Or «les esprits de toutes tailles se rencontrent».
This post is a response to the following post about Social Network Analysis (SNA), social change, and communication.
I have too many disparate things to say about that post to make it into a neat and tidy “quickie,” yet I feel like I should probably be working on other things. So we’ll see how this goes.
First, a bit of context..
[This "bit of context" may be a bit long so, please bear with me. Or you could get straight to the point, if you don't think you can bear the context bit.]
I’ve never met Ethan Zuckerman (@EthanZ), who wrote the post to which I’m responding. And I don’t think we’ve had any extended conversation in the past. Further, I doubt that I’m on his radar. He’s probably seen my name, since I’ve commented on some of his posts and some of his contacts may have had references to me through social media. But I very much doubt that he’s ever mentioned me to anyone. I’m not noticeable to him.
I, on the other hand, have mentioned Zuckerman on several occasions. Latest time I remember was in class, a few weeks ago. It’s a course on Africa and I was giving students a list of online sources with relevance to our work. Zuckerman’s connection to Africa may not be his main thing, despite his blog’s name, but it’s part of the reason I got interested in his work, a few years ago.
In fact, there’s something embarrassing, here.. I so associate Zuckerman to Africa that my mind can’t help but link him to Erik Hersman, aka White African. I did meet Herman. [To be exact, I met Erik at BarCampAustin, which is quite possibly the conference-like event which has had the most influence on me, in the past few years (I go to a lot of these events).] When I did meet Hersman, I made a faux-pas in associating him with Zuckerman. Good-natured as he seemed to be, Hersman smiled as he corrected me.
EthanZ and I have other contacts in common. Jeremy Clarke, for instance, who co-organizes WordCamp Montreal and has been quite active in Montreal’s geek scene. Jeremy’s also a developer for Global Voices, a blogging community that Zuckerman co-founded. I’m assuming Clarke and Zuckerman know each other.
According to Facebook, Zuckerman and I have four contacts in common. Apart from Clarke and Hersman, there’s P. Kerim Friedman and Gerd Leonhard. Kerim is a fellow linguistic anthropologist and we’ve collaborated on the official Society for Linguistic Anthropology (SLA) site. I got in touch with Leonhard through “Music 2.0″ issues, as he was interviewed by Charles McEnerney on Well-Rounded Radio.
On LinkedIn, Zuckerman is part of my third degree, with McEnerney as one of my first-degree contacts who could connect me to Zuckerman, through Zuckerman’s contacts.
(Yes, I’m fully aware of the fact that I haven’t name a single woman in this list. Nor someone who doesn’t write in English with some frequency, for that matter.)
By this time, my guess is that you may be either annoyed or confused. “Surely, he can’t be that obsessed with Zuckerman as to stalk him in every network.”
No, I’m not at all obsessed with Ethan Zuckerman in any way, shape, or form. Though I mention him on occasion and I might have a good conversation with him if the occasion arises, I wouldn’t go hang out in Cambridge just in case I might meet him. Though I certainly respect his work, I wouldn’t treat him as my “idol” or anything like that. In other words, he isn’t a focus in my life.
And that’s a key point, to me.
In certain contexts, when social networks are discussed, too much is made of the importance of individuals. Yet, there’s something to be said about relative importance.
In his “shortcuts” post, Zuckerman talks about a special kind of individuals. Those who are able to bypass something of a clustering effect happening in many human networks. Malcolm Gladwell (probably “inspired” by somebody else) has used “connectors” to label a fairly similar category of people and, given Gladwell’s notoriety in some circles, the name has resonance in some contexts (mostly “business-focused people,” I would say, with a clear idea in my mind of the groupthink worldview implied).
In one of my earliest blogposts, I talked about an effect happening through a similar mechanism, calling it the “Social Butterfly Effect” (SBE). I still like it, as a concept. Now, I admit that it focuses on a certain type of individuals. But it’s more about their position in “the grand scheme of things” than about who they are, though I do associate myself with this “type.”
The basic idea is quite simple. People who participate in different (sub)networks, who make such (sub)networks sparser, are having unpredictable and unmeasurable effects on what is transmitted through the network(s).
