Category Archives: tipping point

City-wide social capital building efforts [UPDATED 3/2/12]

Connector Project

People frequently ask me of examples of city-wide efforts to build social capital.  The are several examples in Better Together of Tupelo, MS and what Portland did with city boundaries. Beyond this, Seattle had an interesting program called the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods’ Neighborhood Matching Fund (that provided mini-grants for neighborhood improvement efforts where residents provided matching sweat equity), Minneapolis’ Neighborhood Revitalization Program (where city power was devolved to local neighborhoods to set priorities), and the interesting Front Porch Alliance under Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith (which has not been as vigorously advocated in subsequent administrations).

NYC Service

I’m aware of several more contemporary examples:  NYC Service (and the Cities of Service effort to replicate this), Philadelphia’s Connector Program, and Social Capital, Inc.

NYC Service

Inspired by President Obama’s call for a new era of service, Mayor Bloomberg in his January 2009 State of the City address announced that New York City would lead the way in responding.

After consulting with volunteer groups that worked in the arts, with students, and with seniors to learn what was most needed, they launched NYC Service with Diahann Billings-Burford as their inaugural Chief Service Officer.  NYC Service would enable NYC  to do more with less (since economic times were tight) and help harness volunteers in “impact service”.

NYC Service, in its several years, has achieved impressive results.  They have used citizens to vaccinate over half a million individuals against H1N1; engaged over 400,000 students in school-based volunteering; trained over 10,000 people in CPR who then trained additional New Yorkers; and coated two million square feet of rooftop under their “Cool Roofs” program with reflective white material to lower building’s cooling costs in the summer and help alleviate global warming.

They also launched the Civic Corps, a full-time group of AmeriCorps stipended volunteers who work in the Mayor’s Office or with city non-profits to help those non-profits mobilize volunteers.  The Civic Corps in FY11 recruited almost three quarters of a million volunteers, raised $1 million in cash and $6 million in non-cash donations, such as professional services, clothing, food and books.

Over 2,500 volunteer opportunities have been posted to NYC Service (their volunteer clearinghouse website) and they have garnered over 600,000 unique website visitors looking for volunteer opportunities.   Between their website and the Civic Corps, NYC Service has mobilized over a million NYC volunteers.

Although NYC Service does not directly track this, one of the most important outcomes (above and beyond how many success mentors they train or how many square feet of roofs they paint white), is the social capital and civic engagement that NYC Service instills.  Studies have shown that for many governmental objectives (say keeping streets safe or increasing academic performance), a civic engagement strategy (through neighbors knowing each others’ first names or parents being more involved in their kids’ learning) is more efficacious than a top-down government-funded approach.

NYC Service is undoubtedly increasing citizens’ sense of efficacy (that they can and are making a difference on issues like the environment or school readiness or dealing with truancy).  This increased efficacy is likely to cause more New Yorkers to intervene elsewhere (e.g., when someone has fallen on a street or is having a heart attack, or when a neighbor needs assistance).

Implicitly, much of what government does is remediating for gaps in civil society.  For example, social service and safety nets step in where family and neighbors don’t.  Police are necessary where social sanction and control is insufficient to police social norms.  Paid Fire Departments are needed when all-volunteer fire departments can’t fulfill their duties.

The social capital created by NYC Service is likely to have a significant impact, way above and beyond the value of volunteer hours (which are important and sizeable in-and-of themselves).  Greater local participation down the road is likely to lead to: a) better crafted and more responsive local policies; b) better performing and less corrupt government since the civic engagement and transparency will hold government officials accountable; c) greater net ability to change citizen behavior relative to an approach that relies on mandates (which are harder to get enacted and less popular); and d) potentially less of a need for government down the road, if engaged citizens do their jobs effectively.

Replication of NYC Service: NYC Service is already being replicated. Mayor Bloomberg held a competition (funded by Rockefeller) and a selection panel chose 10 cities from the cities that applied in June 2010.  These winners received $200,000 each to cover some of costs of a Chief Service Officer (which they had to hire) and received wraparound technical assistance (with work-planning, and project management).  Rockefeller and Bloomberg Philanthropies  announced a second grant round with 10 winners and awarded them in June 2010.

