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Insight From Massive Social Experiment Could Sway Voting, Spending and Other Behavior

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Within minutes of taking questions, Karl Rove and Howard Dean had a largely well-informed audience deep in the weeds of their conflicting, complex facts last Monday night at our Marin Speakers Series. We watched enthralled, attempting to keep up with their swift verbal combat. This was a meatier discussion than we usually get via media coverage and the truthiness-packed saturation TV ads that are blanketing the battleground states.

Our Bias Bond Us for Good and for Bad

The topics they covered are innately complex, from health care to the fiscal cliff. Two women popped up early with a banner calling Rove a war criminal and were promptly escorted out. Two other women vigorously nodded whenever Rove spoke and others clapped when Dean talked. As many social science studies show, we look for ideas that reinforce our bias and usually hang out with people who share our values and views. When we don't have a strong view on something, we turn to people we trust to help us decide.

Those notions are supported by the results, announced last week, of a massive social experiment that will have far reaching affects. The study showed that about one-third of a million more Americans voted in 2010 because of one Facebook message on Election Day.

My Friend, Who Are You Voting For?

The experiment involved 61 million Facebookers, and led to the creation of an algorithm that, if used by either political party, might tip the scales of this presidential election. Yes, that's a staggering conclusion. The discovery may also alter target marketing, and word-of-mouth and cause campaigns. It may even boost Facebook's stock price. It will certainly affirm the inordinate value of our close friends, especially those we know online and in the real world. Consequently our collective and individual behavior in all these spheres, online and in real life, may morph more swiftly as people tinker with the results of this study. Connected co-author and UC San Diego social scientist James Fowler and his colleagues, including Facebook research scientist Cameron Marlow, used the 2010 congressional election for his massive "get out the vote" social engagement experiment, dividing participants into three groups:

Group One

More than 60 million Facebook users saw a non-partisan "Today is Election Day" message at the top of their news feeds on Nov. 2, 2010, reminding them to vote. It included a:

• Clickable "I Voted" button

• Link to local polling places

• Counter displaying how many Facebook users had already reported voting

• (Most importantly) Up to six profile photos of users' own Facebook friends who had clicked on that "I Voted" button.

Group Two

About 600,000 people, or 1 percent of the group, were randomly assigned to see the same message but without the pictures of their Facebook friends.

Group Three

Another additional 600,000 individuals received no Election Day message from Facebook. They were the control group.

What Social Action Actually Motivates Us to Act?

Yet here's where it gets really interesting:

• Users who received the message without photos of their friends voted at the same rates as those who saw no message at all. In other words, in this study, a social call to action, alone, has no effect.

• Those who saw the photos of friends in the message were more likely to vote. Even self-descriptions as liberal or conservative made no difference. Simply put, friends' photos made all the difference.

Fowler concluded, "It's not the 'I Voted' buttons, nor the lapel stickers that gets out the vote. It's the person attached to it. Social influence made all the difference in political mobilization."

Consider the capacity to scale political, business or cause campaigns by asking your customers, fans or cause backers to reach out to their close friends, suggesting they also contact their friends. This 2010 experiment spurred an additional 60,000 people to vote, according to the researchers. Then contagion kicked in.

The social contagion among friends, they say, yielded another 280,000 more, for a total of 340,000. According to Fowler, "the social network yielded an additional four voters for every one voter that was directly mobilized." Of course, a dire warning for Facebook and other social networks is the possibility that a social network effect can work in reverse.

Close Friends (and Their Friends) Most Move Us to Act

Even more valuable than the fabled Kevin Bacon notion that we are all eventually connected through six degrees of separation, is this discovery of the disproportionate power of the first two degrees of connection. Of course, like our tendency to go into a busy restaurant more than a vacant one, we are swayed by the visible crowd, the number of people who have already done something. As Robert Cialdini found, that's the power of social proof.

Yet for attracting votes, customers or cause backers, Fowler's experiment demonstrates how swiftly and certainly we can scale action through the involvement of "just" two degrees of separation. Imagine if either presidential campaign chose to reach out, via Facebook to those who have already declared themselves avid backers, and used the algorithm (or created their own).

While the message-per-friend amplification is small, scaling is huge. Multiply a small effect across millions of users and billions of online social network friendships you can reach huge numbers of people.

We Respond Most to Those We Meet Online and in the Real World

Now this is where it gets really interesting. The researchers also learned how to confirm close friendship links. They asked some users who were their closest friends. Then they measured how often they interacted on Facebook. In so doing they developed an algorithm by which they could predict with 80 percent accuracy which Facebook friends were also close friends "in real life."

Those close relationships accounted for virtually all the difference in voting.

Imagine if either Obama's or Romney's team adapted this approach, beginning by reaching out to their known supporters on Facebook. Supporters could be invited to ask their 10 closest friends to join them in clicking on a "We'll Vote for (candidate's name)" button which would trigger images of their closest friends appearing with them on their Facebook Timeline, connected to that button. Or, even more wildly, what if both campaign teams hopped on what I'll dub the "Two Degrees to Win" approach? That would be fascinating to follow. Since it's estimated that a whopping $6 billion will be spent on this campaign battle, the extra amount to risk on such an experiment would probably be a drop in the bucket.

Of course if some big corporate backers financed it, they would learn, first hand, how to hone the process. With that scale and speed of practice with their social experience they could then jumpstart their own appeals to customers to attract more customers through their friends and friends of their friends. That could an historic first, with all kinds of competitive, cultural and relationship implications for us as humans, consumers and business leaders. The power of our two-degree close relationships provides us with a fresh opportunity to accomplish greater things together than we can on our own.

Audacious Update Margaret Mead's Famous Proclamation

She famously wrote, "A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." In fact, in our increasingly complex yet connected world, it gets ever better. Small groups of closely connected people can scale their world changing idea faster and farther than ever before.

What's Next From Fowler and His Colleagues?

"The main driver of behavior change is not the message -- it's the vast social network," concluded Fowler. "Whether we want to get out the vote or improve public health, we should not only focus on the direct effect of an intervention, but also on the indirect effect as it spreads from person to person to person." Consequently Fowler is excited about the extraordinary Big Data gathering opportunity inherent in Facebook's Timeline. With it he and other social scientists hope to understand more kinds of behavior, using that data for the greater good. His research covers topics as disparate as happiness, health, ideology and job hunting. Discover more about Fowler's grand experiment in the cover story at Nature magazine.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

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