The spread of social phenomena such as behaviors, ideas or products is an ubiquitous but remarkably complex phenomenon. A successful avenue to study the spread of social phenomena relies on epidemic models by establishing analogies between the transmission of social phenomena and infectious diseases. Such models typically assume simple social interactions restricted to pairs of individuals; effects of the context are often neglected. Here we show that local synergistic effects associated with acquaintances of pairs of individuals can have striking consequences on the spread of social phenomena at large scales. The most interesting predictions are found for a scenario in which the contagion ability of a spreader decreases with the number of ignorant individuals surrounding the target ignorant. This mechanism mimics ubiquitous situations in which the willingness of individuals to adopt a new product depends not only on the intrinsic value of the product but also on whether his acquaintances will adopt this product or not. In these situations, we show that the typically smooth (second order) transitions towards large social contagion become explosive (first order). The proposed synergistic mechanisms therefore explain why ideas, rumours or products can suddenly and sometimes unexpectedly catch on.
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