Category Archives: social norms

The how of social capital

Flickr/drjausSocial capital is a powerful resource for individuals and communities.  For individuals embedded in dense social networks, these networks and the attendant norms of trust and reciprocity strongly shape individuals’ ability to land jobs, earn higher salaries, and be happier and healthier.  But, even for those not in the networks, having neighbors who know and trust one another affords benefits in some domains:  better performing local government, safer streets, faster economic growth and better performing schools, among other public goods.

For sure social capital can be used toward negative ends: Al Qaeda, the Crips and the Bloods, the Michigan Militia are all examples where group members can accomplish things that they could not accomplish individually (because of  group social capital).  That said, the literature supports that the vast majority of what social capital is used for is to produce positive ends, not negative ones.

But why?  What makes social capital so powerful?

Robert Putnam and I had always focused on information-flows as the key mechanism.  So these social networks:

  • enable individuals to access valuable information: how to get something done, hear of  job leads, learn how better to promote one’s health, find out what is happening in a community, etc.; or
  • help individuals find partners for joint economic transactions (e.g., to know with whom to partner  in business, to close a sale to a friend or a friend of a friend, to locate a neighbor with whom one can exchange tools or expertise); or
  • spread reputations of members (or neighbors or local merchants) which causes all people in these networks to behave in a more trustworthy manner and facilitates altruism.  There is always a short-term gain to be had from cheating someone, but if the social networks quickly spread the information that one cannot be trusted, this short-term gain is swamped by the lost future opportunity to do business with others; thus it becomes more rational to be honest and trustworthy in communities (physical or otherwise) with strong social networks. Individuals are also likely to be kinder and more altruistic toward others because they know that “what goes around comes around” in densely inter-connected networks and communities; and
  • facilitate collective action: it is easier to mobilize others around some shared goal like politics or zoning or improving trash pick-up if others in the  community already know and  trust you, rather than your having to build those social relationships from scratch.

But Connected (by Nick Christakis and James Fowler) raises a different frame for thinking about this issue: network effects or contagion.  Are there properties of the networks themselves that help spread practices, independent of the flow of information?  This is difficult to answer fully since much of their evidence comes from the Framingham Heart Study where  they know who people’s friends are but not what they are doing with each other or what they are saying to each other.

That said, some of their results can be explained by information flows (e.g., political influence, or getting flu shots), but some seem likely to be working through other channels and not through information-flows (e.g., happiness or loneliness cascades).

In these “network effects” or contagion, Fowler & Christakis typically find that the strongest “network” effects are directly with one’s friends (one degree of separation), but these effects also ripple out two more levels to  friends of one’s friends (two degrees) and friends of the friends of one’s friends (three degrees).  As one would expect, much like a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples get smaller as one moves out.  In fact they refer to the “Three Degrees of Influence” Rule that effects are typically only seen up to three degrees out and not further: in the spread of happiness, political views, weight gain, obesity, and smoking.  For example, in happiness, if one is happy, one degree out (controlling for other factors), one’s friends are 15% happier, at 2 degrees of separation they are 10% happier, and they are 6% happier at 3 degrees of separation.  For obesity, the average obese American is more likely to have obese friends, one, two and three degrees of separation out, but not further.  Quitting smoking has diminishing effects out to three degrees.  For political influence, they note a “get-out-the-vote” experiment that shows that knocking on a stranger’s door and urging the resident to support a recycling initiative had a 10% impact on his/her likelihood to vote for the initiative; what was noteworthy to Christakis and Fowler is that the door-knocking made the spouse (who was not at the door) 6% more likely to support the recycling initiative based on communication with his/her spouse.  They conjecture that if this 60% social pass-through rate of political appeals (6% for spouse vs. 10% for person answering door) applied to one’s friends and if everyone had 2 friends, then one person urging friends to vote a certain way would have a 10% impact on one’s friends, a 6% impact on one’s friends’ friends (2 degrees) and a 3.6% impact 3 degrees out.  Multiplying these political effects all the way through, one vote could create a 30x multiplier. [The example is eye-opening and suggests that voting and political persuasion may be less irrational than thought, but also is based on a huge number of assumptions and assumes no cross-competing messages from friends.]

In an experiment on altrusim (explained in this post) Christakis & Fowler found that $1.00 of altruism, ultimately produced $1.05 of multiplier effect ($.20 one ripple out with 3 others and $.05 of altruism two ripples out with 9 others).

Christakis and Fowler, in their book, talk about contagion effects in voting, suicide, loneliness, depression, happiness, violence, STDs, number of sexual partners, binge drinking, back pain, and getting flu shots, among others.  [One summary of many of their findings, which they note, is "You make me sick!"]

Why do these effects only reach out 3 degrees of influence?  Christakis & Fowler suggest 4 potential explanations.

1) intrinsic decay: C&F liken this to a game of telephone where as the information gets repeated, the content gets lost, or the passion and knowledge of the initiator gets dissipated.

