Tag Archives: journalism

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.


Mental Imaging

To be honest, I found the following TEDtalk disturbing.

Rick Smolan tells the story of a girl | Video on TED.com

In that video from one of those selective conferences held through Technology, Entertainment, Design, Smolan describes his role in the adoption, by some of his American friends, of a then pre-teen “Amerasian” girl (a Korean girl fathered by an American soldier during the Korean war). The now grown-up woman’s American name is Natasha (despite the talk’s title, she’s not merely “a girl”). Natasha does get a “cameo” of sorts at the end of the talk. But the story is told by Smolan, from Smolan’s perspective. During her brief appearance on stage, Natasha tells Smolan that she’ll tell him later about points he has gotten wrong. But, on that occasion, Natasha graciously smiled for the camera and didn’t participate in the conversation. She’s the topic, not the narrator.
Unfortunately, I can’t find this woman’s birth name so I don’t know how to spell it. It would be awkward for me to call her “Natasha” when referring to her before her adoption. Most of the presentation revolves around this person’s life before being adopted. The rest of the story is the “Happy ending” section of the Hollywood movie she apparently wasn’t directing.

I know, I know… It’s a “charming” story. No, I don’t want to be a killjoy. Sure, everyone involved had purely altruistic intentions (even the uncle who had recuperated his niece). Yes, I’m quite happy for this woman, that she is apparently living a “good” life (though I can’t measure people’s happiness by watching a presentation about them). But, as saltydog said in another context, the story is “somewhat self-serving and lacking in depth.”

Now, to be honest, I’m not that sensitive to nice pictures (I’m more aurally oriented). My attitude toward journalism can’t be called “sympathetic.” The tendency to “pull at heartstrings” in some Anglo-American mainstream media, I find manipulative. Even adoption, I can be ambivalent toward, partly because of horror stories. So maybe I’m both missing something important and putting too much into this. But the point is, my reaction to this presentation isn’t very positive.

Because the story is so “charming,” I might need to justify myself. Even if I don’t need to, I’ll do so. Because this is my main blog and it serves me that kind of purpose, on occasion.

In that video of a “Korean Amerasian adoption story,” we have a self-conscious photojournalist from the United States who basically admits both to having been on a sort of mission (like all journalists, he mused) and to not having known what he was doing at the time. Smolan seemed so honest about how clueless he has been that I sincerely expected another direction for the plotline. I kept waiting for the twist. Especially at TED, which keeps priding itself on “inspired talks by the world’s greatest thinkers and doers.”

During his TEDtalk, Smolan kept referring to mental images he was having. Through his actions, Smolan was explicitly trying to make reality itself fit those images. Because these mental images came from an admittedly clueless perspective, the overall process doesn’t sound like an extremely charming story.

Sorry!

Smolan also mentions movie-type heroism on several occasions and it sounds like he was trying to write life as a movie script. Using the “American” looks of a young Korean girl as a major part of the plotline. With not-so-subtle allusions to racial categories.

Weird.

Like saltydog, I much preferred the orphanage anecdote to the “beauty queen” and “cheerleader” photographs. Part of the reason is that the anecdote is more dynamic and more human than the pictures. This anecdote can also be a basis for empowerment, on the part of the girl who became Natasha, as opposed to the pictures which simply show conformity to local ideals.

One interesting thing about that specific anecdote (that this girl was organizing the orphanage on her own, after just a few days there) is the fact that it contradicts the “saved girl” story. On the basis of this anecdote, it would be presumptuous to say that this woman would be leading a disastrous life had she stayed in Korea instead of being “saved” by those well-meaning people in the United States. One could even hypothesize, given the limited data supplied by Smolan, that this relatively young girl could have since become a socially engaged Korean woman, helping people in her home community. With the current state of South Korean society, we might even assume that this woman would be living a comfortable life. And since her story isn’t over, one wishes that the next chapters will be as nice as the first ones.

Though, as we’re told, “Amerasians” were probably teased in that specific environment at that specific time, Smolan doesn’t make a good case for this particular girl being misadapted to the context in which she grew up. Simply put, apart from her grandmother’s wish, what solid proof do we have that “this girl” absolutely needed to be saved?

Smolan’s perception, based purely on superficial observation, that this girl was subservient to her uncle sounds like blatant ethnocentrism. Smolan does have the honesty to convey a few of the uncle’s comments about this. But the conclusion still is that intervening in a family’s business is the normal thing to do, for an American photojournalist receiving a request from a Korean woman he saw for a few days.

Smolan’s inviting young “Amerasian” adults to prove to the girl’s uncle that she would have a terrible life based on their own experiences sounds very manipulative, misinformed, and misleading. Because Smolan sounds too much like a nice guy, I have a hard time calling him arrogant. But his actions do sound like they were animated by arrogance.

Smolan repeatedly said how misled he was so I eventually thought that he was leading the (elite) TED audience into a story about his own “learning to be humble and to not judge from appearances.”

Not at all what happened.

