Come in Spinner: The next big thing

Every PR person in the world is at some stage or other trying to promote some product, service, concept – or even themselves – as the next big thing.

Normally when you see some media article about trends, what’s in, what’s out and what’s about to happen it has been placed there by a PR person.

The markets are also a good place where PR people, companies, brokers, analysts and the media come together to proclaim the next big thing. Thus we had the dotcom boom (the revolutionary impact of the Internet doing for the market what railways, electricity and radio all once did); and, the recent long boom in which ‘this time it is different’ was said with as much conviction as it had been in previous booms preceding inevitable bust.

Business loves the next big thing too – personified by Mr Robinson, in The Graduate, telling Benjamin he just has one word for him, plastics. Today it might be composite materials or one of the endless concepts management consultants think up – from re-engineering onwards – to market their services.

There are also the next big things which come with books or concepts. The Tipping Point, Duncan Watts work on social networks (the six degrees of separation concept developed originally by Stanley Milgram) , Richard Florida’s work on creative clusters are examples of this – some based on significant and lasting research such as the Watts’ research.

The latest next big things, rushing into the vacuum caused by hubristic approaches to debts and markets, have been randomness, the re-discovery of risk and uncertainty. In particular, neo-Keynesians have been talking less about stimulus and more about the need to re-discover the central part of Keynes’ thinking – the ever-present reality of uncertainty.

While randomness and uncertainty will always be with us – however much some of us forget it – there are also areas where structure and lack of randomness are important. One of them may be the next big thing.

A friend recently sent me an article in Physics World by Albert-Lazlo Barabasi about his new book Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do (Dutton 2010) which argues that randomness does not rule our lives quite as much as we think.

Barabasi found that “many aspects of human behaviour follow simple, reproducible patterns governed by wide-reaching laws. Forget dice-rolling or boxes of chocolates as metaphors for life. Think of yourself as a dreaming robot on autopilot and you will be much closer to the truth.”

He came to this conclusion after analysing a huge digital data base of anonymous emails sent by thousands of university students, faculty and administrators. He found that the activity patterns were not, as you would expect, random. Instead, the pattern was ‘bursty’ in which patterns of emailing “follow an inner harmony, where short and long delays mix into a precise law – a law that you probably never suspected you were subject to…and that most likely never even knew existed in the first place.”

His conclusion as to why this happens is that humans do not act as if life is random but try to impose structure on it. The ‘to do’ lists many of us keep and update are examples of this.  This seems self-evident, but what is less obvious is that the way humans structure their priorities seems to have a universal pattern behind it.

Suspecting the research might just indicate something about email and computers he checked the patterns against two other major data bases: the correspondence in the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and, the Darwin Correspondence Project housed at Cambridge. The same power law emerged – not only confirming his research but also providing a very useful PR peg in that our emailing habits are very similar to those of Einstein and Darwin. Just think of the tabloid headlines – e-mailers just like Albert and Charles! We are all Einsteins/Darwins now!

We can’t know whether this will be the next big thing. The suggestion that structure and some certainty exists is certainly as seductive as theories about the power of narrative in political and other discourse.

And the false certainty which came with booming markets has been replaced by anger and uncertainty. Now we see an idea which suggests that there is structure and order in our lives after all – plus references to hidden patterns and a platform for everything from self-help books to business bibles and management consultancy research and product development. Who knows – perhaps Dan Brown will even base a novel on the idea?

Whether it is will probably be determined by how rapidly it gets spread through Watts’ social networks, whether it reaches an epidemiological tipping point in public discussion and how good Barabasi’s publishers’ PR people are.