2) Instability of ties: because of what is known as “triadic closure“, if A is friends with B and B is friends with C, it is likely that A will become friends with C.  Because of this, closer-in ties between people have more routes connecting them, and further out ties are more dependent on only one pathway connecting them.  For example, assume Abby and Fran were friends 3 degrees removed via Bert and via Charles. If any of these intervening friendships end (say Bert is no longer friends with Charles), Abby loses her tie to Fran.  Thus, these outer ties are much less stable and averaged across all the “3 degrees of influence” friendships, many more may have zero effect because the path of influence dies out as friends change.

3) cross-information:  as one gets further out away from you, say the friends of the friends of your friends, all of these folks are getting lots of cross-stimuli from lots of other sources (many of which may come from different clusters with different habits or values) and these cross-stimuli start to cancel each other out.

4) evolutionary biology: C&F note that humans evolved in small groups that had a maximum of three degrees of separation so it may be that we became more attuned to being influenced by folks who were in a position to alter our gene pool.

So what are the network influences independent of communication.  There seem like 6 possible channels, and often it is hard to separate one from the other, although some may make more sense for the spread of behaviors and others may make more sense for spread of attitudes or emotions:

1) homophily: “Homophily” is the practice of befriending others like you — “birds of a feather flock together.” Being friends with people who are different than you can be stressful.  This is why in mates and in friends we are likely to choose others with whom we have a lot in common — think of arguments you’ve had with friends about where to go for dinner or what is right or wrong with the world when those friends have very different tastes or politics.  For this reason, one reason for increased clustering over time of obese people or smokers or binge drinkers is that it is stressful to be in groups where one is the minority and either constantly noodging others to change their behavior or else your finding yourself frequently doing what your friends want to and what you do not (e.g., eat fast food, smoke, or listen to heavy metal rock music).  As a consequence, people may vote with their feet and form new ties or strengthen ties with others with whom they have more in common.

2) norms/reference groups/culture/peer pressure:   we often measure the reasonableness of our behavior against our friends.  For example, if our teen friends have all had 6 sexual partners in the last year, then repartnering seems far more normal than if one is friends with a group that is heavily monogamous.  Ditto with obesity or smoking or other possible traits or behaviors.

3) subconscious/imitation:  as suggested with “emotion” below, sometimes we mirror others’ behavior or emotions without even thinking about it.  C&F say it makes sense to think of people as subsconsciously reacting to those around them without being aware of any larger pattern.  They talk about processes by which a “wave” at a sporting event takes place, or fish swim in unison, or geese fly in a V-formation, or crickets become synchronized — all of these happen by individuals mirroring those around them.  And in the process, emergent properties of the group arise (much like a cake takes on the taste unlike any of its individual ingredients).

4) emotions: C&F note that emotions actually affect our physical being — our voices, our faces, our posture.  In experiments, people actually “catch emotions”: others become happier by spending time around happy people or sadder by hanging out with depressed individuals.  In experiments, smiling waiters get bigger tips.  It seems quite plausible that cascades like loneliness, happiness, depression, etc. could spread simply from emotional states, independent of any information flowing through these friendships.

5) social invitations for shared action: friends often invite friends to do things — that’s part of friendship. For behaviors, one of the ways they can spread through networks is that, for example, thin friends could invite friends to exercise more, or obese friends could encourage friends to get ice cream together, or smokers could encourage others to leave the dance for a cig.

Connected notes that it is often hard, for example, to tell imitation and norms apart, “When a man gives up his motorcycle after getting hitched, is he copying his wife’s behavior (she doesn’t have a motorcycle) or adopting a new norm (the infernal things are unsafe?)”

Connected also notes how behaviors or attitudes can spread several social links out, even without the intervening link changing.  They suggest that Amy could have a friend Maria who has a friend Heather.  (Amy and Heather don’t know one another.)  Heather gains weight.  Maria, who really likes Heather, becomes less judgmental of her weight and gradually less judgmental of  obesity in general.  Maria doesn’t change her behavior but when Amy stops exercising with Maria, Maria is less likely to pressure her to resume.  Thus Heather’s obesity changes Amy via Maria (by Maria no longer urging her to keep exercising), but Maria doesn’t change her behavior and Amy and Heather don’t know one another.

It’s interesting stuff to ponder and makes one think more expansively about the role and mechanisms of social capital.  It also evokes a conversation with a Saguaro Seminar participant back in 1998 concerning whether black kids and white kids doing sidewalk painting together on the steps of an art museum could promote inter-racial trust, even if the black kids and white kids didn’t know each other, didn’t talk to one another and never met again.  [My hunch is yes, depending on the strength of their pre-existing beliefs about inter-racial trust, but that talking could make the exchange far more powerful.] Another Saguaro participant wondered whether singing together in a chorus helps build social capital, even if one never has a conversation directly with another member of the chorus.  (In the latter example, in addition to being highly unlikely, you are at least getting some non-verbal information over time from the other choral members about their trustworthiness: do they come regularly and on time, do they respectfully listen to and follow the choralmeister?)

I welcome your thoughts.

For more on the network effects, read pp. 24-30, 25-43 and 112-115 in Connected.

