Saturday, March 13, 2010

Change And The Small World Problem

In the 1960's, Stanley Milgram asked the question: if you take two people at random and find the shortest path of connections linking them together, what is the average number of links? How connected are we to total strangers? It became known as the small world problem.
The mean number of intermediaries observed in this study was somewhat greater than five
So, five or six. Hence, the six degrees of separation. Since Milgram asked that question, the small world problem has become rather popular. No doubt you have played the Kevin Bacon game at some point in your life. It sparked an entirely new field of study, called network theory or social network analysis.

Network theory looks at the structure of specific networks and the patterns of paths connecting individuals in those networks. While Milgram analyzed how quickly individuals picked at random could be connected, network theorists take a step back and look at the make up of communities. What they are finding can radically change the world. And all because of one significant discovery: hubs.

Hubs are essentially connected individuals. Connected to many people, or just enough of the right people. When you look at the paths connecting individuals in a community, you find many paths crossed and high-traffic sections. As it turns out, many of us tend to be connected by a fairly small segment of the population.

One of the early discovered results was that these hubs have a greater ability to enact change in their network than individuals with few connections. Malcolm Gladwell calls it an 80/20 principal of economics. He described it as "the idea that in any situation roughly 80 percent of the 'work' will be done by 20 percent of the participants." (The Tipping Point, p.19) This theory, that a very small segment of the community will be the ones responsible for the change, or lack of change, taking place in that community, has been confirmed repeatedly even in rather new networks.

This type of analysis has the ability to create great change, for better or worse. Companies already use this philosophy when reaching out to sponsor athletes. They choose how much that sponsorship is worth based on the number and quality of connections to potential customers that individual has. Yet there is potential beyond selling us stuff.

Network theory details how individuals are connected, and in doing so, explains the spread of information and disease. The famous Obama-is-a-Muslim emails are a perfect example of the former.

Chris Hayes detailed the origin of that rumor in an article about right-wing email forwards, and what we learn is that a fairly small number of people with the right set of connections set off a chain of events that changed an enormous community.
On August 10, 2004, just two weeks after Obama had given his much-heralded keynote speech at the DNC in Boston, a perennial Republican Senate candidate and self-described "independent contrarian columnist" named Andy Martin issued a press release. In it, he announced a press conference in which he would expose Obama for having "lied to the American people" and "misrepresent[ed] his own heritage."

Martin raised all kinds of strange allegations about Obama but focused on him attempting to hide his Muslim past. "It may well be that his concealment is meant to endanger Israel," read Martin's statement. "His Muslim religion would obviously raise serious questions in many Jewish circles where Obama now enjoys support."
That was the first hub. That individual was not significant for having numerous connections, although he did relative to most individuals, but he happened to have the right set of connections...
Within a few days of Martin's press conference, the conservative site Free Republic had picked it up, attracting a long comment thread, but after that small blip the specious "questions" about Obama's background disappeared. Then, in the fall of 2006, as word got out that Obama was considering a presidential run, murmurs on the Internet resumed. In October a conservative blog called Infidel Bloggers Alliance reposted the Andy Martin press release under the title "Is Barack Obama Lying About His Life Story?" A few days later the online RumorMillNews also reposted the Andy Martin press release in response to a reader's inquiry about whether Obama was a Muslim. Then in December fringe right-wing activist Ted Sampley posted a column on the web raising the possibility that Obama was a secret Muslim... On December 29, 2006, the very same day that Sampley posted his column, Snopes received its first copy of the e-mail forward, which contains an identical charge in strikingly similar language. Given the timing, it seems likely that it was a distillation of Sampley's work.
A handful of hubs, several of which likely had the slimmest of connection to each other, and the misinformation spread remarkably far. The same rule applies to disease. Disease does not have the internet to help it spread (although a computer virus is also a good example), but the pattern is all the same. We already consider the hubs when a bad flu is around. Schools, airports, malls, places with high numbers of people or close contact (quality of connections is often as important as number). Understanding the effect hubs have on the spread of disease helps us to fight it. Network theory opens up possibilities for coming up with new, creative, and effect methods of containing outbreaks.

Just as we can use network theory to better understand the spread of disease and develop methods of containing it, we can also use this knowledge to combat the spread of misinformation. Intellectual quarantine of potentially harmful and factually inaccurate smears.

The same principals apply to organizing for social justice. The community members you ask to host house meetings and actions or become leaders are ideally hubs, or connected to hubs (As far as my research has taken me, network theory has yet to touch on the creation of hubs and one thing a good organizer can do is help members of the community build new leaders, new hubs). The press you attract is intended to extend connections. The activist and supporter networks you build are hopefully established in a way where information can be disseminated quickly and efficiently. None of these things happen on accident. They happen because of the conscious planning of a small number of people.

As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Mathematically speaking, that is.
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