Bloomberg Philanthropies created a “learning community” around these 20 cities [see Cities of Service] with the goal of cross-fertilizing learning, experience sharing, and developing best practices.  The CSOs came together face-to-face 2-3 times during the first year, engage in bi-weekly group conference calls, and receive individual technical assistance.

Bloomberg Philanthropies created a “Cities of Service Playbook” that specifies a process they recommend for Cities of Service in coming up with a service plan.  CSOs in the first round were hired by May 2010 and these 10 were first convened in June 2010 and provided technical assistance.  The first group developed service plans in Sept. 2010.  The second group developed service plans by March 2011.  [The first group consisted of Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville, Newark, Omaha, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Savannah and Seattle.  The second group consisted of Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, Chula Vista, Houston, Little Rock, Orlando, Pittsburgh, and Richmond.]

New cities have also agreed to develop high-impact service plans that were not grantees in these two competitive rounds.   Some of the original cities  now have the CSO position supported by their budget or have indicated  they will include the CSO in their budget.

We’ll look forward to hearing more about NYC Service and their replication efforts.

Philadelphia’s Connector Program:

Started by Liz Dow in 2005 as the Connector Project and based on Bowling Alone and Malcolm Gladwell’s work on connectors and the Tipping Point, they are now in their third iteration, and have renamed themselves Creative Connectors. They identify leaders who use arts, culture and design to build community and create economic vitality.  Liz was struck by the observation in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg” that “poverty is not deprivation, it is isolation.”

From their three years they have identified 10 traits in connectors (what they call “the Connector Competency Model”) and convened these connectors to connect them with each other.

Liz wrote up her experience in 6 Degrees of Connection and a fuller description of the ten competencies which cutely spell out “CONNECTORS”:

  1. C: Community Catalyst
  2. O: Other-oriented
  3. N: Network Hub
  4. N: Navigating Mazes
  5. E: Empowering Passion
  6. C: Constantly Curious
  7. T: Trustworthy
  8. O: Optimistic
  9. R: Results Achiever
  10. S: Self-Starter.

The list of creative connectors was generated by an online survey circulated by partner organizations and through an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  While these connectors are important in Philadelphia, 3 out of 4 of the leaders identified had moved to Philadelphia from somewhere else, and they generally work in the non-profit sector.  Creative Connectors also looks for leaders who:

  • “are hubs of trust, seen as trustworthy and credible.
  • use art and design to mobilize people around an issue.
  • foster one-to-one linkages among people they know.
  • engage with diverse groups.
  • consider the common good as well as personal agendas.
  • convey a vision that generates excitement.
  • think strategically, act decisively.
  • have founded an organization or program.”

Each Connector was profiled and NPR will do a video on each one weekly over the next year.

Philadelphia’s Creative Connectors is being replicated by some other groups including Leadership Louisville and the Portland Connector Project.  [And I’ve learned that a Boston connector network already exists, no relation to the effort in Philadelphia, see comment below about Boston World Partnerships.]

Last week, Leadership Philadelphia convened all of the Connectors since 2005 to thank them for their contribution to the community, to connect them with the newest connectors, to have them brainstorm on an issue raised in Knight’s Soul of the Community report, and to send them out into the community to make a Pay It Forward contribution.  The latter was a gift of $50 cash with the instruction that they give it to someone in Philadelphia who needs it, and to report back to Leadership, stirring up some grassroots goodwill during the holidays.

Leadership Philadelphia has also initiated a This I Believe project, partnering with the local NPR station to have leaders and then other citizens write and then read their belief statements on air.

Read a news report on their most recent meeting of all their Connectors.   The group that launched Creative Connectors, Leadership Philadelphia has a website here.  The Connector Project website available here.

Social Capital, Inc.