Peer pressure as social cure; Rosenberg’s “Join The Club”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, MacArthur “genius grant” winner and New York Times magazine writer Tina Rosenberg has a new engaging book out called “Join The Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” about how peer groups and their social ties can be used to cure social problems (“the social cure”).
She chronicles peer groups that spread information and promote positive lifestyles for group members; examples include how Florida fought teen smoking through teen groups taking on tobacco companies through the Truth Campaign; how students effectively protested against Serbian dictator Milosevic by using street theater in a group called Otpor; how LoveLife, a peer group in S. Africa, made AIDS awareness part of an aspirational lifestyle for teens; how the Chicago-based Willow Creek Community Church tries to change lives over small neighborhood-based Table groups; how a village-health worker group in Jamkhed, India is teaching Untouchables to have self-respect; how a peer-based group successfully taught calculus to poor Latino students (“Emerging Scholars“) through nightly study groups; and even how a community drop-in center in Brixton, England for Muslim teens might be effective in anti-terrorism efforts in the UK.
We applaud Ms. Rosenberg on her campaign although much of this “social cure” is old wine in new bottles. Sociologists have known for a long time how social settings can effect our choices for good or ill (see experiments of Asch or Milgram).  And many groups for a long time have thus used the power of peers to increase their effectiveness.
This is after all why many weight loss groups are formed (because the social bonds help people keep weight loss promises) or why Al-Anon uses 12-step group methods to overcome addictions; it is why micro-lending programs (like the Grameen Bank) are organized in groups (to increase repayment rates).
Basically these groups are using social capital.  Social Capital achieves its impact through five main paths: 1) providing increased access to information (like learning of potential project partners or job leads); 2) providing increased sense of meaning that individuals find from social engagement; 3) developing stronger group social norms (e.g., I do something that I might not on my own because I’m worried about my social standing in the group) that members feel pressure to conform to; 4) aiding reciprocity (e.g., I do something for someone else in the group now without expecting any immediate repayment because I expect that they, or someone else will do something for me down the road); and 5) the facilitation of collective action (just jargon for saying it makes it easier to do things that require collaboration and concerted response).  The power that Rosenberg finds in “peer pressure” in these various groups is primarily a function of these paths.
For example, people in a weight loss group stick to their weight loss regimen better because they care about others in the group and what they think and they worry that they will sacrifice these friendships or be embarrassed if they have to admit in the group what caloric foods they snacked on or how they missed their weight loss target.
What is perhaps new or unusual about the book is the acknowledgement of the role of marketing and Rosenberg’s belief that the message has to be positive.
First, marketing can be a powerful reinforcer of group ties and social norms and the desire to be in a group in the first place.  In the South African , although AIDS awareness was a primary goal of LoveLife, they didn’t wear this on their sleeve.  Countless billboards, public service announcements, games and concerts got teens convinced that being part of LoveLife was important.  Teens often exhibit flock tendencies, where the desire of doing something rises as the number of your peers are doing this as well.  LoveLife benefited from this, and AIDS awareness was a less visible but core part of the LoveLife message.  It’s unclear what the relative weights were on the attractive message and marketing, the friendships, and the social norms in what got people to join, stay with and achieve LoveLife goals.
A second one of Rosenberg’s messages is that the approach has to be positive and not based out of fear.  One has to make joining hip and fun rather than like castor oil or broccoli.   We argued something similar in the BetterTogether report.
As Rosenberg notes, “If you want to help someone change their behavior to accomplish a social goal, don’t give them new information and don’t use appeals based on fear. The most effective way is to provide them with a new peer group of people who they can identify with and who can hold them accountable. If you can get people to be active and to overcome their fear, fatalism and passivity, then you’ve gone a long way towards what you want to do.” Rosenberg acknowledges that she didn’t invent the power of groups, but she thinks they could be more widely used and enhanced with these positive lifestyle messages, maybe even for something like tackling global warming.  This approach has its merits, although it should be noted that there are many successful groups like “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” (MADD) that were not about forming a positive lifestyle “Mothers For Sober Drivers” but aligned in their opposition to an evil, so it’s not clear that Rosenberg’s “be positive” message helpfully describes what efforts succeed or fail.

Rosenberg believes there are limits to the “peer pressure” approach. It is time-consuming and she thinks it is less effective at persuasive education about societal facts and trends.

Rosenberg acknowledges that “peer pressure” has gotten its bad image because much of what teens use social pressure to enhance are negative goals: pressure others to buy Ugg boots or silly bandz, or bully an unpopular schoolmate, or pressure other teens to use drugs.  Although she stresses that outside groups (non-profits or government) could use this peer pressure for good, corporations or non-profits could just as well use it for negative ends, something that we openly admit in our writings and Bob (Putnam) has discussed in Bowling Alone.  And social groups might help promote goals about which there is societal disagreement:  teens might be urged to join small religious groups to promote”covenant marriage” (sticking with a marriage even when things get really bad) or to put pressure on teens not to get an abortion, or a corporation might use social networks to sell more products.

My review of “New Tech, New Ties”

Flickr photo by fensterbme

A review that I wrote about New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication is Reshaping Social Cohesion for the American Studies Journal was finally published 3 years after I wrote it!

