A central part of the Interaction Field book is to discuss the sociology of platforms or more accurately the sociology of interaction fields.[i] All platforms, digital ecosystems or interaction fields want participants to gravitate toward them. It is what creates value through network effects.
It is easy to calculate the network effect.[ii] One of the first attempts to quantify the network effort was Metcalfe’s Law, which says that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users (n^2). So, if you have 10 users, the value the network provides is 10^2=100. That is, you can facilitate 100 distinct inter-user connections.
Another one is Reed’s law, which suggests a more encompassing way to evaluate the network effect. Reed contends that the value of your network is how many unique “group connections” your members can form, representing by the power of two (2^n). So, if you have 10 users, that same group of people has the power to 1,024 unique subgroup connections (2^10=1,024).
While it is easy to calculate some form of network effect, it is a lot harder to actually create it. For that, you need gravitational pull – that is, you need to get consumers or users to actually connect, to engage, and to interact.
This is such an important subject, I had to separate my research and thinking into two chapters of the Interaction Field book, Chapters 4 and 7. My attempt in writing these chapters was to provide guidance for how to create interactions in an interaction field that drives the network effect, but also learning and viral effects.
I reviewed the existing scientific evidence of how participants join a network, or an interaction field in the fields of sociology, behavioral economics, and psychology. In Chapter 4, I speak about the role of framing and branding. Clearly, this is an important subject that I have worked on for more than 25 years now. For me, framing is all about branding; it is setting what we like to call, the “frame of reference”.
A frame of reference can be industry-, category-, competitor- (see Avis, “We Try Harder”), or consumer-specific. Typically, I prefer consumer-specific framing to answer the question, “What do you solve for in the lives of consumers?”
In a way, framing is all about defining the contours of the interaction field, which means what you are solving for in the cultural context, in the lives of consumers, or where and how you fit in. The methodology for that has been covered already in my previous book, Hidden in Plain Sight, where I discussed how to capture more of the 1,440 minutes that we all live from midnight to midnight, and how to intersect with more of those minutes in the lives of consumers.[iii]
Let’s go over this with an example from The Interaction Field book. In Chapter 4, I talk about the role of free play, fluid play, and social play that kids and parents like to engage but have little time for. LEGO calls it the “play gap” and LEGO wants the world to close that gap, preferably through LEGO play experiences. In other words, it wants to capture the minutes or hours in a day where kids or adults engage in a certain kind of play, free play, together. That’s the frame of the interaction field.
LEGO also defined a brand which can be captured by the sentences: “joy of building,” “pride of creation,” and in terms of how LEGO connects with consumer. LEGO Ideas is one illustrative effect.
LEGO Ideas invites parents and kids to submit their creations that were built using an existing LEGO set. If a creation wins 10,000 votes, LEGO will consider producing it, and if it is successful in the marketplace, it pays out money for every set sold to the creator.
The next step is to design the interaction field in such a way that there is gravitational pull toward the nucleus. There are seven factors that need to be taken into consideration in designing an interaction field. These factors not only guide how to design the interaction field, but also what to design, who to design it for, and why. Let’s go through the seven factors one at a time.[iv]
In designing an interaction field, it is important to know who the design target is. What the strategist needs to look for are consumers who have a relatively large degree of cognitive surplus.[v] These are people who not only have time and motivation to play with LEGO and create new LEGO sets, for example, but also those who have the available time to engage in thinking beyond the tasks of everyday life. These are the people who use technology like social media and repurpose their available time to engage with others through these means.
The common mistakes that designers make is to focus on personas because design thinking routines have told them to do so. Personas serve the purpose of creating UX, UI, or CX – not to create gravitational pull. Alternatively, they may focus on influencers or micro-influencers because they think that they will influence others. I don’t think these standard recommendations are always the best solution.
The second consideration is related to the ties between and among the participants in an interaction field. LEGO, for example, needs to look not only at the kid-parent dyadic which is considered a strong tie, but also between the kid and classmates or other kids in the same grade, usually referred to as “weak ties.” This follows from work by sociologist Mark Granovetter which has shown that in order for an idea to go viral, it isn’t the strong ties that are best, but the weak ties that help the spreading of an idea, ultimately influencing the network effect. This finding is also supported by the concept of “Three Degrees of Influence” by Christas and Fowler, which suggests that influence only lasts three degrees – the impact on friends (one degree), our friends’ friends (two degrees), and the friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees).
