Social Judgement: The Auchterlonie Effect

The playground was a swarm. To my left there are legions of boys running to and fro; to my right whole classes seem to be moving steadily across the playground. In front of me, our shared destination – the canteen – sits alone like a giant weatherboard pimple rising up out of the summer asphalt.

photo But there is a commotion on the grass on the far side of the building. There is a ring of boys bubbling across the lawn and spilling into the playground. Every now and then, one boy shoots off like a meteor to the far side of the playground. Minutes later, the gravity draws him back into orbit. But it is not one boy who returns – but three or four at a time.

Eventually I relent and go to see what is happening. By now the crowd is two or three deep and I struggle to see who is caught at the centre of the crowd. It is Grant Auchterlonie and he is in my class. After some time and after many of the other boys have left I finally get to see what the fuss is about. And there it is … on his arm. It is the first digital watch that I have ever seen – complete with stopwatch to 1/100th of a second.

I can remember it like it was yesterday. The excitement and buzz in the playground is palpable. But it is not just this story that has stuck with me. There were many other stories created that day.

SocialNetwork1 As I discussed yesterday, influence is not just about the number of people that you have in your social network. There is a much more complex dynamic in effect where your personal store of social capital is used and accrued based on your interactions with those in your network. For example, in this diagram, it is easy for Katie to reach a large number of people. She is at the centre of the network with 1st degree connections to most people. When she chooses to push out into this network, she uses up a unit of accrued social capital. But to reach beyond the 1st degree network to Stan, Katie must go “through” either Ian or Gav. That means that she must use up two units of social capital. Interestingly, Ian and Gav must also use up one unit of social capital in this process as well. So reaching to the 2nd degree network requires not TWO but THREE units of social capital. As you can see, with every ADDITIONAL degree that you move through your network, an exponential amount of social capital is consumed.

BUT one of the most fascinating aspects of this is that the process can also be easily reversed. That is, social capital is ACCRUED when this process is reversed, driven by the power of a personal story. How? This is the Auchterlonie effect in action.

The Auchterlonie Effect

When a remarkable event takes place we play multiple roles. We are observers – watching from a distance. We are participants interacting with the other players. We may be the subject of the event itself (such as the ‘birthday girl/boy’). But as the temporal moment of the event passes, we become STORYTELLERS – crystallising the events in a narrative that involves us, encompasses the range of other participants and provides emotional drive to bring others into the loop of this story. The Auchterlonie Effect is the impetus that drives the ongoing story of YOUR personal engagement with the initial event – and it is, essentially, being able to bask in the reflected credibility of another.

auchterlonieEffect In the playground, I accrued an enormous amount of social capital because I knew the “guy who had the digital watch”. And the people who knew me were able to proudly say that they “knew the guy who knew the guy who had the digital watch”.

How does this work outside the playground?

Say, Katie gets a new iPhone. It is the first in the country. No one has seen one before. And when she comes to coffee morning on Friday, she brings her new treasure along. A crowd gathers. As the person sitting next to her, I am in close proximity to this new device and am able to try it out. I am interested. And while Sue casts her envious eye over the prize, I move to a table nearby where my friend, Stan, is sitting. I relate the story of the iPhone. I explain how my 1st degree friend has a highly desired iPhone and talk to him about the things that I discovered while using it a few minutes ago. I suggest that, if he is interested, that I could get him a closer look at the said, iPhone. Meanwhile, Stan’s young friend, Jules, arrives for his morning ritual of coffee and muesli and listens into my story. Picking up on the vibe and the opportunity, Jules asks to tag along. So together, the three of us return to get a closer glimpse of the iPhone.

In this example, the flow of social capital is reversed. By creating, driving and owning this story, I accrue a unit of social capital from Stan. I also accrue a unit of social capital from Jules, as does Stan. And when I bring this story back to its source (Katie), she accrues THREE units of social capital – that is, she benefits from the network effect of my story. Importantly, the most important element in this whole process is NOT the object – the iPhone – but the STORY. And at the heart of this is a series of SOCIAL JUDGEMENTS that have unlocked value for each and every participant.

Now, multiply this out across the rest of the network and you can see that the power of the story can easily build very quickly. This is what we would commonly call “viral” – as in the case of a “viral video”.

The power of the story

In The Future of Your Brand is Play, I discussed how you can begin to build “infatuations” into your marketing. It is these infatuations which create the conditions for the Auchterlonie Effect. But by understanding this effect, you can help facilitate social judgement – for at every point of connection across the network, each person must make a decision about whether to bring another person into the gravitational pull of the story. When Stan introduced Jules into the story above, he had evaluated the situation and realised that he could accrue a unit of social capital based on his proximity to the story.