Rich Ling concludes that unlike cellphone ads would tell you, we can’t be both here and there.  Excerpt:

Cellphones exploded onto the U.S. scene, going from commercial launch in the mid-1980s to 88% penetration by 2008 and penetrating still further in Ling’s Norway. They clearly enable us to be in contact when we previously couldn’t. And they have become a cultural icon: cellphone-shaped balloons, parents hearing kids feigning adult cellphone conversations on their toys—“have your secretary call my secretary.”
Undoubtedly cellphones can challenge social norms. A few examples suffice:

  • A couple walking down street together with each talking to someone else on a cellphone.
  • A plumber summoned to Ling’s Oslo house for a leak strolled into Ling’s home as house guests were saying goodbye. The plumber’s refusal to interrupt his cell call to introduce himself, or ask permission to enter, violated Ling’s sense of social norms, not repaired by the plumber’s nodding to Ling and removing his shoes per the Norwegian custom.
  • Whether we should flush when someone in the adjacent bathroom stall is on an important call.
  • What cellphone conversations should be off-limits in public?

[Read rest of review.]

Socializing expands brain size?

Flickr photo by taod

This is by no means an overnight phenomenon.

Scholars at Oxford have refuted the notion that all mammals over time developed larger brains.  Instead Dr. Susanne Shultz and Prof. Robin Dunbar found over a span of 60 million years that more social creatures, among them humans, had the most rapidly expanding brain sizes to cope with the complexity of collaboration, social norms and coordination.

“The research team analysed available data on the brain size and body size of more than 500 species of living and fossilised mammals. It found that the brains of monkeys grew the most over time, followed by horses, dolphins, camels and dogs. The study shows that groups of mammals with relatively bigger brains tend to live in stable social groups. The brains of more solitary mammals, such as cats, deer and rhino, grew much more slowly during the same period.”

They noted that the fact that cats’ brains did not expand while dogs’ and horses’ brains did, can be accounted for by the far more solitary lives that cats lead in relation to dogs and horses, which interact far more with humans.

Obviously, since these evolutionary anthropologists couldn’t go back in time to distinguish social cavemen from more solitary cavemen, it is impossible to tell whether the expansion of brain size was related to the average levels of socialization of a species or whether this same pattern would have held true at the individual level: with offspring of more social parents having larger brains than offspring of less social humans.

Nonetheless, food for thought…  The implication: get out and socialize and help our species to continue to grow our average brain size, although the results may not be noticeable within your lifetime.

See “Socialising led to bigger brains in some mammals

The study is called “Encephalization is not a universal macroevolutionary phenomenon in mammals but is associated with sociality” (PNAS Journal, November 30, 2010, by Susanne Shultz and Robin Dunbar).  Abstract here.

Shultz and Dunbar’s center, Oxford University’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, is here.

The Friendship Paradox: using social networks to predict spread of epidemics

Nick Christakis and James Fowler (whose research we’ve previously highlighted) is back with research that shows how one can easily use “sensors” in a network to track and get early warning regarding the spread of epidemics.

They took advantage of the “friendship paradox” to do so.  In any real-life network, our friends are more popular than we are.  [This is true mathematically in any group with some loners and some social butterflies.  If you poll members in the group about their friendships, far more of those friends who are reported are going to be the social butterflies.  If far more people reported friendships with the loners, they wouldn't be loners.  See discussion here.]

Thus by asking random people in a network, in this case Harvard students, about their friends, researchers know that their friends are more centrally located in these networks.    Then one can track behavior among the random group and their friends, in this case the spread of H1N1 flu (swine flu) among 744 Harvard students in 2009.

Those more central in these networks (the “friend” group) got the flu a full 16-47 days earlier than the random group.  Thus, for public authorities, monitoring such a “friend” group could give one early indication of a spreading epidemic; they could serve as “canaries in the coal mine”.  If the process of spreading was person-to-person rather than being exposed to some impersonal information (via a website or a broadcast), one could also track the difference between a random group and a friend group to predict other more positive epidemics, like the spread of information, or the diffusion of a product, or a social norm.

We write in general on this blog about the positive benefits of social ties (social capital), but Fowler and Christakis’ study also shows you that having friends and being centrally located has its costs: in this case getting the flu faster.  [In some ways, this is analogous to Gladwell's discussion in the Tipping Point of how Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen may be disproportionately influential in the spread of ideas through networks, although Fowler and Christakis are far more mathematical in identifying who these central folks are.]

The “friends group manifested the flu roughly two weeks prior to the random group using one method of detection, and a full 46 days prior to the epidemic peak using another method.

‘We think this may have significant implications for public health,’ said Christakis. ‘Public health officials often track epidemics by following random samples of people or monitoring people after they get sick. But that approach only provides a snapshot of what’s currently happening. By simply asking members of the random group to name friends, and then tracking and comparing both groups, we can predict epidemics before they strike the population at large. This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response.’

‘If you want a crystal ball for finding out which parts of the country are going to get the flu first, then this may be the most effective method we have now,’ said Fowler. ‘Currently used methods are based on statistics that lag the real world – or, at best, are contemporaneous with it. We show a way you can get ahead of an epidemic of flu, or potentially anything else that spreads in networks.’

