Monday, February 21, 2011

Sorry Malcom, had to do it

Last Friday night, I went to an open mic night in Lehigh University's Lamberton Hall. The event was being sponsored by a new student club called "The Music Box." The club, created by senior Ben Singer, aimed to unite all of Lehigh's musical talent in one place. Singer had been telling me about the club and their planned open mic nights for weeks, and while I didn't have the musical skills nor the self-confidence to perform myself, I was excited to see a bunch of my talented friends performing on stage. I started talking to all of my musically inclined friends about the show, asking them if they were performing, and if not, encouraging them to do so. And apparently, I wasn't the only person Singer had told about it. By the time Friday night rolled along, the Facebook event had over 120 people marked as "attending," and over 15 bands and artists had signed up to perform (if you go to Lehigh, you know that its hard to even get 20 people to commit to an event, much less over 100). And while the show was originally planned to last from 7-10, the massive interest pushed the event another 2 hours later, and it was rescheduled to last until midnight. During the day on Friday, everyone I talked to seemed to be buzzing about the show- which of their friends were playing, when they were scheduled to go on, which artists you were absolutely going to be blown away by- it seemed like everyone was going. And sure enough, when I got there at 8, the place was more packed than I had ever seen it (and that's including a performance by The Cool Kids my Freshman year where the attendance was approximately 75 people, which helps prove my point that Lehigh kids don't show up for anything). The show ended up being a total hit, with all the musicians receiving raucous, encouraging ovations, and I even think I saw a little bit of crowd-surfing going on at one point. Side note: if you're interested, the Music Box is having another show this Thursday at Godfrey Daniels on 4th St Bethlehem, BYOB

So what, if I may borrow the terminology from Malcom Gladwell, caused the show to "tip"? Why did the open mic succeed where other student events had failed? Was it because Ben Singer is a "connector", or a "salesman"? Was it because of other students like me, who were acting as "connectors" and "mavens", telling as many people as possible about the show, hyping it up and letting people know crucial details like what time performers were scheduled to go on, or how early to get there to ensure you got a good seat? Maybe it was due to the "power of context," and people were just piling on the bandwagon, going because that's where everyone else was going on Friday night. Or possibly it was "the stickiness factor" that had to do with it, and everyone remembered the event because they got a well worded facebook invite from a friend.

Most likely, it was a combination of any and all of these aspects, working to some extent or another, that caused the success of Friday's open mic. The fact that The Peeled Labels, a band that has already had some success at Lehigh, were performing certainly couldn't have hurt. Also, the news that Robbie Sherrard, a fairly well known Lehigh comedian, would be playing his hit song Rathbone only added to the hype (By the way, if you haven't checked out Robbie's blog yet you're definitely missing out, I've never even met the kid but I just started reading it this weekend and it had me in tears from laughing so hard). In fact, every band and performer that came up on stage seemed to have a substantial backing of friends and supporters cheering for them. The more I looked around at the audience, the more I started recognizing these relationships. Every artist and every band seemed to have a dedicated section of supporters, to the point where by the end of the show I couldn't have picked out a single person from the audience who didn't personally know someone performing on stage.

Looking back on it now, I'm nearly 100% certain that these relationships were what caused the success of Friday's event. I tried to figure out if I, or Ben Singer, had acted as a "connector", "salesman," or a "maven" in this scenario. I re-read Gladwell's chapter on "The Law of the Few" to try and rehash my definition of these terms, and what I found... well frankly, it left me unsatisfied. When defining what makes insurance agent Tom Gau a "salesman," Gladwell says:
"He seems to have some kind of indefinable trait, something powerful and contagious and irresistible that goes beyond what comes out of his mouth, that makes people who meet him want to agree with him. It's energy. It's enthusiasm. It's charm. It's likability. It's all those things and yet something more."
Really Gladwell? The definition of salesmen, one of your three key "agents of change" in the tipping point of epidemics, is "indefinable?" This was the point where I realized that Malcom Gladwell is little more than a journalist attempting to formulate some sort of sociological theory out of witty anecdotes and faulty inductive reasoning. Now before I tear the guy a new one, I must say that he writes incredibly well. His ability to paint a story with numbers and statistics is matched only by the likes of authors like Steven Levitt (I know you've seen the business students carrying around their copies of Freakonomics like its the bible). But his detective work would make Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson cringe. He uses specific examples to prove his larger point, often implying that correlation=causation and that because an example applies this time, it must always apply. The more I read, the less I found the book useful as a social theory and the more I found it useful as a collection of positive successes in business and social epidemics. Books blog Brick and rope gives a great example of this faulty reasoning as it relates to the anecdote about crime in New York City:

Steven Levitt, in Freakonomics, takes on this same crime rate data and draws a much more believable inference in my mind. Levitt links the reduction in crime in NY (and LA and many other major cities that saw similar reductions in that time frame) to the Roe vs Wade supreme court decision. Making abortions legal, in his view, dramatically reduced teenage childbirth and unwanted, single parent children at the margins of society. This is what reduced crime twenty years later when that generation entered adulthood. A much more believable theory, and more consistent with all the facts in the last (like the reduction in LA crime, where there was no 'zero tolerance' policy by the police). Gladwell, you feel again, has crafted a theory and stuck with it, facts be damned.