Inspired by reading Bowling Alone, David Crowley, whom I regard as an unofficial mayor of social capital, decided to launch Social Capital, Inc.

David was moving to Woburn, MA (his home town) at the same time as he was inspired to see what he could do at a local level to rebuild social capital.  He launched SCI and focused on trying to increase social capital in Woburn.

As David puts it: “The process of reconnecting to his home community after some 12 years of living elsewhere provided tangible examples of barriers to building social capital in today’s society, but also suggested that there were many community assets that could be harnessed through collaborative, community-wide social capital building initiative. The basic idea of developing a local model that could be replicated in order to address the decline of social capital and civic engagement was born.”

SCI Woburn was launched in summer 2002. In 2004, SCI expanded to Dorchester and in 2006-07, SCI began work in Lynn.  They have now expanded to Fall River and Milford.

SCI sees their mission as developing new “social capitalists” and believes it can train young people in the “unique set of skills and attitudes that enables them to collaborate effectively, make connections, bridge differences, and nurture social networks to make a difference. David is an ardent evangelist for social capital.  They are in the process of developing tools for would-be social capitalists and we will let you know when those become available.

In 2010-2011, here are some of SCI’s accomplishments.

  • SCI AmeriCorps members recruited over 2,500 community volunteers and a almost 70,000 residents of  Dorchester, Boston, Fall River, Milford, Lynn and Woburn have benefitted from their service. The AmeriCorps members & volunteers served almost 50,000 hours with a market value of $1.25 million (based on Independent Sector’s rates for volunteer service)
  • 240 youth and other emerging leaders developed Social Capitalist skills with SCI this year.
  • Over 4,015 food & clothing items have been generated by SCI AmeriCorps members and volunteers for people in need during these difficult economic times.
  • Over 12,500 individuals use an SCI community portal every month to connect with local civic happenings.
Advertisements

Bowling Alone Down Under

Andrew Leigh, former economics professor at the Australian National University and recently elected as a Labor Member of Parliament, has published Disconnected.

He finds that Australians, like Americans, are increasing “bowling alone” and thinks the most likely culprits are long working hours, women’s entry into the paid workplace, increased commuting, television, diversity, technologies that discourage connection, and tipping points.

The following is an excerpt from the book:

Several measures of social capital are on the wane.

Organisational membership is down. We are less likely to attend church. Political parties and unions are bleeding members. Sporting participation and cultural attendance are down.

Volunteering is likely below its post-war peak, though it did record a rise in the late 1990s.

We have fewer friends and are less connected with our neighbours than in the mid-80s. Other measures have flatlined, but few have risen.

So what explains the trends in social capital? First, let’s exonerate one defendant. The character variously known as “economic reform”, “economic liberalism” or “economic rationalism” frequently has been blamed for eroding social capital.

For example, Australian sociologist Eva Cox takes the view that free markets undermine trust and reciprocity. She writes that “the idea of the social is losing ground to the concepts of competition, and the money markets are replacing governments. The social aspects of humanity have somehow disappeared and we are left with a more atomised image of individuals competing in an endless process of distrust.”

Cox argues that means-tested social welfare, privatisation of banks and airlines, user pays and private health insurance have contributed to a decline in social capital in Australia.

From a similar perspective, another sociologist, Michael Pusey, contends that the “aggressive re-engineering of our institutions [has] brought a decline in trust . . . There’s a tendency for people to view others as competitors rather than friendly strangers.”

What both these critiques miss is that when two people repeatedly interact with one another in a market, they are likelier to behave well towards one another.

A plumber who turns up on time and charges the quoted price is a guy you’ll hire again. A boss who encourages workers to knock off early on quiet days is likelier to find employees willing to stay a little longer when times are busy.

In my view, there are seven plausible explanations for the drop in some social capital measures in Australia: long working hours, the feminisation of the workplace, car commuting, television, diversity, impersonal technologies and tipping points.

* Working hours: When I ask friends why they think social capital may be declining, the most common answer is “everyone is working longer hours”. But the truth is a little more complicated.

