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The Company You Keep: "Connected" Part Two

Naniette Coleman's picture

Last week I provided a brief overview of "Connected", the popular book by Harvard Professor Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD and University of California, San Diego Professor James Fowler. Christakis and Fowler's master-work provides an overview of the historical discussions behind social networks, pre and post Facebook, and ample examples of how social networks impact our day-to-day lives in ways we realize and are blissfully unaware of. My blog this week will attempt to translate some of their more notable findings for reform minded audiences in the developing world. 


1.       Remember, individuals occupy “particular spots in the naturally occurring and continuously evolving social networks that surround us”. 


Translation: Different individuals are skilled in different things and are useful for different purposes based on their place in the network. Dispersing your message to “connectors” (Malcolm Gladwell’s term) will probably get your message to the right people with greater precision than a mass message or even a well crafted sample size of the larger group will. 


2.        “Humans deliberately make and remake their social networks all the time.  The primary example is homophily, the conscious or unconscious tendency to associate with people who resemble us (the word literally means “love of being alike”).”


Translation: Guard against creating a homogenous group with singular interests, singular friends and singular possibilities. As I discussed in Segregated, Ghettoized, Polarized and Insular? Who Me? the internet has led to polarization or gatherings of individuals with highly specialized interests. As you are organizing and planning, guard against what I like to call "death by homogeneity" or "myopathy" (is that a word?). 


3.       Be aware of what Harvard sociologist Peter Marsden calls your core discussion network as well as the larger peripheral network and don't confuse them.


Translation: Not everyone needs to know everything. Targeting your message will probably go a long way towards achieving your ends and preventing the more negative aspects of what our authors call contagion, especially with regard to controversial information. What is the old adage, bad news travels fast?


4.       “Being more central to a network makes you more susceptible to whatever is flowing within the network.”


Translation: Perhaps it is unfair to expect impartiality from those at the center of the fray. Another way of saying this is perhaps organizers should expect a bit of back forth (flip flopping is the popular term) from members of the social network who are more central. 


5.       “We do not influence nor are we influenced by people at four degrees and beyond. Christakis and Fowler call this the network instability explanation”. Further, they suggest that this is evolution pure and simple. Four degrees stems from our “hominid past”.  Or more simply put, back in the day “there was no one who was four degrees removed from us.” They call this the evolutionary-purpose explanation. 


Translation: There are limits to your reach and that of your organization (due to evolution). Do not try and overturn what is biologically impossible. 


6.       Despite the limitations our influence, we should not underestimate our reach, “each of us can reach about halfway to everyone else on the planet.”


Translation: Do not underestimate your reach and that of your organization. Understand how humans are still beholden to our humble hunter, gatherer beginnings and work within that frame to change the world. 


7.       “Everything we think, feel, or say can spread far beyond the people we know.” 


Translation: Contagion can be applied to things besides disease and bad music. We are all more powerful than we realize. Be aware of the influence you wield and that of your core team, connectors and your network at large and make sure that the messages flowing within your organization help and not hurt your causes. 


8.       “Social networks tend to magnify whatever they are seeded with.”


Translation: Good or bad, the message at the center of the network will take on a life of its own. Reformists need to be aware of what they are consciously and unconsciously feeding the beast and take appropriate steps to starve negative messages or those that promulgate them. 


9.       Social networks can dramatically reinforce two different kinds of inequality in our society: situational inequality (socioeconomic) and positional inequality (some are better off in terms of where they are located in the network). 


Translation: This point harkens back to point one. It is human nature to tend towards homogeneity. Along the way sacrifices may be necessary and sometimes allegiances have to be broken for the sake of the short-term gain but it is important that we strive to keep everyone at the table involved. Not just the technologically savvy, the rich, my friends or people who happen to agree with me. Everybody. 


10.   “Social networks require tending, by individuals, by groups and by institutions.” 


Translation:  If the aforementioned nine points did not bring this home, let me be explicit. A reformist, organizer, organization or institution cannot just create a network and walk away. In order for it to operate efficiently and work to the benefit of its creators it must be seeded, cultivated, tended and (to complete the metaphor) harvested. 


Photo courtesy of Flickr user enriqueburgosgarcia

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