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Wow, that deserves a standing ovation!!

Huh?! What?! – Certainly not my last run down the moguls this past week, that is for certain. I was lucky enough to enjoy some time on the slopes, time with family as well as some time to read from actual books, not even an e-reader. I stayed at a great Bed and Breakfast, in Waitsfield, Vermont (near Sugarbush) with my family (minus one).  Somehow, a book on Complex Adaptive Systems ( John H. Miller and Scott E. Page) made it into my overnight bag, and I began to read.  Before long there was a particular area which I wanted to dive a bit deeper into, an interesting phenomenon called ; The Standing Ovation Problem (SOP). Creative Commons

Staying true to my electronic hiatus of sorts, I decided to do a bit more research when I got home. The SOP, at a qualitative level, is straightforward, easy to understand and has relevance in modern business. Specifically, the SOP can be used as a real world metaphor of outcomes often generated by the tools and technologies which are used by modern businesses, who are trying to be ‘Social’. A better understanding of the ‘why’ or ‘how’ could help  to explain some of the issues encountered by a Social Business, both externally (Marketing, Support, Communities) and internally (Enterprise 2.0 tools). I am not saying I will be able to accomplish all of that here, but it is a start, and I so welcome your opinion.

What exactly is the Standing Ovation Problem?

To help me to understand the problem at a deeper level I found a 2004 research paper, The Standing Ovation Problem, by the same authors. The timing of the research and paper is interesting, as it predates the explosive time line of the Social Networks we know of today. The paper takes a very mathematical approach to the problem. However, a dissection of the problem, approach and theories makes extending the metaphor quite interesting. As the paper states:”The SOP has much to offer as it (1) is easily explained and part of everyone’s common experience; (2) simultaneously emphasizes some of the key themes that arise in social systems, such as learning, heterogeneity, incentives, and networks; and (3) is amenable to research efforts across a variety of fields. These features make it an ideal platform from which to explore the power, promise, and pitfalls of complexity modeling in the social sciences.”

Stated simply, a standing ovation is at the end of a lecture, presentation or performance (stage or athletic) certain members of the audience stand up and clap for a long(er) duration, which leads to other audience members doing the same. While a 10 year old might be able to explain what it is (mine did); why it happens, is another issue altogether.  The reason this phenomenon is intriguing in the context of Social Business, is because there is a Social Media equivalent to the phenomenon . Actually, there might be more than one. Via Facebook, Twitter and Buzz, we make public proclamations of likes and dislikes. Whether is a good or bad experience with a company which we make make public or an article or YouTube video which we Retweet. Within an organization, this type of ‘public’ opinion are certainly commonplace, now more than ever.

What are the components, and who are the Actors?

From a systems perspective, Use Case modeling may not work all that well, but I could not pass on giving it a shot. Though trying to ascribe mathematics to SOP, modeling is required: “In modeling the SOP, one must explicitly account for many aspects of social interaction. Here, we shall discuss just three: the spread of information, the timing of events, and the behavior of the agents.” (to simplify, I will treat an agent as a person in the SOP). Is the author talking about SOP, or could it be Twitter, Google Buzz or Facebook?  I believe that there are definitely social media equivalents, therefore understanding why these events occur is worthwhile.

I am not a marketer by trade, nor a social scientist, but the picture in my mind of the audience, is very similar to how Twitter is organized, maybe Facebook or Buzz, not sure. In the real world, we are all there to watch something, our interests are close enough that we came to the same event. We may or may not be ‘friends’ with the people in the audience. We might be very much in alignment with some members of the audience, though not sitting next to them. How does this relate to articles we read, videos watched or experiences we have, which are then forwarded or shared?

