In his book Imagine, Jonah Lehrer writes that creativity expands with connection. The conventional wisdom that creativity is individual – think of how the society lionizes entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or Oprah Winfrey – “misses the real story of innovation,” Lehrer contends. “The most creative ideas, it turns out, don’t occur when we’re alone,” but in our social circles, “the collections of acquaintances who inspire novel thoughts.”
These can range from colleagues we bump into on the way to the lunchroom to strangers we happen upon in our daily travels. Hence the trend of designing work spaces to maximize casual interactions and the growing popularity of experiences-rich cities like New York and London.
Research is showing, though, that some of the most useful networks are those we form online. I think that explains one of the major shifts we at GfK Roper are seeing in the Influential Americans, the word-of-mouth leaders who are often leading indicators for consumer trends.
Since 2007, the percentage of Influentials reporting at least some connection to an online community has soared by 38 points, rising from 24% to 62%. Nothing else comes close to that trend arc. In fact, four of nine trended types of communities slipped during the period.
Influentials’ online engagements appear to be replacing some traditional commitments. Online isn’t likely to bump family or neighborhood, Influentials’ top two sources of connection. But it has surged past professional and social activism/volunteer groups. It would not be a surprise to see it rise more.
And with good reason. Research shows that online connections not only generate serendipity, the leapfrogging discoveries that come from happening onto someone interesting. They also heighten productivity.
One study that Lehrer reports on in Imagine found that stock traders who are more connected – engaging simultaneously in dozens of IM conversations – make more money, profiting on more than 70% of trades (vs. 55% for the typical trader). When a news story breaks about a company, the connected individuals get to the essential information first: What does the story mean? Is it good news or bad news? What will the impacts be?
Imagine’s depiction of these super-networked traders “just sucking up information like a vacuum” – is how we often describe Influentials. Influentials are more connected than the average person and put their networks to good use as two-way channels to acquire and disseminate insight.
It’s easy, then, to see why Influentials are gravitating to online communities: Online networks often solve problems better – and faster – than any other medium.
How fast? Lior Zoref, an Israeli Ph.D. student, put the question to the test in a recent TED talk, asking viewers of his presentation to go to a website and estimate the weight of an ox he’d brought on stage. He got 500 responses. The average, which he showed at the end of his brief lecture, virtually nailed it (1,792 pounds, just 3 pounds shy of the creature’s weight).
At a time when knocking online connections has become popular sport – since Facebook’s rocky IPO, the skeptics have been having a field day – it’s important to step back and remember the big picture. The Influentials point the way.