Christakis also notes that if you provided a random 30% in a population with immunity to a flu, you don’t protect the greater public, but if you took a random 30% of the population, asked them to name their friends, and then provided immunization to their friends, in a typical network the “friend” immunization strategy would achieve as high immunity protection for the entire network as giving 96% of the population immunity shots, but at less than 1/3 the cost.

The following video shows how the nodes that light up first (markers for getting the flu) are more central and far less likely to be at the periphery of the social network.  The red dots are people getting the flu; the yellow dots are friends of people with the flu and the size of the dot is proportional to how many of their friends have the flu.

Good summary of this research and its implications here: Nick Christakis TED talk (June 2010) – How social networks predict spread of flu.  Nick also discusses some of the implications of computational social science, which we’ve previously discussed here under the heading of digital traces.  Nick discusses how one could use data gathered from these networks (either passively or actively) to do things like predict recessions from patterns of fuel consumption by truckers, to communicate with drivers of a road of impending traffic jams ahead of them (by monitoring from cell phone users on the road ahead of them how rapidly they are changing cell phone towers) to asking those central in a mobile cellphone network (easily mapable today) to text their daily temperature (to monitor for impending flu epidemics).  Obviously these raise issues of privacy, which Nick does not discuss.

News release of study

Academic article in PLoS ONE

James Fowler on The Colbert Report discussing the book by Fowler and Christakis called Connected.


Nick Christakis presenting a talk at TED — The Hidden Influence of Social Networks. (February 2010).  In the talk he notes that while almost half of the variation in our number of friends is genetically-based (46%), that another equally large portion (47%) of whether your friends know each other is a function of whether your friends are the type that introduce (“knit”) their friends together or keep them apart (what they call “transitivity”).  About a third of whether you are in the center of social networks or not is genetically inherited.  Christakis believes that these social networks are critically important to transmitting ideas, and kindness, and information and goodness; and if society realized how valuable these networks were, we’d focus far more of our time, energy and resources into helping these networks to flourish.

Wired to cooperate?

An interesting article in the Science Times section of the NY Times discusses research by developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello (appearing in Why We Cooperate).

At 18 months of age, Tomasello finds that toddlers almost universally immediately help out an adult who needs assistance because his/her arms are full.  What Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, doesn’t know if altruism is innate; 18 months is typically an age before toddlers are taught how to behave.

Not so fast.  As the Times points out: “It’s probably safe to assume that they haven’t been explicitly and directly taught to do this,” said Elizabeth Spelke, a developmental psychologist at Harvard. “On the other hand, they’ve had lots of opportunities to experience acts of helping by others. I think the jury is out on the innateness question.”

But Tomasello observes these same helping behaviors across cultures, despite the fact that they teach social behavior on different schedules and may have different beliefs about appropriate social rules.  Moreover, the helping that infants observe is not enhanced by rewards, causing Tomasello to doubt that it has been strongly reinforced.

In some cases Tomasello observes helping behavior with regard to information in infants 12 months old, and even chimpanzees under certain conditions exhibit helping behavior at a young age.

More specifically related to “social capital”, Tomasello finds that age 3, children become less indiscriminately helpful and are more likely to reciprocate earlier helpful behavior from another person.  In addition, they start to develop social norms, like the reciprocity at the heart of social capital.  Parents can help foster these norms through “inductive parenting”, helping children to learn the consequences of their actions.

As the Times points out:  “The basic sociability of human nature does not mean, of course, that people are nice to each other all the time. Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. Experiments have shown that people will reject unfair distributions of money even it means they receive nothing.” [See discussion of dictator games and ultimatum games in this blog post.]

Read the very interesting article “We May Be Born With An Urge To Help” (NYT, Nicholas Wade, 12/1/09) about how humans try to sort out whether to behave selfishly or altruistically.

Crowdsourcing to replace social networks? (UPDATED 5/14/13)

crowdsourcingMark Pesce writes in “This That and the Other Thing” the following:

“The easy answer is the obvious one: crowdsourcing (see also description later in post). The action of a few million hyperconnected individuals resulted in a massive and massively influential work: Wikipedia. But the examples only begin there. They range much further afield.

“Uni [University] students have been sharing their unvarnished assessments of their instructors and lecturers. Ratemyprofessors.com has become the bête noire of the academy, because researchers who can’t teach find they have no one signing up for their courses, while the best lecturers, with the highest ratings, suddenly find themselves swarmed with offers for better teaching positions at more prestigious universities. A simply and easily implemented system of crowdsourced reviews has carefully undone all of the work of the tenure boards of the academy.

“It won’t be long until everything else follows. Restaurant reviews – that’s done. What about reviews of doctors? Lawyers? Indian chiefs? Politicans? ISPs? (Oh, wait, we have that with Whirlpool.) Anything you can think of. Anything you might need. All of it will have been so extensively reviewed by such a large mob that you will know nearly everything that can be known before you sign on that dotted line.

“All of this means that every time we gather together in our hyperconnected mobs to crowdsource some particular task, we become better informed, we become more powerful. Which means it becomes more likely that the hyperconnected mob will come together again around some other task suited to crowdsourcing, and will become even more powerful. That system of positive feedbacks – which we are already quite in the midst of – is fashioning a new polity, a rewritten social contract, which is making the institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries – that is, the industrial era – seem as antiquated and quaint as the feudal systems which they replaced.”