What happened was more of a book or film pitch. Smolan may be a great guy. He also seems to be involved in a social marketing campaign. He’s allowed to do so, of course. But it’d be disingenuous to call the effort purely “charming.”

Furthermore, there’s the matter of this focus on one individual “little girl.” Makes for a nice Disney picture and for U.S. doctrines (foreign or domestic). Pulls heartstrings. Doesn’t necessarily help in the grand scheme of things. Especially when this focus comes from a photojournalist who seeked out this one girl on the premise that her grandmother originally didn’t want her to be seen by outsiders.

As Apollyon and jackyo have been asking in an Asian-friendly forum, what about the other “Amerasian” children involved? What about the broader case of Koreans or other people born in warzones, who have been fathered by U.S. or other foreign soldiers? If the girl who became Natasha did have to be saved, what about those other children? And if, as would be my hypothesis, this one girl could have led a nice life without leaving Korea at the onset of adolescence, aren’t there other children (in Korea or elsewhere) who could have a “better life” thanks to the compassion of those people in the United States?

There’s also the whole question of racial prejudice, present in the background yet not addressed directly in this talk. This one is a complex story, which would be worth more than lipservice. Racialism takes different forms in the United States and in Korea. Natasha’s experience in those two societies could shed some light on those issues. But, in the hands of journalists, individual stories often become more allegorical than insight-generating. Personalizing those issues isn’t a technique to engage in discussion. It’s a way to shut down communication.

Back in 1993, while emphasizing technological issues and the book contract that Smolan eventually signed, the New York Times mentioned Natasha’s Story as that of “an orphaned Amerasian girl” (regardless of whether or not her mother was still living at the time). Natasha herself isn’t named or given flesh, in that short piece about Smolan. She’s mentioned as the topic of a book and/or movie. A plot device more than a breathing character.

I sincerely hope that Natasha still knows how to empower herself. I sincerely don’t think she needs Smolan or anybody else to narrate her life.


“To Be Verified”: Trivia and Critical Thinking

A friend posted a link to the following list of factoids on his Facebook profile: Useless facts, Weird Information, humor. It contains such intriguing statements about biology, language, inventions, etc.

Similar lists abound, often containing the same tidbits:

Several neat pieces of trivial information. Not exactly “useless.” But gratuitous and irrelevant. The type of thing you may wish to plug in a conversation. Especially at the proverbial “cocktail party.” This is, after all, an appropriate context for attention economy. But these lists are also useful as preparation for game shows and barroom competitions. The stuff of erudition.

One of my first reflexes, when I see such lists of trivia online, is to look for ways to evaluate their accuracy. This is partly due to my training in folkloristics, as “netlore” is a prolific medium for verbal folklore (folk beliefs, rumors, urban legends, myths, and jokes). My reflex is also, I think, a common reaction among academics. After all, the detective work of critical thinking is pretty much our “bread and butter.” Sure, we can become bothersome with this. “Don’t be a bore, it’s just trivia.” But many of us may react from a fear of such “trivial” thinking preventing more careful consideration.

An obvious place to start verifying these tidbits is Snopes. In fact, they do debunk several of the statements made in those lists. For instance, the one about an alleged Donald Duck “ban” in Finland found in the list my friend shared through Facebook. Unfortunately, however, many factoids are absent from Snopes, despite that site’s extensive database.

These specific trivia lists are quite interesting. They include some statements which are easy to verify. For instance, the product of two numbers. (However, many calculators are insufficiently precise for the specific example used in those factoid lists.) The ease with which one can verify the accuracy of some statements brings an air of legitimacy to the list in which those easily verified statements are included. The apparent truth-value of those statements is such that a complete list can be perceived as being on unshakable foundations. For full effectiveness, the easily verified statements should not be common knowledge. “Did you know? Two plus two equals four.”

Other statements appear to be based on hypothesis. The plausibility of such statements may be relatively difficult to assess for anyone not familiar with research in that specific field. For instance, the statement about typical life expectancy of currently living humans compared to individual longevity. At first sight, it does seem plausible that today’s extreme longevity would only benefit extremely few individuals in the future. Yet my guess is that those who do research on aging may rebut the statement that “Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.” Because such statements require special training, their effect is a weaker version of the legitimizing effect of easily verifiable statements.

Some of the most difficult statements to assess are the ones which contain quantifiers, especially those for uniqueness. There may, in fact, be “only one” fish which can blink with both eyes. And it seems possible that the English language may include only one word ending in “-mt” (or, to avoid pedantic disclaimers, “only one common word”). To verify these claims, one would need to have access to an exhaustive catalog of fish species or English words. While the dream of “the Web as encyclopedia” may hinge on such claims of exhaustivity, there is a type of “black swan effect” related to the common fallacy about lack of evidence being considered sufficient evidence of lack.

I just noticed, while writing this post, a Google Answers page which not only evaluates the accuracy of several statements found in those trivia lists but also mentions ease of verifiability as a matter of interest. Critical thinking is active in many parts of the online world.