While I might actually know some of the others in the audience, for the most part I would suggest that I am not heavily influenced by them, with one exception. In a pure social sense, if everyone begins to stand and I do not, then I it might be ‘awkward’. Social Media has its equivalents as well. I might be trying to both impress (a Retweet), influence others AND there is less of an ‘awkwardness’ if I do nothing. This is referred to as simply conformity, however, this is not too interesting, but does occur. There is also an interesting difference between the people at the front of the theater, and those at the back. Those at the front are not influenced by others (they cannot see them), while those at the back can see everyone else. The analogy to Twitter would be people with lots of followers and those with fewer. This simple concept could be a whole post in and of itself.

Get with the flow, audiences exist within the enterprise as well.

The paper has a nice section on mathematical theories. The suggestion is that by using the SOP as a “backdrop” many different agendas can be addressed. These might include information aggregation, conformity and information cascades (I think of information flows). As practitioners, vendors, consultants and influencers expanding horizons and pushing back on businesses who claim “we are unique” just a little, is important to help them grow. A deeper understanding of why people – peers – act or react in certain way when new ideas are presented. As businesses work hard to become social, what are the impacts to other groups and departments as the silos are broken down?

Will you be the first to stand, sending a strong signal, when an idea is presented? Are you at the back of the theater, or the front (Leader or Follower)? The comment about being awkward is interesting as well, as one can be awkward in the beginning, by being the first to ’stand’, while it may be equally awkward at the other end to be the only one sitting. In an enterprise, if you are the first to stand then you are taking a risk, no? If you are the last to stand, then you might be taking a different kind of risk, yes?

Without diving into the mathematics, it is a little tough to do justice to the sections regarding information cascades. My reasoning for even addressing them at all, is that an understanding of the social dynamics within the company/enterprise are important. Within a theater, a person can send a limited number of signals, stand, sit and applause. Within a company, you can send these as well as many others. Even in the public timeline, you are able to send extra signals. Studies show that words such as “Great”, “Read” and “Loved” enhance the Retweeting of something, most often pointing at some form of content.

Where does that leave us, is there a conclusion?

The model and this discussion would certainly need to be extended, but the social aspects of an enterprise cannot be ignored. Words such as ‘transparency’ and ‘open’ mean that more and more people are making their opinions known in a very public way. This will change the culture within an organization. My sharing this blog, and the research behind it is a way of suggesting that the foundational research may already be there, if we look around a bit.

Here are a few of the conclusions reached by the authors. The fun question is how do these relate to a Social Business?

  • Most people might be standing, even though they do not necessarily agree with the extra praise offered by a standing ovation;
  • There is a greater pressure to conform, which leads less “efficient of information”. Could this be considered group think problems?;
  • People in the front may “have a large impact”. Is this the follower count issue? Just because you are in front, are you smarter?

There are lots of interesting places to take this type of conversation. I am inclined to ask some friends very specific topics, but will wait to see if people find this line of thinking interesting. Are there other areas we can all learn from this type of application of research to the ‘Social’ world? I am a firm believer that we all need to reach out and learn from other disciplines. Basic, sound research can be applied so many ways.  What do you think. Have I gone astray….?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Esteban Kolsky February 28, 2010, 3:34 PM

    Mitch,

    Very well explained, and a very interesting concept — here is a link to conversation I was having this weekend with Michael Wu (Lithium’s Principal Scientist — and million miles above my level) on a similar problem: knowledge flows http://lithosphere.lithium.com/t5/Building-Community-the-Platform/Are-all-Influencers-Created-Equal/ba-p/5170.

    Here is my take — did you know that over 80% of RTs are “blind” (i.e. people don’t read beyond the original tweet)? People in the Twitterverse just want to be the first to RT one of the “leaders”, they want to show they are in the “in” (that the know the performer well enough to know when to stand up and when to simply applaud).

    I think that the SOP is one of the reasons why bad information gets in the way of furthering the concepts and discussions: the assumption that if it comes from one of the identified leaders is good (whether it is true or not) stalls the discussions and stops good ideas from flourishing from less known people. Michael Wu is an example — he does not tweet or flaunt what he does or knows much, but I would trust him 1,000 times more than anyone else that talks about reputation and knowledge flows.

