact with hierarchical”?

  3. Glenn:

    Typo on my part. Corrected now. Activists attribute much of their success to personal contact with hierarchical leaders.

  4. Thanks, Mike: That’s an interesting factor. Activists need a personal leadership, mentoring, that goes beyond merely a boss-employee relationship. Seems to have been a model that Jesus used. Jesus gave people a high-risk purpose with an eternal scope, but also personal attention. Thoughts?

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