The strength of weak ties 

Before something DOES “go viral” it needs to spread beyond the echo chamber of 1st degree connections. Without this vital step, a story will just circulate upon itself until it collapses under the collective weight of retelling.

SocialNetwork2 But, you see, social judgement is incredibly tenuous. Often it has only one strand
, as shown here. If the one link breaks, then the story will not spread into adjacent social networks. It is why, as Valdis Krebs suggests, influence needs many connected people to spread – not just the highly connected.

This is precisely why it is difficult to predict when a video or a meme will “go viral”. It can only succeed when the MARGINAL cost of trusting is LESS than the risk of losing a person’s trust – where social capital continues to accumulate towards the centre of the experience.

But understanding the Auchterlonie Effect and the way in which social capital accrues is essential in achieving your marketing outcomes in a social context. By allowing social judgement to be exercised around your brand’s story, you are producing social capital as a by-product. And this can only be a good thing for brands (if they get it right).

Oh, and in case you are wondering – unfortunately, Grant’s claim to fame was fleeting. But even though I later purchased my own digital watch, I still recall the day when his watch made me famous too.

13 thoughts on “Social Judgement: The Auchterlonie Effect

  1. I wish your friend had an easier name to pronounce for my heathen tongue (and an easier name to type for my uncoordinated fingers).
    The Auchterlonie Effect is a great way to describe the power of the story and the benefit of being remark-able (to borrow the term from Seth Godin). As long as the reason for the tale is honest, and not based in gimmickry, this is the best way to develop and expand communities.
    Do you think the social capital exchange rate is a constant over time, or does it fluctuate based on classic supply/demand principles?
    Thanks for energizing my brain first thing this morning.

  2. Now this for me is post of the week, if not the month. A brilliant description of how buzz is generated, changing the seemingly random and uncontrollable spread of viral information into an easily understood pattern.

  3. Gavin,
    Two things. First, would you mind if I referenced the “break the chain” diagram in a follow up post I’m writing to my Mardi Gras twitter experiment because i think you have graphically and verbally touched on a phenomenon I clearly saw in the results of this experiment.
    Second, great post and a very, very interesting theory. But I’m wondering, when you state that it isn’t the object but the story — I’m not sure I agree. In your iPhone example, it wasn’t the story that made your two partners venture back to the table it was the desire to see an iPhone. Now, if the only exposure they had to an iPhone was your story — that is a different story (pun intended). But if they were exposed to the iPhone via advertising and that created desire to see/experience the phone, then your story was merely a conduit to fulfill a desire. An opportunistic activator versus the conveyor of social media power. Thus, does it really involve the movement of social capital? Assuming you define social capital as the ability to influence and connect others. Would they look to you for other technology oriented information or see you as an influencer in technology choices? Or were you just the guy who had a buddy with an iPhone.
    I think you’re on to something with this, just wanting to understand it more and maybe help push your thinking through it.
    LMK on reuse of the linkage charts for my Ad Age post.. good stuff…good stuff.

  4. Thanks for asking, Tom – everything here is Commercial Commons (see sidebar).
    What I am trying to uncover here is the fundamental human impact of all this. And I think you hit the nail on the head – it is the desire to see/experience (in this instance, an iPhone). However, (IMO) it is not the iPhone per se that is of value to each person – it is the potential impact that the “story of my experience of the iPhone” can have on our sense of self. It’s like basking in reflected glory. It is the opportunity to write ourselves INTO a meta story that, in this instance, revolves around a particular product.
    The movement of social capital occurs where access to the experience is available only through a shared connection. I guess it has been this way for thousands of years – there are always brokers who can connect innovators with early adopters. Here I am thinking celebrities and their managers – the managers certainly exercise social (and commercial) judgement when determining who their charges meet or come in contact with.
    There’s more to come along these lines 😉
    Thanks for the prod!