An obvious feature of those factoid lists, found online or in dead-tree print, is the lack of context. Even when those lists are concerned with a single topic (say, snails or sleep), they provide inadequate context for the information they contain. I’m using the term “context” rather loosely as it covers both the text’s internal relationships (the “immediate context,” if you will) and the broader references to the world at large. Without going into details about philosophy of language, these approaches clearly inform my perspective.

A typical academic, especially an English-speaking one, might put the context issue this way: “citation needed.” After all, the Wikipedia approach to truth is close to current academic practice (especially in English-speaking North America) with peer-review replacing audits. Even journalists are trained to cite sources, though they rarely help others apply critical thinking to those sources. In some ways, sources are conceived as the most efficient way to assess accuracy.

My own approach isn’t that far from the citation-happy one. Like most other academics, I’ve learned the value of an appropriate citation. Where I “beg to differ” is on the perceived “weight” of a citation as support. Through an awkward quirk of academic writing, some citation practices amount to fallacious appeal to authority. I’m probably overreacting about this but I’ve heard enough academics make statements equating citations with evidence that I tend to be weary of what I perceive to be excessive referencing. In fact, some of my most link-laden posts could be perceived as attempts to poke fun at citation-happy writing styles. One may even notice my extensive use of Wikipedia links. These are sometimes meant as inside jokes (to my own sorry self). Same thing with many of my blogging tags/categories, actually. Yes, blogging can be playful.

The broad concept is that, regardless of a source’s authority, critical thinking should be applied as much as possible. No more, no less.


Well-Rounded Bloggers

While I keep saying journalist have a tough time putting journalism in perspective, it seems that some blogging journalists are able to do it.

Case in point, ZDNet Editor in Chief Larry Dignan:

Anatomy of a ‘Blogging will kill you’ story: Why I didn’t make the cut | Between the Lines | ZDNet.com

I didn’t read the original NYT piece. On purpose. As I’ve tried to establish, I sometimes run away from things “everybody has read.” Typically, in the U.S., this means something which appeared in the NYT. To the extent that, for some people, “if it’s not in the Times, it didn’t happen.” (Such an attitude is especially tricky when you’re talking about, say, parts of Africa which aren’t at war.)

This time, I’m especially glad I read Dignan’s piece instead of the NYT one because I get the gist of the “story” and Dignan provides the kind of insight I enjoy.

Basic message: blogging can be as stressful as any job yet it’s possible to have a well-balanced life as a blogger.

Simple, useful, personal, insightful, and probably more accurate than the original piece.

Oh, sure. It’s nothing new. It’s not a major revelation for most people that it’s important to think about work/life balance.

Still… As it so happens, this specific piece helped me think about my own blogging activities in a somewhat different light. No, it’s not my job (though I do wish I had a writing job). And I don’t typically stress over it. I’m just thinking about where blogging fits in my life. And that’s helpful.

Even if it means yet another blogpost about blogging.


Ethnocentrism and Toponymy (Draft Notes)

This one is more of a rant. At least, it’s about a pet peeve. But I don’t think I’ll flesh it out unless I feel really motivated.

Basically, I wish people used more precise terms to designate different parts of the world and I can’t help but feel that there’s some ethnocentrism involved in the placenames used by many people including (or especially) journalists.

It’s really not about political correctness. It’s about accuracy, precision, clarity.

Terms I tend to like:

  • West Asia
  • Southwest Asia
  • Central Asia
  • Eurasia
  • North Asia
  • East Asia
  • South Asia
  • Southeast Asia
  • North Africa
  • West Africa
  • Central Africa
  • East Africa
  • Southern Africa
  • Northeastern Africa
  • Northwestern North America
  • Northeastern North America
  • Northeastern United States
  • Southeastern United States
  • Southwestern United States
  • Continental United States
  • Continental Europe
  • Southeastern Europe
  • South America

Term use I find just a bit tricky but still fit, for mostly historical reasons. I just wish they were more precise.

  • Americas
  • Europe
  • Central Europe
  • Eastern Europe
  • Western Europe
  • Northern Europe
  • Southern Europe
  • Scandinavia
  • Baltic
  • Balkans
  • New England
  • North America
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
  • MidWest
  • The North
  • The South
  • Central America
  • Caribbean
  • Antilles
  • Oceania

I also get slightly annoyed at the reliance on country names, especially in mainstream media, but I do understand why they seem so important to journalists and news-guzzlers.

Terms which rapidly get problematic:

  • “America” (Is it the continent, the “United States of,” or the very concept of the “New World?”)
  • Bible Belt
  • Sunbelt
  • Rust Belt
  • Middle America
  • Orient
  • Occident
  • The West
  • Black Africa («Afrique Noire»)
  • Latin America
  • Levant
  • Far East
  • Near East
  • Middle East

Of course, “Middle East” is the one I find most problematic. Not only has its meaning shifted over the years but it’s one of those terms which hides more than it reveals. Oh, sure, I enjoy ambiguity. But I like ambiguity when it’s purposeful, obvious. Honest. The type of ambiguity afforded “Middle East” is more than Orientalism. It’s halfhearted neo-colonialism.

Ah, well.