He suggests that these e-connections and contributions can in effect tell us which restaurant can be trusted to eat at, which professor we can entrust to teach us a class.  In principle, one could use this to also pass on social reputation with pictures and names for community residents who had behaved in an untrustworthy manner so others could avoid them.  On its face it sounds like a persuasive argument and part of a strand that suggests that the new technology can always out-do what we used to do.  Assuming the software is effective at eliminating shills (as eBay or Amazon had to contend with — writers or sellers getting fake users or affiliated users from giving them great reviews), these kind of crowdsourcing techniques can be helpful.  Yelp‘s recommendations about restaurants are often good; and Amazon‘s recommendations are instructive.

What can’t these invisible, helping e-networks do?  1) get at the truth with contested theories of what happened; 2) tell you whether you should value A’s comments more than B’s (although in principle the software could rate the comments by friends in common or their reputation); 3) actually be useful for things beyond spreading information (trust, reciprocity, social support, etc.).

Pesce goes on to point out that the technology does have limits.  Technology brings us together in anarcho-syndicalism and offers the potential for community.  But what limits its effectiveness is that we have a collision between the e-crowd and community and community requires us to work together.  We want to copy and mimic what others have done, but that requires each of us to act for the good of others.

“But [our] laziness, it’s built into our culture. Socially, we have two states of being: community and crowd. A community can collaborate to bring a new mobile carrier into being. A crowd can only gripe about their carrier. And now, as the strict lines between community and crowd get increasingly confused because of the upswing in hyperconnectivity, we behave like crowds when we really ought to be organizing like a community.

And this…is..the message I really want to leave you with. You … are the masters of the world. Not your bosses, not your shareholders, not your users. You. You folks, right here and right now. The keys to the kingdom of hyperconnectivity have been given to you. You can contour, shape and control that chaotic meeting point between community and crowd. That is what you do every time you craft an interface, or write a script. Your work helps people self-organize. Your work can engage us at our laziest, and turn us into happy worker bees. It can be done. Wikipedia has shown the way.

And now, as everything hierarchical and well-ordered dissolves into the grey goo which is the other thing, you have to ask yourself, “Who does this serve?”…I want you to remember that each of you holds the keys to the kingdom. Our community is yours to shape as you will. Everything that you do is translated into how we operate as a culture, as a society, as a civilization. It can be a coming together, or it can be a breaking apart. And it’s up to you.”

What Pesce doesn’t discuss is “social capital.”  This seems to be missing from his remarks.  Some of us may serve others in real space or electronically through the goodnesss of our hearts.  We’re do-gooders or e-do.gooders.  But others of us need to understand that these social ties hold us accountable to the group.  They make us more likely to do things for others because we are hardwired to provide more for people inside our circles than outside our circles.  That’s why we give more to our family than to strangers and help friends more than we do a tribe half-way around the world.  Social ties redefine our sense of ‘we’.

It’s hard to believe that exhortations to do good on the Internet, as important as they are, will achieve the optimal amount of communal action.  That is, after all, why commons are overgrazed and oceans are overfished.  Because too many in society realize that there is more to be had from overgrazing and overfishing now rather than letting someone else do it.

Social capital can also help police social norms (of working for others, of contributing, of not taking more than one’s share).  Experimental evidence shows that fairness also seems hardwired into our brains.  We are willing to punish others in experimental Ultimatum or Dictator Games from behaving in a selfish manner, even when it means that we the punisher gets less.

For more on Crowdsourcing, Jeff Howe (from Wired) has an interesting new book, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business (2008).

Definition: A company outsourcing a job traditionally served by employees and fills it through an open call to large undefined group of people, generally using on the internet.  People best qualified to do the job are not always the person that one would first think of to assign a job in a corporation.

CrowdSourcing builds upon The Wisdom of Crowds; in it, Howe identifies 4 ways in which groups can produce better results than individuals: collective intelligence, crowd creation, crowd voting, and crowd funding.

Note: Nobelist Danny Kahneman suggests that the real value of the wisdom of crowd is only when the error of people’s guesses or predictions are uncorrelated and this most likely to happen when we talk to others who disagree with us or are unlike us.

From BusinessWeek’s review of the “Widsom of Crowds” book: “In the first [category], collective intelligence, companies including Dell and gold-mining group Goldcorp ask people inside and outside the company to help solve problems and suggest new products, such as Dell‘s Linux-based computers. The second model, crowd creation, is used by businesses such as Current TV and Frito-Lay to create news segments and video ads. People vote for their favorite T-shirt design at apparel maker Threadless’ Web site, thereby illustrating crowd voting. Startups SellaBand and Kiva use the last model, crowdfunding, to underwrite new music labels and fund microloans to individuals.

“Howe’s best example is iStockphoto, a startup that is undermining the established stock-photo business. The community began in 2000 as a vehicle for hobbyists who wanted to trade their pics. Two years later, iStock began selling photos for 25 cents each to cover bandwidth costs. Clients flocked in, and in 2006, Getty Images bought the enterprise. Now, with 60,000 part-time photographers and illustrators on board, 3.5 million images in the bank, and 2 million customers, iStock is the world’s third-largest dealer of images.

