This week, we read selections from Connected, by Nicholas Christakis.
Why I Assigned This Text
This is the second of two texts that focus exclusively on how social media/social networks function and the relationship between people’s online social behavior and their offline activities.
There are a few key concepts that this text brings into sharp relief:
1. Offline behavior is replicated online and online behavior informs how we act offline.
2. There are a few different types of people in online communities: trolls, loners, free-riders, cooperators, punishers, and nodes.
3. Social networks have two characteristics that continually reshape one another: connection and contagion.
Offline behavior is replicated online and online behavior informs how we act offline.
Christakis gives examples of how people who belong to affinity groups move those groups online, and even how groups of people who have in common an unusual paranoia can find one another online and reinforce their shared world-view. As we read last week in Bowling alone, these networks are examples of bonding behavior, through which, people with the same group identity (whether knitters or militia) strengthen their identity. In turn, online behavior can spill into the analog world, as research has shown when people are given avatars who look either more attractive than their users, leading to more confidence in real life, or less attractive, leading to less confident behavior. The interplay between how we behave on- and offline leads to the importance of recognizing certain patterns of behavior, specifically:
There are different types of people in online communities: trolls, loners, free-riders, cooperators, punishers, and nodes.
Most social media are visited by people who fall within (and sometimes move between) six groups:
- Trolls: people who seek to stir things up, make trouble, and cause a splash.
- Loners: people who are very weakly connected to the group: likely to have few friends or followers, they neither contribute to nor consume much content.
- Free-riders: people who use the group’s resources in some way (asking questions on Quora, as an example), but tend not to contribute (rarely answer questions, e.g.)
- Cooperators: people who actively engage online, sharing links, stories, and adding content
- Punishers: people who call out trolls and otherwise seek to enforce the rules of the network.
- Nodes: people who are central to their networks–moderators, facilitators, or frequent contributors.
As I said, people move between these groups. Sometimes a free-rider can become a cooperator, punishers grow weary (or are reminded of their offline lives) and become free-riders or cooperators. Cooperators can experience a period of intense interest and activity and become nodes. This is important (as I’ll show in both the next section and in the So What? section), but first it’s essential for social media professionals to understand how networks function and what travels across them.
Social networks have two characteristics that continually reshape one another: connection and contagion.
Connection is simply the means by which people can form relations online. In a bulletin board or listserve, for example, connections are ad hoc – dependent on the specific communication. On a social network like Facebook, there are groups with existing dimensions that can be reused: the pre-existing groups, like “friends” “family” and “really good friends” and the custom groups that users can create.
Despite its nearly-universal negative connotation, ‘contagion’ within the realm of social media can be a positive term as well. Certainly fear, mistrust, and misinformation are contagions that can spread quickly through social media, but so can goodwill, alerts, and life-saving information (evacuation orders, location of earthquake survivors, as examples).
As online groups form, the connections shape what kinds of contagions can pass along them. For example, a listserv is not the best network through which to share pictures from one person to the next to the next–each time the image is shared, it may be pushed lower and lower on the screen, the resolution might change, depending on members’ email settings, and there may be other technical distortions. But contagions can also change the network, as we’ve seen with Facebook: the more kinds of things people want to share, the more Facebook tries to alter its network to accommodate new contagions.
This week’s text applies to the daily work of social media professionals in a few ways. First, by recognizing the online and offline behaviors are linked, our work is given meaning: when we encourage civil and civic behavior online we are likely increasing such behavior offline. Likewise, when we moderate discussions, lowering the temperature of the rhetoric and trying to create a more polite (if not harmonious) community online, we are likely going to see that spirit in the real world as well. And creating a working, cohesive community out of a fractious and sometimes-mistrustful polity is part of the job of governance.
We also learn how social networks function (connection and contagion) and how individuals within those networks are essential to their functioning. By understanding what we are trying to spread across the network–the contagion we are putting online–and by being able to identify the best networks to use (by looking at the means of their connections) and the best individuals for outreach (cooperators and nodes) as well as those from whom we may expect resistance (trolls), we can tailor our social media campaigns to give ourselves the best odds of success and make our work as efficient as we can be.