Despite the oft-heard rhetoric about how average working hours are rising, the bare facts show average hours of work have actually declined since the late 1970s.

On average, employed men work about three fewer hours a week than they did in the late 70s, while employed women work about two fewer hours a week.

However, just looking at averages masks the major changes that have taken place in Australian work patterns in the past generation. While the average working week has shortened modestly, there has been a growth in both short-hour and long-hour jobs. There is an increasing proportion of workers in jobs that require fewer than 35 hours a week, and a higher proportion in jobs that take more than 45 hours a week.

The “regular job” isn’t so regular any more.

* Feminisation: In the 50s, if a classroom of children were asked what their mothers did, most would have answered that their mother was a homemaker; it would have been an unusual child who stated their mother worked.

By the 80s, the proportions with working and non-working mothers would probably have been about equal.

And today the children with homemaker mothers would be in the minority.

From 1978 to 2009, the share of women who were employed rose from 40% to 55%. The largest increase was in part-time work, which nearly doubled from 14% in the late 70s to 25% in 2009.

Not surprisingly, this increased participation in the paid workforce has led to women spending less time doing housework.

Acknowledging that rising female labour force participation may have reduced social capital outside the home is not to suggest Australia is worse off as a result. The increasing feminisation of Australia’s companies is the best hope for workplace social capital.

* Car commuting: Solo car commuting is the least social way of getting to and from work. Part of the reason for this is it takes a considerable amount of time out of the day. Over a given distance, a car will generally get you there quicker than public transport. As a consequence, a rise in car commuting has allowed people to choose houses even farther from their workplace.

* Television: Over time, some of us seem to have replaced friends with Friends, and neighbours with Neighbours. There is no shortage of programs about people doing active things, from sports to cooking to dancing. But the irony is these programs have become popular precisely when Australians are participating in fewer social activities.

* Diversity: A spate of studies suggests continued high levels of immigration will bring a raft of economic and social benefits to Australia. But we should not gild the lily. Most likely, higher diversity will lead to lower levels of interpersonal trust.

It will also create an opening for opportunistic political entrepreneurs. The challenge for policy-makers is how to maintain the present levels of immigration while mitigating the impact on our social and political fabric. When it comes to interpersonal trust, one useful strategy would be to focus more attention on the problem itself: building local trust in immigrant communities. It may also be that, through time, race and ethnicity become less salient divisions in Australia.

Harvard University professor Robert Putnam argues that diversity reduces trust since people “act like turtles”, hunkering down to avoid those who are somehow different. Yet he also sees hope in the declining importance of the Catholic-Protestant divide in the US over the past half-century.

* Impersonal technologies: In sentencing actor Charlie Sheen for using prostitutes, the judge reportedly asked why a famous man like him would have to pay for sex. Sheen’s answer: “I don’t pay them for sex. I pay them to leave.” Revolting as Sheen’s sentiments may sound, they reflect one way technology has changed our interactions with one another.

As Yale economist Ian Ayres has pointed out, many people may be willing to pay a premium to avoid human interactions. If you don’t like to chat with the person staffing the cash register, many large stores will let you scan your own groceries. If you prefer not to speak with the person at the service station, pay at the pump. If you don’t like dealing with lecturers and classmates in person, sign up for distance education.

In some cases, technologies have crowded out human interaction because the new machines are better. Who bothers popping to a bookstore when they can get the book on their Kindle in less than a minute? In other cases, companies offer discounts for customers who interact only online. Most banks levy a surcharge on over-the-counter withdrawals (essentially asking customers to pay for a face-to-face conversation).

Like physical fitness, our skill in chatting with others is a learned habit. Pay a visit to Manhattan, and you’ll be struck by how comfortably and readily most New Yorkers can chat with someone they have never met before. A Reader’s Digest survey of 35 cities ranked New York No. 1 for civility. It’s not because Manhattan residents have the gene for sociability but because when you share a small island with 1.6 million other people, helping one another and making conversation is what you have to do to get by each day.

