06/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Science of Buzz

Fads, crazes, hysterias, and other contagious social phenomena have long been a mysterious and occasionally hilarious part of human history. From meowing nuns to the Backstreet Boys, we humans have periodically been overtaken by curious mass obsessions for reasons that have never been entirely clear.

At least, until now. Science is catching up with buzz.

The Internet, as many a breathless commentator has told us, is greasing the wheels of the buzz machine like never before. The conversations and blog posts and general idea-spreading afforded by the Internet allows people around the world to instantly satiate society's pressing need for videos of children in a post-anesthesia haze and, or course, cute cats. Like a class of sneezing kindergartners, we are exposing and infecting each other with viral curiosities like never before, and this is allowing previously obscure media to come out of nowhere and catch on in a major way.

The mechanics of how buzz starts, keeps going, and eventually reaches saturation is not merely an object of curiosity for scientists. It's also big business.

Malcolm Gladwell, as is his wont, was at the cusp of addressing our Internet-era curiosity with how exactly this whole social viral process works in his book THE TIPPING POINT. Gladwell identified what he saw as the mavens, the connectors, and salesmen who identified and spread social phenomena.

But while much of THE TIPPING POINT was grounded in science, the process of how exactly an idea spreads from one person to the next was ultimately somewhat mysterious. For most of human history there was no real way of quantifying or tracking one person having a conversation with another person and saying, "OMG, there is this thing called a Slinky and it's seriously blowing my mind."

Now, however, we're having conversations on the Internet that everyone can see, record, and analyze.

During the aughts, as we were in the process of succumbing to a curious social contagion that led us to believe that stock markets reflected purely rational thought, we saw the rise of electronic futures markets to predict everything from presidential elections to whether Buzz Aldrin would win Dancing With the Stars. The theory being that if everyone is betting based on their individual knowledge and economic self-interest they will be able to predict the future better than an individual prognosticator/Nostradamus, an idea explored in James Surowiecki's THE WISDOM OF CROWDS.

But wouldn't you know: it turns out that word of mouth can beat the market.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Bernardo Huberman at HP's Social Computing Labs, who co-authored a fascinating study with Sitaram Asur that suggests the enormous potential in harnessing the power of the Internet to finally quantify word of mouth. Huberman and Asur tracked all the mentions on Twitter of upcoming movies leading up to their release, and they discovered that by measuring the number of times a movie was Tweeted they could predict a movie's opening gross more accurately than the Hollywood Stock Exchange.

Taking things one step further, they devised a method of tracking whether people were speaking positively and negatively about movies on Twitter after it came out. This improves the predictive power somewhat, but it turns out that Tweet-rate is still nearly as important after the movie comes out as before.

Their conclusion:

"While in this study we focused on the problem of predicting box office revenues of movies for the sake of having a clear metric of comparison with other methods, this method can be extended to a large panoply of topics, ranging from the future rating of products to agenda setting and election outcomes. At a deeper level, this work shows how social media expresses a collective wisdom which, when properly tapped, can yield an extremely powerful and accurate indicator of future outcomes."

It seems like a simple idea: of course people talking about a movie are more likely to go see it. But this is merely an initial step in quantifying buzz's power and how it spreads. Surely scientific analysis of stickiness, staying power, influence, advertising effectiveness, and Justin Bieber can't be far behind.

This could also potentially open up a world in which movies, books, music, and other media aren't simply dropped into the culture pond to see if they float, but rather they could be better marketed, and perhaps their eventual success more accurately predicted in advance. This could, at least theoretically, lead to some crucial reduction of uncertainty in businesses that have often been based on everyone's best guesses.

Not only is the Internet allowing us to exchange ideas faster than ever before, it's also allowing us to figure out the science of how word of mouth spreads. Buzz is going scientific.

Nathan Bransford is a literary agent in the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown Ltd. and the author of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, which will be published in 2011 by Dial Books for Young Readers. He blogs at