More than once I’ve heard Everett Rogers‘ Diffusion of Innovations described as “Extension’s bible.” Many Extension interventions apply diffusion theory to encourage adoption of target behaviors from horticultural practices to sustainable forest management.
But how do innovations move through a social network? Two very different models are nicely summarized in an article I read recently (Watts & Dodds 2007; full citation below). This post describes the two models, with some thoughts on applications to private forest management situations.
Two-step flow model
Under the two-step flow model, a small number of early adopters receive information and pass on information from a central source to a much larger number of people. These folks tend to access many media sources, filter information, and multiply certain messages through their networks to much larger audiences.
A common private forestry example is a master volunteer (e.g. Oregon State Master Woodland Manager or New York Master Forest Owner) who has received extensive training and subsequently shares her new knowledge with her neighbors. She’s heard of every new idea, but has opinions that her less-involved neighbors have come to trust.
Because of the reputations they’ve earned, individuals like master volunteers also serve as opinion leaders rather than mere conduits of information. Others look to them not only as sources of information, but as trusted filters or interpreters of that information.
Under the two-step flow model, opinion leaders play crucial roles–without their work to multiply and disseminate information, the information doesn’t reach other potential adopters.
Under the network model, information reaches all (or a much larger proportion of) the members of the community more or less equally.
Under the network model, influence occurs less through controlling the flow of information and more through filtering and interpreting it. The individuals with more ties are those to whom others look for leadership.
A woodland owner example here might be downturns in stumpage prices. Everyone might be aware of the market conditions, but would look to one another for help interpreting the information, speculating about future conditions, and deciding how to act. Although all members have access to the same market information, some are clearly more influential than others. For instance, in the figure at right, the individual at bottom center is consulted by many more of his neighbors than most others are.
The nature of an actor’s influence is not easy to quantify, and of course varies based on the community and situation. One common decision rule is the threshold rule, which posits that a given individual will adopt a behavior when a certain percentage of her contacts has adopted.
These models, while sharing some common elements, are quite different. Understanding which model applies, if either does, is obviously important to program design. Classic master volunteer programs are based on the two-step flow model. This model is well entrenched and demonstrated to be efficient and effective.
However, for some types of information and behaviors, new media may penetrate more deeply into a community, flattening the information hierarchy. In these cases, landowners may be less dependent on others for information and more so for interpretation, discussion, and processing
Which of these models applies better to your situation? Does thinking about diffusion in these ways suggest changes in the way you reach out to your key audiences?
Full citation: Watts, D.J. and P.S. Dodds. 2007. Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation. Journal of Consumer Research. 34(4): 441-458.