The difficulty with these explanations is we can say good things about most of them. Australia is clearly better off for being a more ethnically diverse nation, in which more women participate in the paid workforce than in the past.

Long working hours mostly reflect the preferences of workers, not bosses. Few of us would voluntarily relinquish cars, televisions or ATMs. What this means is any attempt to increase social capital in Australia will not involve a backlash against the causes, but innovative strategies to make us more socially connected. We need to shape a better future, not simply try to revive the past.

Read Australian Prime Minister’s (Julia Gillard’s) comments on Disconnected.

Hear Andrew Leigh on  Oct. 8, 2010 ABC Radio National show “The National Interest.”

Read Andrew Leigh’s op-ed on the connections between social capital and the economy: “Connections Add Value“, Australian Financial Review, Oct. 12, 2010

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.

Can your friends affect your weight?

Nicholas Christakis (at the Harvard School of Public Health) (together with James Fowler at U. Cal. San Diego) has done very interesting research with the landmark Framingham Heart Study looking at the likelihood of obesity. They find, after tracking some 12,000 individuals through the 32-year long study (1971-2003), that even controlling for all the genetic markers for obesity (like parents’ obesity) and weight at the study’s baseline, having fat friends increases the chance that you will be fat.  [The Framingham study participants could list only up to 3 friends, so the friends being discussed here are closer, stronger friends, rather than weaker ties.]

Having an obese friend increased one’s likelihood of obesity by 57%, with a smaller effect for siblings and spouses. This risk of developing obesity rose to 171% for the closest mutual friendships. Having very large neighbors had no effect on obesity if those neighbors weren’t friends of the individual in question.

The study found that the network impact of friends on obesity could be seen in as small as 2-4 year increments.

Christakis discounted other likely factors such as environmental (since it didn’t matter how close geographically ones’ friends were, making it less likely that they are both responding to something in the neighborhood, for example).  They did code the data for density of fast food restaurants and it did not make this effect go away.  [The fact that long-distance close friends influence obesity as much as nearby close friends is very surprising;  for sure, if respondents are still listing this long-distance friend as one of their three closest friends, they must have stayed in regular contact, but I would have thought that obese friends made respondents feel more comforable being obese partly by physically seeing an obese friend, and this is presumably less common with geographically distant friends.

And Christakis thinks the mechanism is “induction”; having an overweight person list YOU as their friend doesn’t increase your likelihood of being obese, but your listing an overweight person as YOUR friend does.  The impact of these friendships decreases with social distance (in other words, your friends affect your weight more than your friends’ friends, which is more consequential than the weight of your friends’ friends’ friends, etc.) but they still have an impact out to three degrees of separation.  And same sex friends influence your weight gain more than opposite sex friends.

Christakis thinks that people with heavier friends either come to think of themselves as less fat or else it validates their obesity in a way that wouldn’t be the case if their friends were thinner.  (But the study showed that it wasn’t the simple story of a change in physical exercise or eating habits from these friends.)  And there is homophily in obesity — in other words, fat people are more likely to choose overweight friends and thin people are more likely to pick thin friends.  And if overweight people have thin friends or vice-versa, these relationships tend to be less stable over time (the thin people are more likely to drop their overweight friends or become more obese).

The New York Times notes that: “Science has shown that individuals have genetically determined ranges of weights, spanning perhaps 30 or so pounds for each person. But that leaves a large role for the environment in determining whether a person’s weight is near the top of his or her range or near the bottom. As people have gotten fatter, it appears that many are edging toward the top of their ranges. The question has been why. ” (“Find Yourself Packing It On? Blame Friends, NYT, 7/26/07).  The study suggests that social contagion of obesity through networks may be the explanation.

