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#OccupyWallStreet Growing at Sub-Viral Pace on Facebook

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, November 7 2011

Jim Pugh, CTO of Rebuild the Dream (and before that director of analytics and development with Organizing for America), recently shared with techPresident some slides from a New Organizing Institute training that he's done, that help illustrate the difference between viral and sub-viral growth. We all throw around the term "viral" with little distinction, and it's helpful to put some definition on it--especially as we see many references to the Occupy Wall Street movement's viral growth, or similar earlier talk about the Tea Party.

Virality, says Pugh, is all about how many new people each user recruits to a cause. (Or, how many new views result from a person sharing a video, or the number of new clicks when someone shares a link.) If the average number of new users each person recruits is greater than one, a campaign is going viral, and its growth curve may look something like this:

If, on the other hand, each user is recruiting less than one new person, on average, a campaign's growth curve will look something like this:

Pugh notes that while in theory, a campaign can grow virally for a long time (until every person in the world joins), in practice all campaigns go from viral to sub-viral growth and eventually reach saturation. That curve looks like this:

Campaigns, Pugh adds, can take steps to improve their virality ratio, or in effect bend the curve, by improving their rate of return on each step in the process: you can optimize your invitation email to get a higher open and click through rate; you can make your action page more compelling; and you can make the sharing process by which people invite newcomers also more effective. Any improvement in each of these steps can shift a sub-viral campaign upward towards greater virality.

This framework offers some insights that can be applied to the current life of the Occupy Wall Street movement as it is manifesting itself by Facebook "likes" to the more than 700 groups there that we've been tracking for the last month with the help of Shane Castlen. As this chart of total daily likes shows, the Occupy movement is still growing on Facebook by about 25,000 new likes each day, but its overall daily growth seems to be slowing to a little more than one percent a day.

In effect, after a brief period of organic, viral growth on Facebook, the Occupy movement is now sub-viral. (The small jump around October 25th is from Castlen's discovery of 160 new Facebook groups to track, but these did not all appear overnight, and once they are included you can see that the overall trend line doesn't change.) If you see references to OWS being a "massive movement," they are a bit overstated (as were the references to the Tea Party). At 2.25 million "likes" on Facebook, it's big by American political terms--United We Stand America, Ross Perot's baby, had more than two million dues-paying members--but it's not yet massive, at least insofar as online affiliation reflects offline engagement.

This could change, if some outside stimuli cause more people to choose to identify with the movement on Facebook, or if the movement develops other ways of spreading its message like mass email lists or online community hubs. As Pugh noted in a follow-up conversation with me, "a lot of the spread [of OWS] is probably also happening on other platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Meetup, etc, and there are synergistic interactions happening between them--more exposure on Facebook means more people inspired to put videos on YouTube, which in turns generates more Facebook likes, and so on." In that respect, he notes, "the growth of likes on Facebook may be more a reflection of the virality level of OWS than the sole driver of it."

But with that said, we shouldn't discount how the world inside Facebook works to foster or stifle a group's growth. For example, OWS could start growing at a more viral rate if the administrators or members of individual Occupy Facebook groups adopt tactics to push further growth on their Facebook pages. In the past we've seen such groups proliferate on Facebook--remember the "Million Strong For..." groups whose admins constantly pressed their members to hit various milestones on their way to a million? I haven't seen any sign that Occupy groups on Facebook are making membership expansion this explicit a priority, however.

And lastly, don't forget Facebook's own role in tweaking its sharing algorithms. In the past, before Facebook started diddling with these algorithms, causes spread quite rapidly on the site (indeed, the first protests against the implementation of the "newsfeed" feature itself were spread quite rapidly by people's newsfeeds, as every time someone joined the protest group, all of their friends got a notice of such in their own newsfeed. The wizards behind the curtains at Facebook have since neutered that feature.

Since the Occupy groups are currently dependent on Facebook to some degree, Facebook's hidden sharing (or not sharing) algorithms may be playing a large role in determining how far the movement spreads. Which, ironically enough, means that one of the 1 percent (Mark Zuckerberg) holds a surprising amount of power over how the movement of the 99 percent may grow.

But you already knew that.