John Lynch

Digital Marketing Book Review - BURST, The hidden pattern behind everything we do

Like all good reads this book was recommended by someone whose opinion I respect in this field and again he didn't disappoint. This will be the purpose of this new section of book reviews as there are so many good marketing/business books out there it's a gamble to know which ones do I spend time reading? Which one are most relevant and which ones should gather dust?

Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We DoBURST (2012), is Albert-László Barabási follows up to the much praised Linked . I had not previously read, "Linked" but its next, so can’t comment. So for me this was a stand-alone exercise.

The over all premise of this book is that the closer we look at the apparent randomness of our actions the more obvious it becomes that peoples actions follow simple, reproducible patterns governed by wide reaching laws. Forget dice rolling or boxes of chocolate as metaphors for life. Think of yourself, as a dreaming robot on autopilot and you will be much closer to the truth he claims. He goes on to suggest that this predictability gives us an ability to predict the future and the only limitations is the quantity and quality of the data and our computer processing power.

This is a BIG claim but he to back it up he brings in some big guns including Einstein and his laws of atomic motion, Lewis Richardson the father of weather forecasting and Simeon Dennis the father of statistics. This gets a little deep for me especially when he purports that once you accept that human behaviour is random, it suddenly becomes predictable. Somewhat of a paradox but no matter what human behaviours they examined the same pattern greeted them, one which he called ‘Bursty”, hence the name of the book. This is in essence long periods of rest followed by short periods of intense activity. Bursts he adds are everywhere in nature, from the edits on Wikipedia, to the trades made by brokers, to the sleeping habits of humans and animals, to the tiny moves a juggler makes to keep the sticks in the air.

From a marketing perspective this is where it got very interesting. He documents real research that has succeeded in predicting the location of a selected group of business students within a 90% accuracy rate, and another study of media lab students that predicted within a 96% accuracy rate. That means that for only 6.7 hours per week they don’t know what you are doing.  A bit scary?

This entropy score as he calls it is is the measure of the degree of disorder characterising a system. For some users with lower entropy the predictability of their actions comes closer to 100% accurate. Virtually nobody had less than 80%. Everyone is a prisoner of habit.  Making there whereabouts easier to predict. From a marketing point of view is entropy factored in against particular target audience’s?  If it isn’t shouldn’t it be as low entropy makes you harder to impact by the correct message at the correct time.

He concludes with another big statement, in that we in the stone age of this new science to unravel human dynamics and as it matures its impact may one day prove to be on a par with the physics of the early twentieth century or the unfolding revolution in genetics. Good news for marketers but not so good if you fear for your privacy, as it’s the aforementioned quality and quantity of the data that is needed to predict the future. The data he claims is out there but held by both governments and many different public and private companies and that all that’s holding it back is the obsession with privacy.

His views on privacy are very interesting and I would say controversial. He claims that the more a community is interdependent the less we can afford the luxury of privacy. He concludes this argument by stating research which shows that the key to happiness and well being is in the number and quality of your friends so have we traded happiness for privacy?  Interesting thought?

One part that is both interesting and confusing is his use of obscure historical events in Hungry in the 16th Century to back up his argument. This is interesting from a historical point and learning about the actions of Gyorgy Dozsa Szekely  a 16th century warrior but failed I believe to knit into the overall academic argument.

Overall a very good read. Great food for though for digital marketers, Out door specialists, Mobile phone data analysis’s and general stats boffs.


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Posted by Kevin M. Patrick , 19 August 2012

If it was as good as Linked I'll be making that purchase first thing tomorrow. Thanks for the review. Always great to connect with a fellow Digital Marketing enthusiast. KP


John Lynch Digital Ministry John Lynch
Company: Digital Ministry
Position: Editor
Involved in the digital media and Marketing industry for many years, through working at the Economist Group (uk), Universal McCanns, Zivo, emitch, OneDigital, IBM (client side), & now TBWA NY Now in Bath, UK working as a consultant

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