The Butterfly Effect in the Digital Age

Thinkstock
Thinkstock
Thinkstock

The butterfly effect. Yes, it’s a movie starring Ashton Kutcher but what I’m really talking about is how a single action, no matter how small, can have larger, more drastic (even detrimental) effects on a bigger event. One commonly used example: a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, dramatically altering the course of a tornado in Texas.

Today, a number of small events have generated larger-than-expected outcomes, primarily because of the Internet. The Internet is the ultimate catalyst for this phenomenon, which we’ve now seen play out in the media over and over again. Events that may have flown under the radar in the past are now center stage.

Why has this changed? Platforms like blogs and social media give people a stage to speak their voice and bring national attention to small, localized occurrences. What was once a single, forgettable event can now blow up in your face or become an instant hit overnight. Take these, for instance:

Alaska Airlines’ ‘No Note to Fly’ Fiasco

Alaska Airlines recently booted a woman off a plane traveling from Hawaii to California because she had cancer and appeared ill, but didn’t have a note from her doctor allowing her to fly. Seriously? In their defense, they were following a (probably flawed) protocol and probably didn’t realize how this small event would blow up and get national attention. But it did, and the brand paid the price for what happened on one of its many flights on a global scale. Alaska Airlines was quick to issue an apology and offer a full refund, but the damage was done. The woman missed a chemotherapy appointment and the airline’s reputation was tarnished.

In this case, the butterfly effect triggered a negative outcome, but that doesn’t always have to be the case.

The Blue Dress Incident, and it’s not Lewinsky’s

You may remember the hullabaloo last month over the questionable color of a dress. After the image hit Tumblr, the debate over the dress’ real color exploded all over the Internet. It was covered by numerous leading news sites, and even celebrities joined the online debate. Is it black and blue, or white and gold? Seriously, who cares? Apparently, everyone and their mothers.

This is a perfect example of how one small thing – in this case, an oversaturated photograph of a striped dress – can get national attention. Not your usual example of the butterfly effect, but nonetheless an example of a small event exploding into absurd proportions and becoming a bigger issue than expected.

Good or bad – we see the butterfly effect phenomenon play out in the media on a daily basis. One thing is certain though, hope that your brand doesn’t find itself in a situation like that of Alaska Airlines.