Chantal Hébert and Social Media

Last night (April 15th, 2015 for those future people not paying attention to the blog date) I attended the Tansley lecture hosted by my school the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy with the guest presenter, Chantal Hébert‘s discussion the role of social media in changing politics.

I have to say that I’ve often considered Chantal to be the best no-shit political commentator in Canada today and to have her present at what is for me one of the most important policy-related meetings annually was very gratifying. She was definitely her very brightest with just enough aloofness to make sure you knew she was giving you the honest goods. A good amount of her talk relied on her experience as a political journalist and she openly admitted that she would not have everything tied up in a nice box for the audience. She couldn’t possibly.

She began by describing political campaign reporting in the past as high-jacked by political actors. Media relied on the telephone to find out information and ask important questions. To keep media in the dark, you just had to keep them away from a telephone. According to Hébert, you’d think that 24 hour access to information online would mean a more informed society that is more connected to the issues.

But not so. Instead, she argued, politicians have come to understand that in a world of constant information, the only time a journalist will call is when they have some controversy to get a reaction to. That means that the person who takes the call is no longer the person who actually knows what’s going on, but instead someone who is used to communicating in a crisis.

Hébert sees this as a serious problem (as do I). Social media to her mind means that the chattering classes and government are increasingly disconnected from the voters, who, more often than not, are too busy working their 3 jobs to get excited about the latest Gawker report on some offensive thing a comedian said on Facebook.

I will be presenting on something similar in Arizona in May for the Digital Government conference. Although a lot of it will be a bit too technical for a blog post, one thing I will note comes from the protests on Elsipogtog First Nations against some hydraulic fracturing tests occurring near their lands. The eventual government response went in their favor – a moratorium was called on all fracturing in the province. While the anti-fracturing protests were all over social media, there was almost no mention of support for the government’s decision. Not even an “it’s about time.”

This theme of public interest in drama, but disinterest in solutions is something that bears scrutiny in our society. Hébert cites the example of young Quebec anti-austerity protestors who could not name the Premier who called for those measures. Too much of the social movements we see are caught up in ideas about social problems and less involved in the institutions they expect to do something about those problems. I don’t know if this is too new, but it’s a lost opportunity that all this political action has little to no connection to the people with the legitimate authority to act on the citizens behalf.

My dissertation will be looking at this problem with the hopes that the research I provide can suggest some recommendations around what could be done to connect those engaged in social movements to the legitimate political power. Given big issues like climate change, economic disparity, depleting resources, lack of productivity, a growing yet marginalized First Nations population etc., it is essential that we get as many bodies interested in developing policy solutions as we can.

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Ten Implications of Social Networks That Matter

“What exactly do you do?”

I was told this would happen when I was doing my PhD.

The true answer to this question is “I write code in R, do maths, write articles, manage data and read lots of books” but this doesn’t really answer the question implicit in the subtext.

“What do you do?” actually means “what do you accomplish” or, perhaps in even more market-ey jargon “what difference do you make in the world?” In answer to that question, it is probably better that I should say: “I describe political groups in order to help them identify potential blind spots, function better internally and connect their ideas to resources.” Also, I tend to focus on the habits of social groups in online social movements. And generally, I use social network analysis to do that.

There are tutorials and classes about the main elements of social network analysis if people actually care about things like degree centrality, clustering and path length. It’s all quite fun stuff, especially because I enjoy things like Linear Algebra. However, the details of social network analysis are different from their implication, which are often more interesting. So, I thought to offer ten core implications that make Social Network Analysis Matter.

1. Your Thoughts and Ideas Exist in a Social Context

Sorry for the jargon, but this basically means that your ideas are at least partly a function, not only of who you know, but also of who also knows the people you know.

2. It Matters Whether A Social Context Runs Both Ways

You get ideas from others, and sometimes you get to share them back directly. Other times, you share the ideas and it goes nowhere. Even other times you share the idea and it goes through a round of “telephone” before it comes back to you looking like something completely different than what you said.

3. Social Costs are Important

The more attention your ideas get, the more likely it is that there will be some social costs that come with that attention. Some people are more free to share their opinion in public forums than others. Therefore, we should not be surprised to see only a few voices left over after a big online drama.

4. Most Major Social Problems Online are Actually Local New York (or big city) problems.

Manuel Castels famously theorized that flows of information across networks are a source of power. More specifically, he argued that virtual space is guided by a “space of flows” that focuses attention on public problems. This space — namely the space of ideas that have mainstream appeal — is usually dominated by those who are the best connected overall. That’s why catcalling ends up being a salient women’s issue that captures more attention than the atrocities of boko haram. People in New York are overall better connected than those in Nigeria and have much more power to spread their messages whatever they may be.

5. Both Friends and Acquaintances Matter to Us

Friends give us both social support and hold us accountable when we don’t behave as we should. Acquaintances help us access communities that we otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Friends will give us their shoulders when we lose our jobs, but acquaintances will most likely help us find a new job. So says Mark Granovetter.

6. The Org Chart Rarely Tells the Whole Story

There are people with cushy executive titles and then there are people that we trust to get the work accomplished. Sometimes you need to get the latter person onside before you can get approval from the former.

7. Networks are Usually Dynamic

Networks in real life are often like an amoeba. There is a nucleus that stays more or less stable, but the overall the shape can change dramatically from one moment to the next. Perhaps there may be a way to tell how the shape of the amoeba changes based on the actions of people in the nucleus. Interesting hypothesis – I might test that out some day.

8. As Time Goes By, The Default Network Shape Will Be A Star

It may not be the best situation for our communities as a whole, but most networks will feature a few “representatives” that with a whole bunch of followers. In social network graphs this looks like a “star” with one person in the center and everyone else following that central person.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 10.09.13 AM(Notice how everyone seems to follow that one orange ball in the centre?)

9. “Brokers” fill the holes in our relationships and Make Us Stronger as a Group

Inside any social group, there are those few people who will show up to a biker bar in the three-piece suit, or attend a Symphony concert in a mohawk. Watch these people because they connect groups in new and interesting ways and encourage innovation. So says Ron Burt (more or less).

10. Social Network Analysis can find Rabble-Rousers

It’s a double-edged sword, but using social network data, you can find the person who matters most in a network. Consider the hypothetical example of British Colonialists looking for this revolutionary named Paul Revere. In short, there are a lot of ethical questions to consider when using social network analysis. Like any tool, it’s bound to benefit those with resources to use it the most against those who are capable of using it the least. Edward Snowdon seems to have a very important point here.

That’s 10 things. Hopefully it helps provide a bit of context for people who know nothing about social network analysis. At the least I hope it shows the potential power the method has to describe the invisible ways that our friends friends’ friends have a real impact on our daily lives. And I did it by showing only one social network graph!

Anyone else have any ideas on some of the big picture things that social network analysis can tell us?