    Alas, if he were to send a link to some of his research at the same time that one of the so-called leaders does, his would be drowned by the others.

    This is where reputation comes in (been doing a lot of reading and research into this lately, this is the revolution to come in the social world IMO). With reputation does not matter who is first, but how is better (or more qualified if you prefer) to stand up first. If I go to a Perlman concert and the guy in front of me stands up and begins to applaud and holler at the end of the first act of a piece I know I can ignore him. If the conductor of some orchestra does that, I know he understands the complexity of we just witnessed and it’d be a better clue to do the same, or to at least feel better at what I am doing (this was a recent experience, btw).

    So, the short answer to the above babble – reputation engines are needed to begin to drown the voices of those who scream the loudest, and favor those with the logical and rational voices.

    Just my two cents (actually, was going to put an Amazon affiliate link to a book on reputation, but could not find it)

    Great write up, seriously well done.

  • Mitch Lieberman February 28, 2010, 7:42 PM

    Esteban,

    Thanks for the comments. I did take a look at the conversation, and eigenvector part brought back some seriously bad memories. I might even have one of those ‘I slept through the exam’ dreams on that one.

    I completely agree with your thoughts on reputation, it is sorely needed. To continue the SOP metaphor in this case, what you suggest is that a whole lot of people who are ‘standing’ did not actually witness the performance, and are not even in the theater. Talk about a way to break the model! I also believe that the people in the back of the theater are looking to ‘move to better seats’. This is in response to your comment about people who blind “RT”

    The SOP model does break down a bit within the Twitter community as a whole, but I still may further explore the concepts within the Enterprise and what are your thoughts regarding a specific community itself, smaller than Twitter?

    Some more thinking to be done….

  • Esteban Kolsky March 1, 2010, 3:38 AM

    My initial thought: in smaller communities, with a specific purpose as opposed to the multi-purpose wandering community that is twitter, you won’t observe the SOP model. Actually, you may in larger (over 30-40 people) because of the dynamics of larger groups — but well established, purposeful communities won’t suffer from it.

    thoughts?

  • seamuswalshvt March 1, 2010, 6:15 AM

    Interesting post, Mitch, your very diplomatic. I have been watching this phenomena with a skeptics eye and calling this theory the “thundering herd.” Esteban, gave an interesting statistic regarding blind RT’s. On Twitter, on more than one occasion I have said to myself, “Honey, you can’t read that fast.” It’s as if it’s more important for people to align to the author rather than their content and context.

    On the other side the coin, the risk being in the front standing because it’s deserved is that you can’t see the tomatoes coming in from the back. What’s worse, the over-zealous crackpot who jumps into the discussion or sitting back and letting others influence and decide the outcomes?

  • Mitch Lieberman March 1, 2010, 7:22 AM

    @Esteban – As you point out, and I do agree with, “purposeful communities” likely would not fit this model. The reason being that they are more homogeneous in nature, thus I may explore that a little deeper in a future post. In a community of equals, or near equals, there would seem to be (no science here) a greater propensity for most to react in a similar fashion, based on the original performance, not the reaction of others. An Enterprise is a different story though….

    @Seamus – Thanks for the comments, and I agree with your thoughts. There was a blog post about a year ago by Dan Z (Hubspot) http://danzarrella.com/the-20-words-and-phrases-that-will-get-you-the-most-retweets.html# suggesting a statistical difference among words that lead to RTs. This also suggests the power of additional signals with the initial response.

    As you point out, there is a tremendous amount of conformity as well – ‘no way you could have read it that fast’ by friends, peers, and others with a bit of an agenda.

    I appreciate the comments!

  • brianvellmure March 1, 2010, 9:47 AM

    Mitch,

    There is a traffic jam. 2 cars simultaneously turn on their left light blinkers. The cars behind them see this and conclude that there must be a reason to switch lanes. Now there are 4 or 5 with their blinkers on switching lanes. What ensues is that now there is a mass movement to switch lanes and and accident ensues because of the panic.

