Given our constant saturation of information from a myriad of sources, it could be helpful to identify the best places to put new information in order to get the most people to find out about it. In our society, that appears to be an easy answer: the Internet. However, what happens in more human-based and less computerized societies?

A new study of 43 rural Indian villages establishes that the location, within their social network, of the first person to learn information can predict how far information spreads and how quickly others will react to it. Researchers tracked the spread of information about microfinancing — a loan strategy that greatly helps those living in impoverished countries. Researchers measured the ways in which people found out about microfinancing as well as how many opted to use the strategy by the end of the four-year study.

An exploration of human social networks is important because the existence of webs of media coverage and online social networks simply do not exist in some countries. Around 25 percent of India's population lives below the poverty line, according to Freedom from Hunger. This mean around 300 million people live without access to information in newspapers, television ads, and online, let alone life's basic necessities like food and shelter. In the case of impoverished countries like India, human networks tend to be the main source of information as well as ways to get help should they need it.

The study's results suggest that informational diffusion is at play. People who used the microfinance services were seven times as likely to pass on information compared to those who did not use them. Similarly, people's use of the service was not affected by their neighbor's use of it, but rather, their neighborhood leaders' use. The microfinance institution Bharatha Swamukti Samsthe (BSS) met with village leaders six months prior to offering everyone in the 43 villages their microfinancing service. They found that more villagers signed up once their leader signed up, and they were likely to sign up if the information was given by a village leader, instead of a BSS representative.

Researchers linked the participation of village leaders in microfinancing to the participation of their respective villages. This was highly affected by the leader's ability to communicate with other villagers and the promise that the things they said would spread to others by word-of-mouth or simply by interaction with a leader. These leaders included teachers, shopkeepers, and savings group leaders. Researchers found that those in positions of power, who took on the microfinancing service, were more likely to inspire others to do the same.

Their status, along with their breadth of information about the product, helped to endorse the product to other villagers. The value of endorsement is quite important. This study indicates that in human social networks, others will rely on leaders for information. Leaders tend to be the most educated, or have access to the most information. As a result, the spread of information by them, given their credibility, can become a valuable process.

Perhaps, government officials and policymakers, as well as those aiming to help those in poverty, like the Freedom From Hunger initiative, can use this networking trend when spreading information about new resources. Messages can achieve the maximum reach when given to the right parts of human social networks.

Source: Banerjee A, Chadrasekhar AG, Duflo E, Jackson MO. The Diffusion of Microfinance. Science. 2013.

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