P2P Book of the Week, Excerpt 1: Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, by Allison Fine

Following Allison Fine’s introduction to her book yesterday, we’re pleased to present the first excerpt from the book here, in which she describes the power of networks today.

Social Networks
Networks are an ingrained part of our lives—so much so that we’ve almost stopped noticing how prevalent they are. Physical networks like electricity grids, facilitative networks like the Internet, and social networks like the PTA and religious congregations surround us.

            Two key characteristics of social networks are critical to their success. First, successful networks have hubs of information and leaders who drive the work. Second, information in social networks flows in a “friction-free” way to enable and empower people to work quickly at the outer fringes of the network.

            Social networks are the perfect renewable energy source. A power grid loses overall potency the farther it spreads. The more connections and the broader the network, the more energy it takes to fuel the overall grid. A social network is just the opposite: the more widely flung it is, the more powerful and resilient it becomes. If we could bottle social networks, we would have the perfect fuel because as they grow they get stronger not weaker—and at no extra cost.

            Social-change movements are often catalyzed and led by people who can crystallize a problem and spur their social networks into action. Martin Luther King Jr. worked through the African American churches; Mothers Against Drunk Driving through PTAs; and MoveOn.org through friend-to-friend e-mails. For people and entities dedicated to social change, social networks present the greatest opportunity to build strong constituencies.

            Think about your social networks; your nuclear family or members of your church, sorority, neighborhood association, softball team. In an increasingly noisy world, you may get a lot of information from TV or online, but you get your trusted news—the news you are most inclined to believe—the same way that your parents and grandparents did, from your social networks. These people help you to norm, to figure out what you believe in relation to what others believe about an issue, whether it’s raising school taxes or Aunt Sophie’s new hairstyle. These are your trusted sources for finding a dentist and picking a summer camp for your children. Because of the power of social networks TV news usually needs to quiet down a bit, marinate for a while, before it settles into conventional wisdom. Who won a political debate? Wait a week or so. Only after people talked and wrote did we collectively decide that Al Gore’s heavy sighing and Gerald Ford’s belief that Poland was free of the Soviet Union were serious gaffes.

Facilitative Networks
The Internet is an ever-growing network of networks. That’s why surfing the ’net is so much fun. A recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie links to a website about the history of Southern food, which leads to a site discussing William Faulkner novels, and so on. Each one of those sites has its devotees, who are connected to all the devotees of the other sites, and this interlocking system creates connections that continue to grow and expand.

            The World Wide Web enables nontechnical users to “see” everything that is going on in cyberspace and to add to it. It is all there: billions of bits and bytes of information, gossip, and articles. Star Trek fans chat about whether the Borg can ever be beaten; single people find dates and spouses; bereaved parents comfort one another; cancer patients exchange information about new treatments. The Web spread faster and wider than any previous technological development because we could readily see that accessing this giant box full of information would be fun.

            What we weren’t prepared for was how using the Web would strengthen existing relationships at the same time that it created new ones. We all bring our own social connections wherever we go, and so, in retrospect, it makes sense that we simply brought them online with us as well. We have the ability to talk or write often and inexpensively to people who are special to us. They may be down the hall or across the country or even overseas, geographically dispersed as never before. We can share newsworthy information—and annoying jokes—with our whole network of friends and family, instantly.

            Remember how hard it used to be to organize a family cookout, when you had to call everyone to check dates first, hand out potluck assignments, and then send out invitations? Now one group e-mail does the trick. How about the difficulty of staying in touch with your college roommate when she moved from Chicago to Seattle? Now you can instant-message her every week to keep up on events and swap digital photos of your kids.

            Advertising professionals use the term stickiness to describe ads that have longevity because people cannot get them out of their heads. The Internet is “sticky” in that social bonds between people who may have only one small common interest become increasingly stronger, broader, and more intertwined.  My husband bought a digital picture frame for his grandmother in Florida. The frame automatically downloads pictures of her great-grandchildren from a web server every day. Our Bubbles doesn’t have to know anything about computers. She just plugs her frame into a wall socket and plugs the phone line into a phone jack, and magically new photos appear as fast as we can take them. In this way, under the radar screen, social ties have grown in the Connected Age. The rise of MySpace.com and other networking sites demonstrates the interest that people have in becoming connected to others across geographical, economic, racial, and social divides, even without a specific purpose.

            Craig Newmark took the concept of cyberspace as a community a quantum leap forward with Craigslist. The site was started in 1995 as a free space for sharing information about social events in San Francisco. It has since become an international marvel that serves 190 cities in the United States and around the world. Over ten million people a month use Craigslist. The site now charges for classified ads in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles only to support itself, but it is far more than classified ads online. Craigslist is a dating service, a hub for bartering goods and services locally, and a forum for discussions. Although Craigslist has spread around the world, the focus of the site has always been to strengthen ties among people in local communities; connections newspaper classified ads can never create. Craigslist enables millions of strangers to build relationships that result in someone buying furniture, a lawyer bartering services with a plumber, and people finding dates in Boise, Boston, and even Rome.

Visit the website at http://afine.us to learn more about Momentum.

Allison Fine [email protected]

1 Comment P2P Book of the Week, Excerpt 1: Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, by Allison Fine

  1. Pingback: Social Networking Bulletin - » P2P Book of the Week, Excerpt 1: Momentum: Igniting Social Change …

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