Why some things go viral, and some don't

Surgeon Christoph Lischer operates on a horses's fractured leg as a colleague points to an image of the leg on a monitor.

There are things out there -- totally innovative things like the iPhone or the Prius -- that seem to catch on really quickly. There are others -- Internet radio, for instance -- that don't, even though they're useful, or even essential. They can take decades to become the norm.

In the medical profession that can mean the difference between life and death. Atul Gawande is a surgeon and a staff writer at the New Yorker, where his latest piece is titled "Slow Ideas."

Gawande contrasted the study of anasthesia, which he calls a "fast idea" -- "it spread worldwide within weeks of its discovery in the 19th century" -- to the study of antiseptics, which he said took more than a generation for surgeons to accept the idea of washing their hands.

"We want these frictionless solutions to all the major difficulties of the world -- whether it's hunger, health care, poverty," Gawande says. "But the reality is that when you're changing norms, technologies and incentive programs are just not enough."

He uses the dangers surrounding childbirth in India as an example. A lot of the problems that cause death to both mother and child can be prevented -- and many without fancy technological gadgets. For example, the method of skin-to-skin contact between a mother and her baby can cut mortality rates of premature babies by one-third, proving much more effective than some kind of man-made electronic solution.

"And we think, 'Well how do we get people to do that?' We think ad campaigns, incentives -- it hasn't worked," he says. "But when you go face-to-face, understand what they're doing, why they don't do it -- they change."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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