"Social Butterfly Effect": More Than a Silly Pun?

Was talking about the social effects of multilinked nodes with a friend last night. Followed it up today in a private email. Had to blog it.

Simply put, someone who has links with many people is likely to get some wheels moving, socially. Especially if that person’s network is sparse (people in it don’t know each other directly) and not too multiplex (not having many nodes with multiple links between them, like two people doing many things together). Simple enough.
The spark/trigger action on the wheel-moving/domino effect is not oriented (the person doesn’t have an agenda). If there are many such individuals connecting so many links (commonly known as “social butterflies” as they go from one flower to the next), the effect is pseudo-chaotic. To play on a silly pun, let’s call it the “social butterfly effect.” As things go, it’s quite likely that somebody else has had the exact same idea for the phrase (too lazy to google the phrase, though). It’s certainly a well-known effect. And there’s probably a less cheesy name for it somewhere in sociology textbooks. Too lazy to look it up.

Now, as it turns out, I see myself as that kind of social butterfly who does have an effect on some wheels starting to turn. But it’s really not presumptuous on my part. I’m not saying that I’m such a cool guy because I know so many people or that I have such an influence on people. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of charisma and attraction. I’m the kind of guy who’s relatively insignificant to enough people that what I do or say may just activate the right process at the right moment. And nobody in their right mind would credit me with having done anything in the process. Yeah! Power!

The example I used in communication with my friend was coffee. More on that later. But it does depend on not having a specific agenda. And an incredibly large number of “failures” or errors (in the sense of “trial and error”).
If I mention homeroasting coffee beans to 200 people, chances are that at least 195 of them will be utterly disinterested with the notion, three might be mildly interested, one might think about taking up the “hobby,” and one might get an idea for something completely unrelated to homeroasting but nonetheless incredibly cool. If I did that transmission by “reaching out and touching” all of these people, that’d be an abysmally depressing success rate. (Especially if the measure is new converts to homeroasting.) But if I do it with minimal effort like by mentioning it in passing during a public discussion (say, in class, on a mailing-listl, or, well, on a “buh-lawg”), my effort to success ratio is quite good. The first thing to notice is that the most important effect here isn’t to have turned one person to homeroasting. It might be cool to interact with this person based on our newly shared interest. We might even start exchanging tips and samples. Maybe it’ll develop into some type of genuine friendship. Which might in turn lead to a new network.
All great. But what I appreciate the most here is there might be one person who heard about homeroasting and started to let her mind wonder about coffee prices, World System Theory, the effects of Globalisation, and student strikes. She might end up as a “mover and shaker” character in a grassroots movement to link students internationally. Who knows? I’m not one to spoon-feed conceptual links to people…

So, I see my role (whether or not I’m good at it) as a social butterfly getting things moving by being just “a guy in the crowd.” Fair enough.

The problem with that role is that because it’s based on lack of recognition, it runs counter to a few things which are socially important. The two social measures I think about most directly are “Intellectual Property” and job prospects. The first is definitional, in a way: I want many of my ideas to be “stolen” by those who receive them. Academia is based on that type of generalized exchange where we give it all to everyone else and we receive everything from everybody else. Those who are trying to restrict IP too much are hindering “innovation.” Which might in fact be the effect the want to achieve. In the social “tug o’ war” giving us balance, they have their own rope to pull on.

Job prospects are more problematic for me, personally. At least, I see them as more problematic. I happen to think that my own prospects aren’t too bad but, sadly, academic appointments (as opposed to academic work) are based on recognition and exclusive expertise. I make a point of not being recognized too often and I derive great joy from helping someone achieve a pleasurable state without being credited. Being a pawn is cool. [Just realized that “peon” had another denotation. “Pion” means pawn in French] But academic hiring committees don’t really like pawns. As for expertise, I do have some but it’s disparate enough that it doesn’t play so well in the mono-disciplinary thing. Too bad!
Some of it is a huge cult of personality in Academia. And the whole (ugh!) “Publish or Perish” game. But it’ll all change. It has to. Hopefully, it’ll change soon enough to edge me in.

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