Tag Archives: hierarchy

Influence and Butterflies

Seems like “influence” is a key theme in social media, these days. An example among several others:

Influenceur, autorité, passeur de culture ou l’un de ces singes exubérants | Mario tout de go.

In that post, Mario Asselin brings together a number of notions which are at the centre of current discussions about social media. The core notion seems to be that “influence” replaces “authority” as a quality or skill some people have, more than others. Some people are “influencers” and, as such, they have a specific power over others. Such a notion seems to be widely held in social media and numerous services exist which are based on the notion that “influence” can be measured.
I don’t disagree. There’s something important, online, which can be called “influence” and which can be measured. To a large extent, it’s related to a large number of other concepts such as fame and readership, popularity and network centrality. There are significant differences between all of those concepts but they’re still related. They still depict “social power” which isn’t coercive but is the basis of an obvious stratification.
In some contexts, this is what people mean by “social capital.” I originally thought people meant something closer to Bourdieu but a fellow social scientist made me realise that people are probably using Putnam’s concept instead. I recently learnt that George W. Bush himself used “political capital” in a sense which is fairly similar to what most people seem to mean by “social capital.” Even in that context, “capital” is more specific than “influence.” But the core notion is the same.
To put it bluntly:
Some people are more “important” than others.
Social marketers are especially interested in such a notion. Marketing as a whole is about influence. Social marketing, because it allows for social groups to be relatively amorphous, opposes influence to authority. But influence maintains a connection with “top-down” approaches to marketing.
My own point would be that there’s another kind of influence which is difficult to pinpoint but which is highly significant in social networks: the social butterfly effect.
Yep, I’m still at it after more than three years. It’s even more relevant now than it was then. And I’m now able to describe it more clearly and define it more precisely.
The social butterfly effect is a social network analogue to the Edward Lorenz’s well-known “butterfly effect. ” As any analogy, this connection is partial but telling. Like Lorenz’s phrase, “social butterfly effect” is more meaningful than precise. One thing which makes the phrase more important for me is the connection with the notion of a “social butterfly,” which is both a characteristic I have been said to have and a concept I deem important in social science.
I define social butterflies as people who connect to diverse network clusters. Community enthusiast Christine Prefontaine defined social butterflies within (clustered) networks, but I think it’s useful to separate out network clusters. A social butterfly’s network is rather sparse as, on the whole, a small number of people in it have direct connections with one another. But given the topography of most social groups, there likely are clusters within that network. The social butterfly connects these clusters. When the social butterfly is the only node which can connect these clusters directly, her/his “influence” can be as strong as that of a central node in one of these clusters since s/he may be able to bring some new element from one cluster to another.
I like the notion of “repercussion” because it has an auditory sense and it resonates with all sorts of notions I think important without being too buzzwordy. For instance, as expressions like “ripple effect” and “domino effect” are frequently used, they sound like clichés. Obviously, so does “butterfly effect” but I like puns too much to abandon it. From a social perspective, the behaviour of a social butterfly has important “repercussions” in diverse social groups.
Since I define myself as a social butterfly, this all sounds self-serving. And I do pride myself in being a “connector.” Not only in generational terms (I dislike some generational metaphors). But in social terms. I’m rarely, if ever, central to any group. But I’m also especially good at serving as a contact between people from different groups.
Yay, me! 🙂
My thinking about the social butterfly effect isn’t an attempt to put myself on some kind of pedestal. Social butterflies typically don’t have much “power” or “prestige.” Our status is fluid/precarious. I enjoy being a social butterfly but I don’t think we’re better or even more important than anybody else. But I do think that social marketers and other people concerned with “influence” should take us into account.
I say all of this as a social scientist. Some parts of my description are personalized but I’m thinking about a broad stance “from society’s perspective.” In diverse contexts, including this blog, I have been using “sociocentric” in at least three distinct senses: class-based ethnocentrism, a special form of “altrocentrism,” and this “society-centred perspective.” These meanings are distinct enough that they imply homonyms. Social network analysis is typically “egocentric” (“ego-centred”) in that each individual is the centre of her/his own network. This “egocentricity” is both a characteristic of social networks in opposition to other social groups and a methodological issue. It specifically doesn’t imply egotism but it does imply a move away from pre-established social categories. In this sense, social network analysis isn’t “society-centred” and it’s one reason I put so much emphasis on social networks.
In the context of discussions of influence, however, there is a “society-centredness” which needs to be taken into account. The type of “influence” social marketers and others are so interested in relies on defined “spaces.” In some ways, if “so-and-so is influential,” s/he has influence within a specific space, sphere, or context, the boundaries of which may be difficult to define. For marketers, this can bring about the notion of a “market,” including in its regional and demographic senses. This seems to be the main reason for the importance of clusters but it also sounds like a way to recuperate older marketing concepts which seem outdated online.
A related point is the “vertical” dimension of this notion of “influence.” Whether or not it can be measured accurately, it implies some sort of scale. Some people are at the top of the scale, they’re influencers. Those at the bottom are the masses, since we take for granted that pyramids are the main models for social structure. To those of us who favour egalitarianism, there’s something unpalatable about this.
And I would say that online contacts tend toward some form of egalitarianism. To go back to one of my favourite buzzphrases, the notion of attention relates to reciprocity:

It’s an attention economy: you need to pay attention to get attention.