On one hand, it’s linked to my fragmentary/naïve understanding of the Butterfly Effect in the study of climate and as a component of Chaos Theory.
On the other hand, it’s related to Granovetter‘s well-known notion of “weak ties.” And it seems like Granovetter is making something of a comeback, as we discuss different mechanisms behind social change.
Interestingly, much of what is being said about weak ties, these past few weeks, relates to Gladwell’s flamebait apparent lack of insight in describing current social processes. Sounds like Gladwell may be too caught up in the importance of individuals to truly grok the power of networks.
Case in point.. One of the most useful pieces I’ve read about weak ties, recently, was Jonah Lehrer‘s direct response to Gladwell:
Reading Lehrer’s piece, one gets the clear impression that Gladwell hadn’t “done his homework” on Granovetter before launching his trolling “controversial” piece on activism.
But I digress. Slightly.
Like the Gladwell-specific coverage, Zuckerman’s blogpost is also about social change and he’s already responded to Gladwell. One way to put it is that, as a figure, Gladwell has shaped the discussion in a way similar to a magnetic field orienting iron filings around it. Since it’s a localized effect having to do with polarization, the analogy is fairly useful, as analogies go.
Which brings me to groupthink, the apparent target of Zuckerman’s piece.
Still haven’t read Irving Janis but I’ve been quite interested in groupthink for a while. Awareness of the concept is something I immediately recognize, praise, and associate with critical thinking.
In fact, it’s one of several things I was pleasantly surprised to find in an introductory sociology WikiBook I ended up using in my ”Intro. to Society” course, last year. Critical thinking was the main theme of that course, and this short section was quite fitting in the overall discussion.
So, what of groupthink and networks? Zuckerman sounds worried:
This is interesting to me because I’m intrigued – and worried – by information flows through social networks. If we’re getting more (not lots yet, but more) information through social networks and less through curated media like newspapers, do we run the risk of encountering only information that our friends have access to? Are we likely to be overinformed about some conversations and underinformed about others? And could this isolation lead to ideological polarization, as Cass Sunstein and others suggest? And if those fears are true, is there anything we can do to rewire social networks so that we’re getting richer, more diverse information?
Similar questions have animated many discussions in media-focused circles, especially in those contexts where the relative value (and meaning) of “old vs. new media” may be debated. At about the same time as I started blogging, I remember discussing things with a statistician friend about the polarization effect of media, strong confirmation bias in reading news stories, and political lateralization.
In the United States, especially, there’s a narrative (heard loud and clear) that people who disagree on some basic ideas are unable to hear one another. “Shockingly,” some say, “conservatives and liberals read different things.” Or “those on (the) two sides of (the) debate understand things in completely different ways.” It even reminds me of the connotations of Tannen’s booktitle, You Just Don’t Understand. Irreconciliable differences. (And the first time I mention a woman in this decidedly imbalanced post.)
While, as a French-Canadian ethnographer, my perspective is quite different from Zuckerman, I can’t help but sympathize with the feeling. Not that I associate groupthink with a risk in social media (au contraire!). But, like Zuckerman, I wish to find ways to move beyond these boundaries we impose on ourselves.
Zuckerman specifically discusses the attempt by Onnik Krikorian (@OneWMPhoto) to connect Armenians (at least those in Hayastan) and Azeris, with Facebook “affording” Krikorian some measure of success. This case is now well-known in media-centric circles and it has almost become shorthand for the power of social media. Given a personal interest in Armenians (at least in the Diaspora), my reaction to Krikorian’s success are less related to the media aspect than to the personal one.
At a personal level, boundaries may seem difficult to surmount but they can also be fairly porous and even blurry. Identity may be negotiated. Individuals crossing boundaries may be perceived in diverse ways, some of which have little to do with other people crossing the same boundaries. Things are lived directly, from friendships to wars, from breakups to reconciliations. Significant events happen regardless of the way they’re being perceived across boundaries.
Not that boundaries don’t matter but they don’t necessarily circumscribe what happens in “personal lives.” To use an seemingly-arbitrary example, code-switching doesn’t “feel” strange at an individual level. It’s only when people insist on separating languages using fairly artificial criteria that alternance between them sounds awkward.
