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Despite technology’s role in distributing information, the diffusion of ideas is still essentially a social phenomenon.

Despite technology’s role in distributing information, the diffusion of ideas is still essentially a social phenomenon. How ideas spread among individuals and groups says much about who we are as people and how we relate. This series of articles looks at idea-spreading as a social phenomenon across history – from antiquity to today.

1. Share It Like Cicero: How Roman Authors Used Social Networking
By Tom Standage
Standage examines how authors published books in antiquity without the use of printing presses. Since there were no formal publishers, hand-scribed books gained popularity through word of mouth and social distribution. To give their works the best chance of spreading, authors would dedicate their books to popular socialites that would showcase the work in their libraries. If the prominently displayed scrolls impressed their guests, the host could have another copy scribed. As Standage points out, “Roman publishing was all about social networking, and Roman books were a form of social media.”

2. How Innovation Accelerated in Britain 1651 – 1851
By Anton Howes
Howes looks at the acceleration rate of innovation that occurred running up to the Industrial Revolution and what in particular caused that acceleration. After examining the lives of 677 innovators of the era, he noticed a pattern emerge whereby individuals began to innovate because of they were exposed to other innovators. He writes, “But this wasn’t the spread of a particular technique, design or blueprint. It was the spread of a new approach - the very idea of inventing.” Moreover, he found that a vast majority of those innovators actively spread the idea of innovation with quasi-evangelistic fervor.

3. Social Physics
MIT Technology Review
Alex Pentland
MIT Tech Review discusses Alex Pentland’s work on the spread of ideas between groups of people. The MIT Professor has used big data to examine the numerous, atomized interactions between people in order to distill principles of how ideas proliferate between groups of people. According to Pentland’s research, the two essential components of how information propagates through a community centers around exposure to novel ideas and the engagement of those ideas through face-to-face interaction. According to the article, “ However good an idea may look on paper — or on a computer screen — engagement is still the mechanism whereby it takes root in a community.”

4. How to prevent smart people from spreading dumb ideas
The New York Times
By Michael J. Socolow
Socolow pushes the responsibility for the proliferation of fake news down to the individuals that lack the ability to discern what is fake vs. real. He provides a quick primer on how we might spot fake news. Principles include: being wary of headlines without links; checking our cognitive biases; and considering our sharing motivations. He concludes by saying, “If we’re collectively smarter and more skeptical about social media as an information delivery device, it will ultimately lessen the influence that these corporations and trolls have on our civic governance.”

Serendipity is a newsletter from The Philanthropic Enterprise that features a collection of articles to help us consider how to strengthen the ideas, institutions, and social practices that sustain a free and flourishing society.  

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