Who Is Duncan Watts and Why Is Everything Obvious … Once You Know the Answer?

The keynote speaker at SES New York 2011 is Duncan Watts, a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, where he directs the Human Social Dynamics group. He’s also the author of the forthcoming book, Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer.

watts-duncan.jpg Watts is also an adjunct senior research fellow at Columbia University, and an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute and Nuffield College, Oxford. His research on social networks and collective dynamics has appeared in a wide range of journals, from Nature, Science, and Physical Review Letters to the American Journal of Sociology.

He is also the author of Small Worlds: The Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness as well as Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. He holds a B.Sc. in Physics from the University of New South Wales, and Ph.D. in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from Cornell University.

So, what does Watts know that approximately 5,000 marketers and search engine optimization professionals will want to get up early to learn?

Well, Watts has been conducting experiments on many of the questions that marketers would like answered — even tough ones like:

    • Why did Facebook succeed when other social networking sites failed?


    • How much can CEO’s impact the performance of their companies?


    • And does higher pay incentivize people to work hard?


If you think the answers to these questions are a matter of common sense, think again. As sociologist and network science pioneer, Watts says the explanations that we give for the outcomes that we observe in life — explanations that seem obvious once we know the answer — are less useful than they seem.

Drawing on the latest scientific research, along with a wealth of historical and contemporary examples, Watts shows how common sense reasoning and history conspire to mislead us into believing that we understand more about the world of human behavior than we do; and in turn, why attempts to predict, manage, or manipulate social and economic systems so often go awry.

It seems obvious, for example, that people respond to incentives; yet policy makers and managers alike frequently fail to anticipate how people will respond to the incentives they create. Social trends often seem to have been driven by certain influential people; yet marketers have been unable to identify these “influencers” in advance. And although successful products or companies always seem in retrospect to have succeeded because of their unique qualities, predicting the qualities of the next hit product or hot company is notoriously difficult even for experienced professionals.

Only by understanding how and when common sense fails, Watts argues, can we improve how we plan for the future, as well as understand the present — an argument that has important implications in politics, business, and marketing, as well as in science and everyday life.

You can get a sense of what Watts knows by looking at some examples from his recent publications, projects, and interviews.

Who Says What to Whom on Twitter — Watts and other researchers studied the microblogging service Twitter. They exploited a recently introduced feature — known as Twitter lists — to distinguish between elite users, such as celebrities, bloggers, and representatives of media outlets, and ordinary users. Based on this classification, they found a striking concentration of attention on Twitter. Roughly 50 percent of tweets consumed were generated by just 20,000 elite users.

Friend Sense — How well do you really know your friends? Guess their views on life, politics and relationships. Answer questions about yourself and find out who knows you best!

3 Rules for Viral Success — Or, why your social media campaign is not the new Old Spice Guy. The first rule is: You can’t make viral happen. The second rule is: Get the recipe right. And the third rule is: Try lots of stuff.

Finally, in the YouTube video below, Yahoo! NewsBytes asked Watts to discuss the six degrees of separation and the science of paying celebrities big bucks to tweet.

Yes, this is an opening keynote that you won’t want to miss. In fact, you’ll want to arrive at SES New York 2011 on Tuesday, March 22, well before 9:30 a.m. so you can get a seat in the front row.

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