Who Are We Affected By?

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment


I’ve been reading, with great fascination, the book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler — and I read a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday morning about the rise of the Teaparty Movement across the US.  And I’m fascinated by the intersections.

I’d heard about Christakis and Fowler’s research a while ago – when they announced that things like obesity and love move through networks.  Upon closer reading, I’m fascinated that there are, generally, three degrees of influence.  That we are affected by our friends (one degree), by the friends of our friends (two degrees) and by the friends of their friends (three degrees).  Beyond that, there’s not much that’s measurable.  But at three degrees of influence, we are deeply influenced by a large number of people! And it’s who are in many ways local to us (though certainly that is changing).

So I’ve been thinking this morning about the power of networks – and what has seemed to me like a wild emergence in the building of the Teaparty Movement.   But stepping back, I’m wondering if I’m seeing something more.

For the last few months, I’ve been using twitter to follow both the teaparty (#teaparty) and the “top conservatives on twitter” (#tcot). I’ve been surprised at the divergent thinking with amazingly organized tactics. There’s a concerted effort, every Tuesday, for people to give $5 to a congressional campaign of a teaparty supported candidate (rather than buying an expensive coffee, etc.). And as I read the article in the New York Times, I noticed that this is a very decentralized network – primarily organized at a local level, with local narratives driving the organizing – but a centralized framing (people get together regularly to watch Glenn Beck on television). Christakis and Fowler talk about how contagious emotion is – that sickness and emotion spread quickly through groups of people. And I started wondering if, in fact, part of what happens when a group of people get together to watch Glenn Beck is just this.

Personally, I find the desire to dismantle this Administration and prevent making any change terrifying. (I say this as an individual, not as part of IISC.) I find the drive to build militias and create a right wing rebellion terrifying. The racist overtones and undertones are horrifying – as is the lack of acknowledgment of the importance of a commons. And at the same time, I must admit that some of the tactics & approach, are fascinating and seem worth examining. This is applying network theory to organizing, to democracy. Building small, local narrative with a shared national framing.

What else do you see?

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