Appreciating people who reach out: influencers revisited

3 five year olds, originally posted to my Flickr photostream.

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About a year and a half ago, “The Tipping Point” got toppled (or at least wobbled) when Duncan Watts challenged the popular concept of powerful Influencers who determine the adoption of trends.

The commentary in response to this heresy was great — one of my favorite exchanges was where a member of a well-known formal influencer program — a Microsoft MVP — replies to Sean O’Driscol, long time leader of that program at Microsoft. I loved this comment in the replies to Sean’s post: “Maybe it’s down to being British but I don’t like being labelled as an influentials/mavens/advocates. Expert isn’t so bad … and Enthusiast is pretty much how I feel about myself… As soon as the 10% is highlighted in some way you have two dangers; 1) their standing as independent in the community is affected … and 2) the way they are treated by the “products” they are enthusiastic about changes.”

I’ve seen this before, in years past at The WELL: “I’m doing this here for free because I want to participate – don’t patronize me.”

Yet anybody who works in online community knows some people do add tremendous value. We know it intuitively, and we have seen it mapped statistically. (Check out slide number 13 in this sequence for an example where Marc Smith’s math identifies desired behavior by individuals in a peer technical help group.)

Now that we are in the year that everybody knows about Twitter, one of the simplest tools mass numbers of people have been able to play with, we seem to be back to a world where we want to count our importance by tallying up a group who are artfully labeled “followers.”

People are putting a good deal of effort into deciding how to count … for example, carefully comparing influential science-content twitter feeds … and into deciding how to display the counts and secondary calculations as a business venture… here’s another one, called “Twinfluence”.

Most of these counts seem to still be thinking in broadcast mode. From years in an online community where actual human influence is much more complex and much less linear, this looks simultaneously like going backwards and like picking up the thread of wanting to see how continuity, attention, context and meaning are developed in a group. One thing that I wonder about in the attempts to quantify Twitter impact is the dilution created by a follower who has your twitter feed mixed into a mighty stream of hundreds followed, versus one who follows a dozen carefully chosen twitter feeds.  I guess I always come back to the power of familiarity and context.

What can we give to those who are providing community connective tissue? I wish we could give ever-improving tools, though in my work we can’t move as swiftly as we’d like to. I wish we could pay a living wage for being part of a community and being fabulous, but that dedication has to be its own reward. It’s neither appropriate or desirable to give money or significant barter items because of tax and labor laws, as AOL learned back in the last century, and as gift economy research has shown. Realistically, in my world, working at Salon.com and specifically with Table Talk and The WELL, the one gift I can give is the genuinely valuable gift of human attention, and of being present. It doesn’t scale very well, though. There’s no simple solution for giving people the attention they deserve. There are times when a nice form thank you letter is appropriate, so long as the mass communication doesn’t have any whiff of spam or propaganda about it. (After all, moden citizens understand that a press conference is all one can realistically expect from a busy government official, for example.) As a rule of thumb the attention has to be unplanned, human and authentic, within the community or privately one to one. But in these online social contexts, at least some of the time, the information we get back when giving that respectful attention has a more profound value than in any other environment.

After all, we do say it’s conversation.

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Round-up of OCTribe posts on this topic.

Online Community Summit, flocking to Sonoma

Four years ago I photographed these waves of birds at OCS 2004… and now I’m back for 2008. The morning session is non-profits and social software for good… currently Joshua Gay of the Free Software Foundation and Lisa Petrides of ISKME are leading a discussion about education and open source.

In 2004 we had a powerful IRC backchannel discussion. Powerfully distracting too! At the last few Forum One events I’ve attended there has been a shift to Twitter. So I’ll be delving back into twitterworld.

My gripe about twitter is that it does not support groups and subgroups within my stream.

So this will be odd. My Online Community pro pals talking platforms and social strategies, my craft beer pals at GABF talking beer competition, my photo pals talking lenses and curves and printing papers, political pals talking local and national election, oh, and my own YouTube political satire collaboration… all the different conversations ridiculously poured into one. Here goes, back into the narrows:

http://twitter.com/fotogail

How Global is your Sympathetic Audience?

Noam Cohen wrote a New York Times story, The Global Sympathetic Audience in the Fashion and Style section, about caring for strangers over the net. (By the way, online sociology and psychology is fashion now? Hmmm. Still an orphan subject.) “Audience” not “community,” you’ll note, which was accurate and to the point in that context. I enjoyed the article for some noteworthy Twitter support stories, after it started off with a weird reference that is close to home.

Weird to read, because as a long time member of The WELL it is freaky to see Blair’s – or would that be Mr. Newman’s – suicide cited in the Times so many years later, without any details about the impact on the then emerging community at The WELL, or his peculiar role there.

As a newbie on The WELL at the time, I was shocked by the diverse set of reactions to Blair’s initial destruction of so much conversational content. The anger was the eye-opener. The violent disapproval quite few members expressed at his “vandalism” of hundreds of his own posts – not seen as a “suicide” until later at Blair’s death – confused and startled me at the time. What was only later seen as a “virtual suicide” pissed people off to a degree that presents a stark contrast to the Twitter support dynamics cited in the article.

People will likely tell a stranger not to commit suicide. However, if the “cry for help” is less obvious, people are sometimes judgmental, sometimes supportive. Your own global audience may be sympathetic to a specific action you describe, or they may be inappropriately harsh and critical because the stakes and the context is not clear or not universally agreed upon.

Howard Rheingold’s classic account of Blair’s death gives some of the context from up close (scroll to the bottom of that section). Guilt and blame fueled widespread rage. Newer members like myself were astonished at all the hidden subtexts and alliances that emerged. As Howard said, “the feelings ran just as high during the virtual part of the grieving rituals as they did during the face-to-face part — indeed, with many of the social constraints of proper funeral behavior removed, the online version was the occasion for venting of anger that would have been inappropriate in a face-to-face gathering.”

There are many stories from The WELL where people were sympathetic and deeply kind to strangers. There have been others where the kindness was not timely or well-distributed, and this was one of those. It’s a famous example, here in the times it was boiled down until all the humanity and insight was removed.

I’m thinking about the man’s family too — how odd years later to have a son or brother famous only as a suicide who deleted first. And my posting this may only make that dynamic a little worse, I know. I am sorry for extending any pain.

Our power to be kind is clearly equaled by our power to be cruel, using any technology we invent. It’s odd to see this complex, troubling example used in conjunction with the global kindness of strangers, but with a little context, it reveals the other side of the problem of seeking support from distant friends and kindred strangers.