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Stretched Exponential Relaxation

I always wanted to write a headline like that.

Stretched Exponential Relaxation is similar to the gradual decay of radioactive material – and as used in this Economist piece – is a perfect way of looking at how stories age.  Like radioactive material, they have a half life.  But the stretched bit gets at how much of a role other factors have.

Years ago, we described this as a “story getting legs” – as it jumped the average news cycle with non mainstream media continuing and expanding it.  Today we have the likes of TechMeme and Digg – who not only extend the story’s half-life, they mash-it, expand it and grow its popularity.  Other factors like the time of day a story is posted and the category into which it was posted suddenly become important.

This is where the difference between novelty and popularity – and I would argue, prominence – becomes apparent.  You have a novel story – like the one in The Economist – it doesn’t appear popular, or prominent, until the community takes hold of it and mashes-it-up in their own environment.  It’s judged against a “river of news”, ranked, tagged and categorized.

This has big ramifications for communicators. 

  • Are we delivering news and igniting conversations at a time of day optimized for the community.  I’m wondering, for instance, if this doesn’t cause everyone to rethink the early morning announcement?
  • The social nature of the content and platform onto which information is released suddenly matters.
  • The “cascade of conversation” is more important than the point of conversation.  To break out of an ever shrinking half-life the volume of conversations matters.  As does reader votes.

Bottom-line – the emphasis on storytelling needs to be paired with an emphasis on the mechanics of distribution.

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