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Best of 2013: US Military Scientists Solve the Fundamental Problem of Viral Marketing

In September, network theorists working for the US military worked out how to identify the small “seed” group of people who can spread a message across an entire network

Viral messages begin life by infecting a few individuals and then start to spread across a network. The most infectious end up contaminating more or less everybody.

Just how and why this happens is the subject of much study and debate. Network scientists know that key factors are the rate at which people become infected, the “connectedness” of the network and how the seed group of individuals, who first become infected, are linked to the rest.

It is this seed group that fascinates everybody from marketers wanting to sell Viagra to epidemiologists wanting to study the spread of HIV.

So a way of finding seed groups in a given social network would surely be a useful trick, not to mention a valuable one. Step forward Paulo Shakarian, Sean Eyre and Damon Paulo from the West Point Network Science Center at the US Military Academy in West Point.

These guys have found a way to identify a seed group that, when infected, can spread a message across an entire network. And they say it can be done quickly and easily, even on relatively large networks.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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