In other words, people cross boundaries all the time and “there’s nothing to it.”
Boundaries have quite a different aspect, at the macrolevel implied by the journalistic worldview (with nation-based checkbox democracy at its core and business-savvy professionalization as its mission). To “macros” like journos and politicos, boundaries look like borders, appearing clearly on maps (including mind ones) and implying important disconnects. The border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a boundary separating two groups and the conflicts between these two groups reify that boundary. Reaching out across the border is a diplomatic process and necessitates finding the right individuals for the task. Most of the important statuses are ascribed, which may sound horrible to some holding neoliberal ideas about freewill and “individual freedoms.”
Though it’s quite common for networked activities to be somewhat constrained by boundaries, a key feature of networks is that they’re typically boundless. Sure, there are networks which are artificially isolated from the rest. The main example I can find is that of a computer virology laboratory.
Because, technically, you only need one link between two networks to transform them into a single network. So, it’s quite possible to perceive Verizon’s wireless network as a distinct entity, limited by the national boundaries of the U.S. of A. But the simple fact that someone can use Verizon’s network to contact someone in Ségou shows that the network isn’t isolated. Simple, but important to point out.
Especially since we’re talking about a number of things happening on a single network: The Internet. (Yes, there is such a thing as Internet2 and there are some technical distinctions at stake. But we’re still talking about an interconnected world.)
As is well-known, there are significant clusters in this One Network. McLuhan’s once-popular “Global Village” fallacy used to hide this, but we now fully realize that language barriers, national borders, and political lateralization go with “low-bandwidth communication,” in some spots of The Network. “Gs don’t talk to Cs so even though they’re part of the same network, there’s a weak spot, there.” In a Shannon/Weaver view, it sounds quite important to identify these weak spots. “Africa is only connected to North America via a few lines so access is limited, making things difficult for Africans.” Makes sense.
But going back to weak ties, connectors, Zuckerman’s shortcuts, and my own social butterflies, the picture may be a little bit more fleshed out.
Actually, the image I have in mind has, on one side, a wire mesh serving as the floor of an anechoic chamber and on the other some laser beams going in pseudorandom directions as in Entrapment or Mission Impossible. In the wire mesh, weaker spots might cause a person to fall through and land on those artificial stalagmites. With the laser beams, the pseudorandom structure makes it more difficult to “find a path through the maze.” Though some (engineers) may see the mesh as the ideal structure for any network, there’s something humanly fascinating about the pseudorandom structure of social networks.
Obviously, I have many other ideas in mind. For instance, I wanted to mention “Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America.” Or go back to that intro soci Wikibook to talk about some very simple and well-understood ideas about social movements, which often seem to be lacking in discussions of social change. I even wanted to recount some anecdotes of neat network effects in my own life, such as the serendipity coming from discuss disparate subjects to unlike people or the misleading impression that measuring individualized influence is a way to understand social media. Not to mention a whole part I had in my mind about Actor Network Theory, non-human actors, and material culture (the other course I currently teach).
But I feel like going back to more time-sensitive things.
Still, I should probably say a few words about this post’s title.
My mother and I were discussing parallel inventions and polygenesis with the specific theme of moving away from the focus on individualized credit. My favourite example, and one I wish Gladwell (!) had used in Outliers (I actually asked him about it) is that of Gregor Mendel and the “rediscovery” of his laws by de Vries, Correns, and Tschermak. A semi-Marxian version of the synchronous polygenesis part might hold that “ideas are in the air” or that the timing of such dicoveries and inventions has to do with zeitgeist. A neoliberal version could be the “great minds think alike” expression or its French equivalent «Les grands esprits se rencontrent» (“The great spirits meet each other”). Due to my reluctance in sizing up minds, I’d have a hard time using that as a title. In the past, I used a similar title to refer to another form of serendipity:
To me, most normally constituted minds are “great,” so I still could have used the expression as a title. But an advantage of tweaking an expression is that it brings attention to what it implies.
In this case, the “thinking alike” may be a form of groupthink.