Personally, I like to rely on the idea of close social relationships which drive individuals to action. A few weeks ago, I announced proudly in my J325 class that I was the only person in the room without a twitter account. Secretly though, I had been considering creating a twitter since the class had begun. Many of our conversations in class revolved around what was trending at Lehigh, or who had tweeted what to whom. I realized that the main reason I didn't have a twitter account was because nobody else I knew did. And after spending ever increasing time reading the hashtag #j325, and clicking from account to account in an attempt to keep up with what was going on in Lehigh's journalism department, I finally realized the value of twitter (and subsequently caved to the pressure by creating an account).

Like the attendees of the open mic night last Friday in Lamberton Hall, I had been persuaded to join in not because of the "stickiness factor" involved with twitter, nor because of a compelling "connector" or "salesman" had sold me on the idea. I finally joined because I realized that the people in my existing networks were already heavily involved. And if I didn't get involved soon, I might miss out on the conversation.

By the way, if anyone is interested in laughing some more at Gladwells expense, check out the Malcom Gladwell Book Generator.

Monday, February 7, 2011

In defense of gray

Throughout my short life, I've encountered millions of choices. Many of these choices have been presented as dichotomies: do you like chocolate or vanilla? Are you a religious person, or an atheist? A Democrat or a Republican? Free Market Capitalist or Welfare Socialist? I've always hated these choices because there's always seemed to be something very divisive about them. Forcing people to pick sides, like the world is black and white and it is really easy to figure out which team you're on. And I've often felt alone in this. "There are two sides to every argument", they say. But I can't be the only one who sees the world in shades of gray... can I?

Hell no. This past month, the Arab world has stood up in defense of grayness, and I'm excited. Looking past the arguments about the degree to which social media has affected change in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, I see people. And not just any people, I see people like me. Men my age, taking to the streets to protest day after day. Among the huge outflow of citizen journalism coming from Egypt last week, this video(yes, that video) and the picture above caught my eye. When I look at them, I see people similar to myself. Stuck in a dichotomy, between a rock and a hard place, they've been told for too long that they only have two choices. Settle for the stable autocracy, or try and take your chances with a turbulent theocracy, either way the government is not your government. But on January 25th, like the Tunisians before them, the Egyptian people politely stood up from that hole between the rock and the hard place, dusted themselves off and told the world "we'll take it from here, thanks."

Maybe its just the young idealist in me, but this got me PUMPED UP. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., and I've never been too far away from the capital. Both of my parents have worked for the government, and many of my friends growing up had parents who were government employees as well. But when Washingtonians talk about the government, its always in those terms: the government, the fed, the president, the senate, the house. Whatever happened to our government? Our constitution begins with the phrase "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union." It never dawned on me until this past week that I have never thought of the government as MY government, one that truly represents my interests and beliefs. And to be frank, I never was completely sure it should be my government. I've always kind of thought of the government as what old people keep themselves busy with while the rest of us are actually doing things. I've had this lingering sense that the government as I knew has always been a little outdated, struggling to keep up with a society living on the cutting edge.

Okay, so maybe I got a little carried away with the hyperbole there. I did vote in the last two presidential elections, and I know our government isn't actually a retirement home. I like that President Obama seems to be a president who talks with the American public and not at them (Bill O'Reilly interview on Super Bowl Sunday anyone?), and I do talk about what our government is doing on a semi-regular basis with family and friends. But that doesn't fix the disconnect that seems to exist between what the people want from their government and what the government is actually doing. For that, we're going to need Clay Shirky's "Everybody."

In Shirky's book "Here Comes Everybody," he explains the institutional dilemma- a collective action problem. "Because the minimum costs of being an organization the first place are relatively high, certain activities may have some value but not enough to make them worth pursuing in any organized way. New social tools are altering this equation by lowering the costs of coordinating group action. The easiest place to see this change is in activities that are too difficult to be pursued with traditional management but that have become possible with new forms of coordination” (31).
Now lets put this in terms of government. Say your town has just authorized a contractor to install 35 closed circuit security cameras all about town. There is a huge public uproar in response: some citizens are appalled by the invasion of privacy, while some think 35 cameras is not nearly enough to watch the whole town. So the town government decides to hold a town hall meeting, where people can come and voice their opinions about the new security camera contract. The town hall discussion will determine the agenda for the next town government meeting, which will be postponed to one week later in order to allow more time for the town hall. When all is said and done, the process has taken weeks longer than originally planned, with potentially hundreds of people spending countless hours of time taking transport to and from the town hall and city hall, arranging for sitters for their children, preparing speeches and counter speeches that costs hundreds of dollars in paper, staples, and man-hours.

But you didn't go to the town hall. On the first day, when the local paper announced the news of the security camera contract, you posted a link on your facebook with the caption "too much?" A couple of friends "liked" it, a few people chimed in with comments and you all agreed that you'd rather live in a town without security cameras if it was up to you. One of your friends, a city councilwoman, sees this on her news feed and reads it. Two weeks later, at the city hall meeting, she thinks about what you and your friends said, what you have contributed to the conversation, and she considers your opinions as she casts her vote.

Now I know this doesn't sound like revolution, but it damn well feels like it. Yes, its mostly just a change in tools, but look how quickly the world has shrunk. Your simple action of posting that link, with the sparse, two-word caption, carries as much weight as any of your fellow citizens letters, with a fraction of the effort. This is government at the speed of you, and the barriers to entry in the conversation are nearly non-existent. You no longer have to choose between excess action and inaction, between black and white. Now, you can demand your right to be gray.

Long live the slacktivists.