Christakis thinks that the role of social networks may be one of the explanations for the increasing obesity in America (along with other factors like exercise, change in eating habits like supersizing of food and more fast food and soft drinks, etc.).  The social networks may have changed norms and made weight gains more acceptable, even outside of any change in behavior.    Moreover Christakis thinks that we might be able to use the structure of social networks to fight obesity, by for example fighting obesity in groups rather than with individuals.  If there can be a social contagion of obesity, how might we start a social contagion of weighing less?  Co-author James Fowler noted that having a friend that was able to lower his or her weight down made it easier for one to lose weight; that’s why weight loss programs often function using groups, to reinforce the attempted change in behavior. But this question of spurring a social contagion for good is exactly the kind of question that Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point considers.

Christakis and colleagues have also found similar network properties in this study to the spread of smoking, but the cessation of smoking was not a factor in individuals gaining weight or not.

Finally Christakis thinks that we may undervalue health interventions since we look only at the impact of the intervention on one individual rather than examining the multipliers on this investment through his/her social network.

The authors note that there are many social and health benefits of  friendship so their study is not a reason not to develop friends with anyone.

Follow-up posts on this study available here, and here.

The Christakis et al article is published today in the New England Journal of Medicine and a summary of some of the findings is available in this Harvard Gazette story.

There’s a neat visual representation of the obesity spreading through the social networks over time in this video.

See also, Clive Thompson, “Is Happiness Catching?” (NYT Sunday Magazine, 9/13/09)

The ecological rhythms of empires

Much has been written elsewhere about the battles that go on between humans and viruses.  Preston’s The Hot Zone and others illuminate that our increased connectedness through international trade and travel makes us increasingly vulnerable to strands of viruses, whether they be Ebola, AIDS or Avian flu.  It’s the very pace and rhythm of our interconnectedness that enables the virus to spread much more rapidly, overwhelming us before we have a chance to adequately fight it.  Of course what’s bad for the goose is bad for the gander.  Viruses really want a host that they can live off of for a while, and Gladwell’s Tipping Point demonstrates that point with contagious diseases.  The ideal for a virus is to be somewhat infectious but not too much, so it doesn’t kill off the supply of hosts to infect.  [Barry’s The Great Influenza, another really interesting read, also makes this point about the optimal infection rates of viruses.]

Reading Jonathan Freedland’s review in the New York Review of Books (Bush’s Amazing Achievement) makes one think about the ecological rhythms and dynamics of empires.  Empires expand to increase their impact and then (like Rome, or the Hapsburgs, or the British Empire) are laid low by their over-extensions.  It’s as though there is an invisible bug called “rebellion” or “problems” and as the empire extends too far, it’s far less able to withstand these challenges (due to stretched resources), in the same way as an overtired person or an AIDS patient or a newborn infant is much more susceptible to catching diseases and being laid low.

Jonathan Freedland’s review of 3 books suggests that foreign policy blunders of Bush (being a unilateralist cowboy, taking on Iraq when we didn’t have to, etc.) have left us with an infected leg.  We now can cling to the Empire, and as the Romans in the process lose both our Empire and Republic, or follow the Brits and abandon our empire to save our democracy. Freedland discusses Johnson’s Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. Freedland writes: “Johnson joins those who urge Americans, despite their anti-imperial origins in ejecting King George, to see that they have succeeded both ancient Rome and nineteenth-century Britain in becoming the empire of their age. This impulse became fashionable in the post–September 11 period, including among those who saw the imperial mission in a benign light.  Johnson’s perspective is very different. He wants the scales to fall from American eyes so that the nation can see the truth about its role in the world, a truth he finds ugly.

“Scholars can make a parlor game of compare and contrast between Washington and Rome, and the parallels are indeed striking.  Both rank as the predominant military powers of their time, Rome brooking no competition, while, by Johnson’s reckoning, US military spending exceeds that of all the other defense budgets on earth combined. In each case, military strength both fosters and is fostered by technological prowess: while Roman armies built the straight roads that served as the arteries of their conquered lands, so the US Department of Defense incubated the information superhighway, the Internet that now girdles the globe.