This is one thing journalism tends to “forget.” Relationships between journalists and “people” are asymmetrical. Before writing this post, I read Brian Storm’s commencement speech for the Mizzou J-School. While it does contain some interesting tidbits about the future of journalism, it positions journalists (in this case, recent graduates from an allegedly prestigious school of journalism) away from the masses. To oversimplify, journalists are constructed as those who capture people’s attention by the quality of their work, not by any two-way relationship. Though they rarely discuss this, journalists, especially those in mainstream media, typically perceive themselves as influencers.

Attention often has a temporal dimension which relates to journalism’s obsession with time. Journalists work in time-sensitive contexts, news are timely, audiences spend time with journalistic contents, and journalists fight for this audience time as a scarce resource, especially in connection to radio and television. Much of this likely has to do with the fact that journalism is intimately tied to advertising.

As I write this post, I hear on a radio talk show a short discussion about media coverage of Africa. The topic wakes up the africanist in me. The time devoted to Africa in almost any media outside of Africa is not only very limited but spent on very specific issues having to do with Africa. In mainstream media, Africa only “matters” when major problems occur. Even though most parts of Africa are peaceful and there many fabulously interesting things occuring throughout the continent, Africa is the “forgotten” continent.

A connection I perceive is that, regardless of any other factor, Africans are taken to not be “influential.” What makes this notion especially strange to an africanist is that influence tends to be a very important matter throughout the continent. Most Africans I know or have heard about have displayed a very nuanced and acute sense of “influence” to the extent that “power” often seems less relevant when working in Africa than different elements of influence. I know full well that, to outsiders to African studies, these claims may sound far-fetched. But there’s a lot to be said about the importance of social networks in Africa and this could help refine a number of notions that I have tagged in this post.


Banality of Heroism

Wow! I’m speechless!

Open Source » Blog Archive » The Banality of Evil, Part II

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Higher Education in a New Era

Thanks to a comment by Jay, a series of edifying articles in Washington Monthly about the current state of U.S. higher education, appearing in the September 2006 issue of that magazine.

I do tend to disagree with several dimensions of the approach taken by Washington Monthly, including the apparent enthusiasm for the “client-based approach to higher education” favoured by several institutions and bemoaned by its main actors. But I do appreciate the fact that such a conversation finally takes place. The blog post which prompted Jay’s comment was about Canadian universities but “don’t get me started” about the state of higher education in the United States.

According to its mission statement, Washington Monthly seeks to provide insight on politics and government in (the United States of) America. As such, it focuses on the potential ramifications of higher education for governmental (mostly U.S. federal) politics. Doing so, it seems to obey at least some of the Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions, especially with regards to section A on Purposes and Goals of Rankings. (PDF version of principles.)

One thing that these articles avoids is blaming students for most of the problems. In my experience, today’s higher education students usually display impressive potential but are often inadequately prepared for college and university life. The fault might be put on “The System,” the parents, the diverse schools, or the governments. It’s quite unlikely that today’s students are inherently flawed as compared to previous generations and I’m frequently impressed by students of any age, social background, or local origin.

An article from the January/February 2002 issue of Washington Monthly also provides some insight in the financial dimension of higher education in the United States. The situation might have changed in the last four years, though it sounds somewhat unlikely that it may have greatly improved.

This coverage might be too journalistic and U.S.-specific but these are, IMHO, important pieces of the full puzzle of higher education in an interconnected world. These articles should contribute to a larger conversation on education. That conversation may also involve issues discussed in Daniel Golden’s Price of Admission book (as explained on the Colbert Report). Radio Open Source has also been broadcasting (and podcasting) shows on university leadership, academia, and education requirements, among several relevant topics.

It would be important to connect these issues with the broader scene of higher education around the world. Even in the cosmopolitan world of academia, not enough people get the benefit of experiencing more than a single educational system and a very small proportion of people gets to experience more than two. It is common for anthropologists to talk about “taking a step back” and “looking at the forest for the trees.” Higher education is no place for mental near-sightedness.

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Friendship and Schools

The recent controversy over Facebook connects with an interesting issue. Here’s a comment from the Buzz Out Loud podcast.
Show Notes 307 – CNET Buzz Out Loud Lounge Forums

Bill sticks up for FacebookIf you look closer into the anti-News Feeds/Mini-Feed groups on
Facebook, 90 percent of the people that are protesting this “invasion of
privacy” are the people with hundreds of friends that they likely just
added to boost their “e-cred.” Most level-headed people that add only
their real-life friends myself included are finding the new additions
extremely useful. I love that I can go to Facebook on my cell phone and
find out everything that has happened since I last checked the site
without wandering aimlessly all over the place. Its a lot better than
wasting a 15-cent text message to be told that I was poked.

Maybe people need to learn the meaning of the word “friend” before they
complain about their friends being updated on what theyre doing.

Love the show, keep up the good work,


Well, my observation is that, in the U.S., and especially in schools, colleges, and universities (Facebook’s target market), the term “friend” is applied to almost anyone with whom one is on friendly terms. People in a hierarchical relationship (say, professor and student) typically don’t call each other friend even when their relationship is sound. “Friend” isn’t necessarily the opposite of “ennemy” or “competitor” and friends do compete in many situations. There’s a whole lot more to say about this and anthropologists have been surprisingly silent about the importance of friendship in U.S. society.

Another thing to think about is that a special notion of friendship is at the basis of what O’Reilly calls “Web 2.0” and was already present in (now defunct) SixDegrees.com as well as today’s MySpace.com and other Facebook.com.