Want to influence? Understand networks.

I was fascinated last year by the analysis of how climate sceptics networked more effectively than environmentalists to create Climategate, which was followed by practical advice on the role of social insurgents in the equivalent of online guerilla warfare.

The story of that research commissioned by Oxfam was broken by the blog Left Foot Forward, and they have now invited Stephen Fitzpatrick, from the socialbusinessgroup.com to report directly here on their latest piece of work on connections between informal networks of financial websites. Some of these are close to the source of the last financial crisis, and Stephen suggests that following them might help politicians see the next crisis coming.

The report Social Media: the New Influentials, from Mindful Money, shows how an increasing number of web and blog sites connect to each other, how they influence the debate and influence investors, providing, in the process, an alternative viewpoint to the established media. They list the top twenty.

Stephen writes:

This informal network, which we have mapped in the chart (above), includes economists, Wall Street professionals and independent Wall Street watchers with views from across the political and economic spectrum. The UK and the City of London, contribute fewer voices but we would argue that does not necessarily diminish the usefulness of the network

The report is part of Mindful Money’s ongoing work to challenge the way we think about saving and investing, in particular, considering the impact of social media. We have provided a few examples below, charting how Twitter is affecting markets and how ethical investing bucked the downturnand considering the latest thinking on the psychology of saving.

In terms of the New Influentials, it is true that a typical user of these sites is looking for useful investment information so they can steal a march on the crowd and make money, taken collectively the network also gives a very useful economic and financial view, in effect, an early warning system.

The last crisis had its ultimate cause in global trade imbalances. But at the next level down, it was the resulting easy credit in the developed world that led to reckless lending, primarily though not exclusively in the US. These loans were then parcelled up and insured by some too-clever-by-half investment banks and one global insurer. Other banks proceeded to borrow money to buy them before selling them on to other banks and then borrowing some more and buying some more and so on and so forth till the whole thing crashed.

We think the 20 pairs of eyes or more, including market experts and market sceptics, within this New Influentials network may prove to be a more powerful watchdog than the traditional fourth estate. It barks a lot sooner and that may put the official regulators like the FSA on their guard.

All very interesting in financial circles, but what lessons can we take for influencing in social policy and action? Networks is one of the areas of interest I flagged up in the set of slides I posted earlier, because they are increasingly the way that we collect information, learn and take action … as well as build relationships.

To take an example I’ve written about a lot, at the moment the the Government is having difficulty  helping people understand what they mean by Big Society. They are still  rather locked in to the model of the PM and Ministers making speeches and hoping the mainstream media will report. Meanwhile the tone is set by blogs and the Twitter stream, which is also picked up by the media, and feeds into and off the more traditional networks of civil society organisations and local activists.

Then who do you trust in the Big Society ecosystem?  The PM and The Sun, or your Twitter friends and connections? That’s not to say what’s happening on Twitter is well-informed – often the reverse – but it is where people are talking, and a bit of network analysis would help No 10 understand what’s happening. Maybe they are doing that, taking note that networks may be more important than nudge.

I’m with Tessy Britton in being an optimist about Big Society (see Tessy’s excellent posts here) but communications is still mainly top down, which is bizarre for an idea that is all about devolving influence. Trust people with the development of local services, but not with “the message”, and don’t join in the conversations. Not surprising, then, that cuts dominate the political conversations, and good examples of local action don’t get seen or heard.

I’ll write more shortly about Our Society, where I’m part of the volunteer group developing a new space to “connect people who are genuinely concerned to move power into communities and who help others to improve their shared lives and environment.”  I’m also hopeful that the Big Society Network is evolving some fresh plans in this field: I should know more on that soon. I think there is scope for constructive joining up … after a bit of mapping.

On the role of networks, do also take a look at this excellent presentation from Dan McQuillan on the increasing practical importance  of digital tools, networks and social movements in health care. When cuts reduce normal service, you have to look at other ways of doing things … whether that’s campaigning or developing ways of supporting each other.

Of course, just drawing maps of networks does not on its own show the flow of conversation and influence, and I’m hoping for some constructive critiquing from my friend Justin Kirby, who is an expert on connected marketing, things viral, buzzy and word of mouth as well as online, and who is taking an interest in things Big Society-ish in his locality in Brighton. Justin has his own ideas about creating some positive Big Society conversations: ask key people three questions: who are we, what do we do, what does it matter – and build a narrative from that.

Meanwhile, anyone fancy being a Big Society Social Insurgent? (link reminder) Or maybe they are out there already …

Update: a tweet from @helenmilner, reporting from a conference, says that Your Square Mile are starting 16 local pilots in 6 weeks time, apparently confirming this earlier story. Your Square Mile is the first flagship project of Big Society Network, as you can read here, directed by Paul Twivy, who was presenting at the conference. The YSM local projects could help develop another interesting set of conversations and social action.

2 Comments

  • Alex Stobart
    January 18, 2011 - 5:12 pm | Permalink

    David,

    Timely piece

    Trampoline Systems have had this capability for some time. They were talking with Whitehall 4 or 5 years ago.

    http://www.trampolinesystems.com/

    Whether those conversations were to monitor e-mails, or assist with policy, I don’t know.

    You could ask at #ukgovcamp this weekend whether any .gov folks know of them.

  • January 18, 2011 - 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Well, glad to see that Profero are yet another web agency that have jumped on the social media monitoring bandwagon and have found a topic that seems to have created some buzz.

    There are two issues here. One is about ‘who or what really influences word of mouth trends’ as Dr Alain Samson at the LSE and I looked into for Admap back in 2008:

    http://www.dmc.co.uk/research-papers

    Basically, we examined the industry critique of what Dr. Duncan Watts (of Columbia University and Principal Research Scientist at Yahoo!) calls the influencer hypothesis. Obviously, Malcom Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point helped propel the idea that the connected few consumers could influence the many. However, as Watts points out, much of the theory surrounding the power of influencers has relied on anecdotal evidence and post-rationalisation of a biased selection of events.

    But as mentioned recently in another piece this hasn’t stopped social media marketers making great claims about online influencers as they map a model from traditional media PR onto the web. This is not too surprising; much of what is taken as common wisdom in social media spheres is nothing more than a vortex of self-affirming opinion fuelled by the ‘groupthink’ of commentators commenting on commentary.

    So given the problem with the influencer hypothesis in the first place (particularly when you consider Dr Watts point about the important role the receiver plays in spreading word of mouth), then how to you use social network analysis tools to show actual influence … rather than just reach/popularity based on inbound links or authority based on the citation/improbably word analysis of those network of links in order to determine who links to who about what and when.

    That’s before you go into the issue about how much of the ‘conversation’ are they actually monitoring. Ultimately, this ‘analysis’ is at best a thin slice which an academic would simply say may be an interesting area of further research rather than the kind of claims that Stephen Fitzpatrick seems to be making … not that will stop those at Oxfam being like bunnies caught in the headlights.

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