“The Romans often preferred to exercise power through friendly client regimes, rather than direct rule: until Jay Garner and L. Paul Bremer became US proconsuls in Baghdad, that was the American method too. Rome even took in the scions of their defeated peoples’ leading families, the better to prepare them for their future as Rome’s puppets; perhaps comparable are Washington’s elite private schools, full of the “pro-Western” Arab kings, South American presidents, and Afri-can leaders of the future. Sometimes the approach backfired, then and now. Several of those who rebelled against Rome had earlier been sponsored as pliant allies; their contemporary counterparts would surely be Saddam Hussein, a former US ally against Iran, and the one-time CIA-funded “freedom fighter,” Osama bin Laden.”

And Johnson says that the fact that America does not have colonies should blind us to the hundreds of thousands of Americans and the 700-1000+ U.S. military bases we have fighting overseas for our interests.

Interesting food for thought…

Social capital marketing (word of mouth)

Cordelia Fine and Paul Harrison  writing for the Australian in “Word of mouth marketing can leave behind a sour taste” (5/16/07) note that companies use of the “just like you” personality in marketing reflects their understanding of social capital, since they trick us into thinking that a friend just like us really is recommending a product.

Sometimes they are. Some companies actually get friends to sell the product.  MCI’s Friends and Family program encouraged people using MCI to convince their friends and familiy to join so they’d have cheaper calls to these new MCI members. “One baby-care company offers a modest product voucher as an incentive for so-called ambassadors, who act as middlemen for targeted marketing to their friends (whose contact details they helpfully provide to the company).” (Fine/Harrison)  They also note that Greengrocer.com.au … gives discounts to those who bring in new customers.

Some companies take an ever fuller approach, getting citizens to become their marketers and salesforce and sell through home parties.  In the U.S., Amway or Tupperware are prime examples.     Fine and Harrison write: “Marketers are well aware that friends implicitly trust each other to return favours. As the clever minds behind ‘party plan selling’ so profitably realised, reciprocity between friends is a reliable tool. When a friend invites you to a Tupperware party, you sit on her sofa, drink her tea and eat her cake. Place yourself under this obligation and you are all but guaranteed to leave poorer than you arrived.” We believe these friends’ recommendations because we assume (incorrectly in the case of Amway distributors, for instance) that their recommendations are motivated more by our interests than their self-interest.

Other companies recruit “buzz agents” to test free samples and to recommend (“buzz”) products to their friends. Almost half of Fortune 500 companies use agents and Fine/Harrison note that they “‘build social capital by being in the know and always having something to talk about’, as one US company puts it.”  In some cases they apparently know no bounds. A buzz agent tried to hype an eye gel called No Puffery at her grandfather’s wake [according to Rob Walker, “Hidden (in plain sight) Persuaders” in The New York Times].  A relative at the wake noted how well the bereaved granddaughter was looking, and the buzz agent launched into buzz mode: “No Puffery helped to keep me looking calm instead of puffy-eyed and horrible, as I felt.”

Malcom Gladwell in The Tipping Point notes that companies often intentionally try to recruit buzz agents or learn the taste of those who are central to social networks and are trend setters so they can influence others’ behavior, either through social communication or through friends and others wanting to emulate these influencers’ behaviors.

Buzz agents, home marketers (like Amway reps) and the like are distinct from viral marketing which does involve social capital (i.e., it spreads through social networks) but it is not exploitative.  In other words, if I love a band on MySpace and tell my friends about it through e-mail, or if I see a funny video on JibJab and e-mail it to my friends, the popularity spreads easily because of social networks, but the sender of the e-mail does not stand to profit from the referral (other than getting credit from the recipient for being ‘in the know’ if he/she likes the band or finds the video funny).

Moreover, many social networking sites (many found here) are premised on the notion that harnessing these social networks can be highly effective, whether it to find a mate or date, to land a job, or to seal a business deal.

Fine and Harrison note that using friendships to sell products cany be a virus that kills the underlying relationship when friends realize that it was their ‘friend’s’ self-interest that motivated their recommendations.

Your thoughts?