“Howe sweeps away certain misapprehensions about such activity. While it’s true that most people who are involved don’t get paid, they still need incentives. At iStockphoto, that comes in the form of workshops in which people meet and share expertise. And Howe warns that not all crowds are created equal. For example, he suggests that sports teams would do better to use fantasy-league enthusiasts rather than scientists to handicap up-and-coming athletes. Perhaps the hardest lesson for businesses is the importance of including people with whom you don’t ordinarily work. Organizations reinforce similar approaches and inside-the-box thinking. When you’re looking for something truly different, the crowd can lead you down a less traveled path.”

While Howe praises this rise of the ‘virtual crowd’ — you used to have to actually assemble a crowd to benefit and now gee-whiz you can do it on the internet — I wonder whether despite benefits to corporations or individuals (like cheaper pictures on iStockPhoto or better predictions of what ads will work), we’ve lost the social capital inherent in actual crowds or the social capital built from these old-line processes.

If we are migrating to more CrowdSourcing we ought at least pursue what we do (at a minimum via the Internet) to actually bring this virtual crowd together (making creating e-events, maybe creating communities of interest as was the genesis of iStockPhoto, maybe if the virtual crowd is large enough, breaking it down by zip code and encouraging and facilitating pieces of the crowd getting together in real space).  What’s good for the goose is not always so for the gander, and CrowdSourcing is likely to lead to cheaper outcomes (for example photos) and often better, more democratic decisions, it portends to exacerbate the real losses we’ve seen in our true communities over the last generation.

10/7/09 update: Facebook, through Facebook Connect, now uses crowd-sourcing for foreign language translation, getting users to vote on which user-supplied translations are best for various phrases.  More here:

Using community to fight drugs

Flickr photo by funkandjazz

I went to an interesting lunchtime talk of the Overt Drug Market Strategy used in the City of High Point, North Carolina. Presenting were: Jim Summey – Pastor, English Road Baptist Church; Jim Fealy – Chief, High Point Police Department; and Marty Sumner – Assistant Chief, High Point Police Department.

The background to the story is a classic inner city crime-ridden neighborhood where police can’t effectively prosecute drug markets since it looks like community norms sanction them and the community thinks that police are in cahoots with drug dealers because calls to police are relatively ineffectual. Police Chief Fealy called open meetings with the community in 2003 to admit bravely that the police had been ineffective and often caused more harm than good. That led to lots of useful dialogue. The Police Department got community residents to understand both that their walking away from drug dealers let the drug trade continue and that they had a lot of moral outrage about what was happening. The Chief emphasized that by partnering with police they could both dry up the drug markets and all the associated crime.

The police identified the key players in the drug market and then surreptitiously filmed them selling drugs to undercover cops (ideally twice). They made 4 key arrests and then summonsed the other dozen drug dealers to a meeting at the Police Station May 18, 2004. They told the drug dealers to bring a family member and they would not be arrested. The Police arranged for key community leaders (from churches, social service organizations, elders, etc.) and state and local law enforcement to be there. The drug dealers were openly surprised by the community presence at the meeting. There were 4 empty seats for the dealers who had been arrested (with cut-outs indicating how many years each of them would do) and blow-up pictures of the other drug dealers around the room. They had dossiers (crime files) for each of the dozen drug dealers summonsed and police told them that they had all been filmed doing drug sales and would be prosecuted immediately if they sold drugs in High Point again or other neighborhoods. They were told that their life would change immediately in one of two ways: they could turn around their lives (with help from the churches, social services, etc.) or do time.

They intentionally had these drug dealers bring family members so the family members would witness this as well and be a moral force to convince the drug dealers to change.

Half of those at the call-in immediately asked for help and produced a “need sheet” detailing what they needed to stop doing drugs that the police and community agencies worked to provide.

They said that starting the next day, you could see that the market had been broken. The Police only needed to provide additional Police patrols in that neighborhood for the next six weeks. The Police Chief notes that the strategy intentionally has improved relations with the heavily African-American community of West Point where this was tried.

Since then, violent crime in the High Point area has fallen 38% in the 3.5 years as compared with 3.5 years before the call-in. There has not been dispersion of crime to other neighborhoods; there have actually been city-wide drops. And there are qualitative benefits like people now building homes in the area, residents sitting out on front porches and feeling comfortable with kids walking the neighborhood. And the pastor reported increased attendance at the vacation bible school of English Road Baptist Church which had previously been only sparsely attended by community residents. The police also noted for example that someone who made an anonymous 911 call to report a shooting in the West End prior to the call-in felt comfortable being a witness and publicly fingering the shooter one year later when the case went to trial because she felt supported by the police and community.