3) Collective Intelligence
The third factor has to do with the shared intelligence between individuals. According to this research, a person is excitable (by others!) depending on the proximity and density of one’s neighborhood. LEGO successfully launched the Women of NASA set that featured minifigures of four prominent women of NASA: astronomer and educator Nancy Grace Roman; computer scientist and entrepreneur, Margaret Hamilton; astronaut, physicist and entrepreneur Sally Ride; and astronaut, physicist and engineer Mae Jemison. The success of this LEGO set is due in part to the fact that there are a huge number of weak ties between large group experiences, scientists, physicists and astronomers with shared collective intelligence.
4) Law of the Few
This law has been discussed many times. It has been popularized by Malcom Gladwell who studies people who are influential. He identifies “carriers” of an idea that cause 80 percent of the “infections.”[vi] There are three types: those who have a massive social network with many acquaintances (connections); those who boast about ideas they love and who are highly contagious (salesmen); and those who gather information, serve as a resource for others and share knowledge (mavens). The strategists who seek to build gravitational pull need to make sure that the interactions, architecture, and governance is designed such that it attracts these “carriers”.
This factor is about the message itself. It matters what is being shared; what is the message? Four women of NASA certainly is a message that remains in people’s mind, especially other scientists or aspiring scientists. It is also a message worthy of being passed on. Would another launch of a rocket in space be as powerful of a message? I doubt it. The key is to evaluate carefully what interactions create frequency and what interactions create the quality of interactions, thus creating meaning for the participants.
Another factor is the context or environment in which an interaction takes place. One of the well-researched areas are the Dunbar numbers or Dunbar’s law. It suggests that interactions that create virality and power the network effect often distribute in relatively small groups. Professor Dunbar suggests that we each have 5 people who are like family, 15 intimates, 50 acquaintances, and 150 totally familiar that we can interact with on a regular basis. Beyond these approximate limits, people don’t do well.
Context matters. A strategist who seeks to create gravitational pull needs to design the interaction field in such a way that some interactions tap into the inner sanctum of five people; others tap into the 15 intimates and so on. This requires careful analysis and understanding of the design target of an interaction field because of what is typically known of users or consumers.
7) Social Currency
The final factor and perhaps most important factor is social currency. This factor explains one of the most important aspects of gravitational pull. It is not just about the motivation to connect and interact in an interaction field. Nor is it just the ability to interact in particular way, as a “carrier” for example, but it is also about whether a consumer or user or why a participant takes advantage of the opportunity to interact, to share, connect or collaborate in an interaction field. In over 50,000 interviews since 2009, I have analyzed this phenomenon at Vivaldi Group, the business transformation firm I am working at. My conclusion is that there are a set of individual benefits that incentivizes a participant to take the opportunity to interact. One benefit is personal identity development because it can enhance a person’s self-image. A second benefit is creating a sense of belonging or kinship with others (social identity). Another is expression. Think of the GoPro surfer who makes a social statement about surfing. Fourth is conversation, that striking an emotional beat. Fifth is the affiliation, the motivation to seek social connections or relationships. Sixth is utility. People like to interact to be helpful, to teach each other, and to solve problems for each other. Finally, it is about information. This is a motivation to take an opportunity of sharing because people like to discover new things.
In researching and creating these principles of gravitational pull, I was hoping to encourage the interaction field strategist to design interactions, an architecture and governance that provide effective guidance in building effective interaction fields, by creating a gravitational pull toward the nucleus. This will lead to value creation because of the network effect, virality and learning effect. In my next blog, I will write about the four steps to create the gravitational pull. If you want to read about them, please consult The Interaction Field book, pages 129.[vii]
[i] Erich Joachimsthaler, The Interaction Field: The Revolutionary New Way to Create Shared Value for Companies, Customers and Society, PublicAffairs, New York, 2020, pp. 80 ff
[iii] Erich Joachimsthaler, Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Create Your Next Big Growth Strategy, Harvard Business Press, Boston, 2007.
[iv] Erich Joachimsthaler, The Interaction Field: The Revolutionary New Way to Create Shared Value for Companies, Customers and Society, PublicAffairs, New York, 2020, pp. 80 ff
[v] Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers Into Collaborators, Penguin Random House, 2010.
[vi] Ibid, Joachimsthaler, pp. 127