    This is a recurring situation recounted by a police officer in the book and described by Robert Cialdini in his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”.

    He also describes how folks in the opera have been planted for centuries to clap and stand, and incite standing ovations as you describe. The most surprising fact is that even though the others in attendance know that there are people being paid to do this, they still comply with their actions.

    It is, for some reason, embedded in human behavior. I don’t think that will change.

    The key takeaway for me is to know that this phenomenon exists. Arm yourself with a radar to look for it, identify it, and be able to filter through in your sphere of influence.

    Great post!

  • Mitch Lieberman March 1, 2010, 5:25 PM

    Brian,

    Another great piece of evidence suggesting that we all need to be cautious when simply agreeing or applauding. But, there is more to the story. While I am mostly talking about the in public nuances here, Enterprises also have the same issues to deal with. Group Think is something else to be cautious of. Just because no one is standing up, does not mean we are all not missing something.

    Thanks for stopping by, I appreciate the comments.

    Mitch

  • phsoffer March 2, 2010, 6:03 PM

    Great post, Mitch, on a fascinating topic.

    I think that part of the promise of what we’re all working on is to give people enough analytical tools so that they can begin to unpack those audiences and see why those standing ovations happen; or, maybe a little bit less abstractly, to see when there’s a high probability that one will happen that’s going to have an impact on their business one way or the other.

    One interesting question is how it would be possible to stop an ovation once it gets started. It’s pretty simple to envision how you could start one under less than honest pretenses, but the opposite seems more challenging.

    Phil

    • Mitch Lieberman March 4, 2010, 6:06 AM

      Phil,

      Thanks for the comments. Great perspective, something I was looking for when I was asking Esteban. Two important topics, identifying when they are going to happen, apriori, and working to stop one, once it starts. I believe the identification might be the easier of the two (certainly not easy though), where good data on the root cause, or instigators can be identified.

      As far as stopping one once it is started, hmmm, that is a more difficult problem, that requires a lot of thought. Since, a standing ovation naturally subsides, I suppose the real trick might be to shorten the duration. Breaking away from the metaphor, stopping something from getting a community or larger population all worked up. That is worthy of understanding.

      We will need t revisit this for sure.

  • scorpfromhell March 4, 2010, 12:03 AM

    Mitch, sorry for showing up late. I have been busy searching for the 1st of March that I lost on my way from the US to India. ;)

    There are so many interesting new ‘discoveries’ about human psychology, sociology & social networks that we from ‘outside’ these fields need to learn about, because they are now not only relevant to ‘our’ field, but also crucial to success. Propensity of people to get influenced by others in their immediate circles than to influence; unpredictability of viral marketing; importance of size of k shells rather than the number of connections; social norms; social capital; and now SOP. Am sure am probably forgetting other studies too (the reason I was inquiring about Mendeley/Zotero, etc.).

    There are just too many implications of these new findings. However I would really love to see more research reports based on data from online social networks like facebook, twitter & blogs rather than (or at the least, in addition to) the simulations based research.

    I agree with Phil about the importance of these studies wrt the analytical tools. Don’t we all agree that the immediate worth of the ‘social’ is in deriving ‘actionable insights’? The first of the two components of the infrastructure for that would be the analytical tools, other would be the workflow tools.

    Great post Mitch! Keep pushing the limits of our thinking. :)

  • Mitch Lieberman March 4, 2010, 6:11 AM

    Prem,

    Not sure what the issue is, your first of March is buried in the snow, somewhere on the eastern seaboard of the US.

    After I wrote the article, I forwarded a link to the authors of the basic research, as well as the book. In a similar vein, the comment by one of the authors was “there is a lot of low hanging fruit in complex systems just waiting to be applied in interesting ways”. I am hoping that I have more time not only to look through the complex systems, but other areas as well – as you suggest.

    It certainly keeps it interesting!

    Mitch