Drug dealers realized that they could no longer operate with tacit community support. The Police observed that there are non-linear dynamics in the drug trade so if you convince a core number of key individuals not to do drugs and a core number of community members to oppose it, it spreads through the social networks. The dynamics are similar to that noted by Clay Shirky with the ‘Adios Pizzo’ sticker movement in Palermo, Italy. Pizzo refers to payments to the mafia for protection and as the number of pizzo stickers increased, the chance of the mafia being able to take reprisals dropped remarkably, since the mafia could harm one or two community members who felt isolated and not supported by the neighborhood, but couldn’t take action against many, all the more so when there was greater manifestation of community will against the mafia. The Adios Pizza movement also made it easier for residents to find which busineses had signed on to the campaign to make it easier for residents to channel business their way and hence increase social pressure more.

Back to High Point: The police chief noted that the “call-in” meeting was intentionally held in the police quarters so that the police could control the layout, so it sent a strong deterrent message and so the police could eject participants if they weren’t behaving properly.

They have replicated this in Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Raleigh, NC; in Providence, RI; and in Rockford, IL. The US Department of Justice is launching a national program to replicate the strategy in ten cities. The strategy is a brainchild of David Kennedy, who was then a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The presenters noted that critical to the success of replication is having a true partnership with community institutions and getting enough important voices from the community that people from the community who want to speak out have cover for their actions.

The program which won an Innovations in American Government award from Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2007. The PowerPoint presentation from the lunchtime talk will be put up on the Innovations website.  This project was also reported in the Wall Street Journal in “Novel Police Tactic Puts Drug Markets Out of Business” (9/26/06).

Tell people voter turnout will be high and it will increase

Todd Rogers, Ph.D. student at Harvard, is working on an interesting dissertation on the importance of messages in voter turnout.  They randomly assigned voters in California (before the 2006 primary election) and New Jersey (before the 2005 general election) to receive a message that either emphasized low voter turnout (LTO) or high voter turnout (HTO) and saw what influence it had on whether voters actually voted.

 They found that the HTO message actually produced higher turnout among those who heard the message and the LTO message reduced voter turnout.  This is contrary to the *rational choice* model that would assume that voters who expected lower turnout would vote more, since they would perceive that their vote should matter more (as a percentage of all votes cast).

Interestingly, they found that the LTO vs. HTO message did not much affect the frequent voters who were likely to vote regardless of the message, but the HTO message was more likely to mobilize the infrequent voters.   (It should be noted that the message — heard one time by those in the experiement — while it did change the intention to vote statistically significantly, did not produce an enormous effect — the HTO message roughly made voters 3% more likely to turnout and the LTO message surpessed voter intention by a smiliar amount.)

The researchers weren’t constrained by having to deliver truthful messages, but Todd pointed out to me that in any given year, for example with increasing population, you could emphasize high turnout messages such as “more people voted in the last election than ever before”, even if the percentage voting had decreased,  and make it more likely that one would achieve the high turnout result desired.

The paper is consistent with a whole body of “social norms” research (summarized in the Rogers paper) that shows that people are more likely to conform to what they believe are social norms: for example, drinking less in college when low rates of alcohol abuse are publicized, stealing petrified wood more from forests when told that others do, reusing towels more in hotel rooms when told that others reuse towels at high rates, etc.

Note:  The Rogers and Gerber paper unfortunately could only focus on “intention to vote” as a dependent outcome varaible, not actual vote turnout, so they will need to do further work to make sure that the follow-through on “intention to vote” is actually high on these more marginalized voters.

One wonders whether this applies to other forms of civic participation. Presumably it is helpful only in a tipping point sort of behavior where a fairly large number of people do this already and thus others can be encouraged to do likewise, and presumably the benefit would be greatest when there is the greatest discrepancy between people’s guesses about how often a civic action occurs and how often it really does. If some behavior is relatively infrequent (say going to a political rally in the last year), one runs the risk that disclosing how frequent this is could have the adverse affect (at the margin persuading those who do the behavior currently to quit). But some manipulation of the norms could be used, to for example, emphasize how many millions of people went to rallies in the last year rather than focusing on the fact that it was only, say, 15% of the population.

This research will be forthcoming in “Descriptive Social Norms and Voter Turnout: The Importance of Accentuating the Positive” (The Journal of Politics, forthcoming) with Alan Gerber (of Yale Univ.).  Earlier version of this paper available here.

Conserving Energy: My Friends Make Me Do It

Clive Thompson (8/15/07, Wired magazine, “Desktop Orbs Could Reform Energy Hogs“) suggests that we could effectively reduce energy consumption if our daily energy consumption was apparent to all of our friends on a site like MySpace or Facebook or sent it to our friends through an RSS feed.

Friends might compete to be more eco-friendly.

Thompson notes that such of eco-feedback mechanisms already work: hybrid-car owners try to maximize their energy efficiency through on-board real time dashboard displays showing instantanteous gas mileage.  Electricity company NStar notes that when customers have monitors that display real time energy use across their appliances, they change their behaviors and average 15-25% less energy consumption.

This suggested approach marries the use of feedback mechanisms with the power of social norms, and threatens to ostracize people who drive hummers or fail to replace their incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones.

Thompson writes:  “it could spawn a cascade of conservation. It’s fun seeing your personal energy tab go down by kilowatts — but just imagine watching the world’s usage plunge by terawatts or petawatts. It would be like a global Prius, with millions worldwide tweaking the Earth for maximum mileage. Now that’s fun.”