  5. Hi Gavin
    I’m not really convinced of the logic, though it was an interesting and enjoyable read.
    In the first diagram, for Kate to reach Ian costs one unit of social capital. To reach Stan costs two. Why would that be? Kate is still reaching only Ian, she’s expending no more effort or cost to take it further. If you think of it as a game of Chinese Whisper, Kate didn’t need to shout to get any further, it was the same whisper.
    I suspect that communication can cost, accrue or be neutral and sometimes that factor is not even known at the time (was that link cool? excellent… one point to me. did everyone think it sucked? damn, loss of face).
    Mainly, I doubt that we’re banking all this up in a Commonwealth Bank passbook. I suspect that social capital probably bobs around like a small wooden boat in a very choppy sea.
    The problem with brands trying to manipulate it is that it’s very much not something they can control. As you said, it’s very difficult to predict when something will go viral. It’s almost random. And if and when it does it could be a good thing for a brand (Skittles) or a very bad thing for a brand (Skittles, one week later).
    I’m not sure that “this can only be a good thing for brands” at all.
    It’s natural that brands are going to want to use social media, and it’s a delicate line they walk. In some spaces they are less than welcome, in others they are tolerated and in others they fit well. It’ll always pay to be ultra respectful of the space you are in and to show up at the door with a nice bottle of wine, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be the life of the party or even that the party won’t turn ugly on you.
    Really nice model. I’m not sure I buy it, but it got me thinking.
    =) best wishes

  6. Excellent questions/critique, thanks Marc! I will need to give this some more thought and respond to this in a coherent way. I think I have some answers, but need to think through the details 😉

  7. This is an interesting and thought-provoking post. Are you attempting to use game theory here? The Auchterlonie effect is about getting more from the association than you put in? Is my association with X going to increase my credibility with Y or is there a risk that my association with X will not return my investment (however small) that I could have made in Z.

  8. Hey Gavin,
    What if we consider some of Danah Boyd’s work.
    I don’t have any sources available to cite.
    But this idea that what we share defines us. We are either building or tearing down perceptions. But always in the hope of accomplishing a perhaps less than conscious goal.
    What if Social Cost is how you see it at the end of your article – ie., always in a positive manner. I can think of only one example where I would use social capital in a direct cost scenario as you first outline – for a favor.
    “Hi Gavin, will you please click this link and retweet it for me?”
    And while this is using social capital, it is perhaps .1% of the social activity I participate in online.
    The rest of the time, I’m choosing what to share by some rather complicated but non-conscious rules. What is of value to my different networks or circles of influence and what does it say about me? What does it tear down or build up regarding perception of me by others?
    Very awesome article!

  9. I think the online example, eg Twitter, is a convenient and direct example. Blogs and link sharing is another. Similarly, LinkedIn can create these social economies in quite obvious ways.
    But increasingly, these online behaviours are driving offline behaviours. The online world is holding us accountable for our “real world” actions – look at CSR, sustainability etc. Increasingly I think we are making conscious decisions that are driven by the fact that we cannot hide. Perhaps it is a form of uber-peer-pressure. Or maybe it is simply the cost of entry into a new way of living in a connected world.

  10. I recently used part of my rather personal story to end a video shown in driver’s ed classes. The first 6 minutes or so showed a variety of driving information and within that some statistics that are largely ignored. The video was made by a company called Advanced Driver Training ( they provide hands on learning on an abandoned airport runway. The goal is to save teenage lives, which we know are lost in the largest numbers because of lack of driver skill. I have known, but been unable to clearly enough articulate that the parent and understandably, the teen population, do not get it. It needs to become a story that is spread and becomes yes, part of the social judgment weave. Until then teens will keep dying in epidemic numbers.
    Having advocated for stronger, more provocative messages I could not quite pinch the words to explain why, even though I know it is right. All I could say, maybe until now, reading about The Auchterlonie Effect, was that emotions had to be involved. There is no story without emotion, there is no learning beyond rote without the shared identification with the object, the story or the storyteller. I think they have an unused domain “” which, in and of itself, is a story right there.

  11. What a captivating way to share the power of this effect with you readers. Am delighted to have discovered you, and to tweet this post and refer to it on FB. Like Steve Denning, Peter Guber, me and many others, you believe in the power of the purposeful narrative that pulls others into a story because they become eager to play a role in it, and in so doing transform and carry the story out in multiple directions, often a delight to the one who started it. As we are already seeing in politics, business and causes, increasingly, for good and for bad, the people who successfully lead will be those who pull us together towards an alluring option.

  12. Interesting analysis. Though I would argue that the ‘power of the story’ to expand social ties/interest is true provided, that multiple such stories/content is available for it to be called an ‘effect’. If Katie only had an iPhone story and no other, its likely that her connections will migrate elsewhere. So its the cadence of stories, not ‘a’ story, that matters. Also there is a ‘cognitive bias here’, ie Stan heard the story got interested, Jules happened to be there, but we dont know if Jule was interested in the Story or in Stan’s interest of the story or desiring a stronger relationship with Stan, hence showing interest. Mapping these relationships is a non-linear equation, certainly an interesting topic though.

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