Innovation and Networks of Influence


This morning, four of us went down to the Innovation and Networks of Influence event held at NESTA in central London for what turned out to be a refreshingly different experience from many of the usual discussions of what influence is.

The most common ways of describing influence in social networks is to draw diagrams with blobs on them – typically there are some very large blobs with lines radiating outward to smaller blobs, which in turn radiate to even smaller blobs. While this concept is useful for specific purposes – and can be mapped algorithmically – it should not be taken as a complete model of a social process. It doesn’t account for two-way conversation (or the lack of it), nor can it help explain where and when a message gets altered, or any other form of change that a lack of centralised control can bring about. There is also context to deal with – while one person may be influential on, say, technology, they may hold very little sway when recommending a florist.

Refreshingly this wasn’t the way influence was treated here – instead looking at it from above and instead of a mathematical modelling perspective, it focused on interactions and behaviours. A lot of games were played – the kind which you get on managerial courses and you make a bit of a fool of yourself. It’s easy to be sceptical of a game’s effectiveness – but as it turns out fun is a pretty good heuristic for getting a bunch of strangers to quickly bond and share ideas.

Out of it we got some pretty interesting observations out of these little mini-experiments. Activities where the rules were incomplete quickly lead to mutation, with people agreeing on extra ad hoc rules such as deciding tiebreakers, without falling out in open conflict. Even in moderately complex tasks, spontaneity can be more productive than organisation. Messages are prone to mutation and reinterpretation much more quickly than we think, and that it’s very hard to keep even the simplest ones the same. And verbal cues only form a small part of this continual process of cross-influencing when face-to-face.

That last part is perhaps the most interesting one, as social media is dominated by verbal, without the non-verbal cues nor the synchronicity of face-to-face conversation. This is gradually being broken down (think about how synchronous and seamless Twitter is becoming, as well as the growth of mobile and video & audio on the go), and there are the blurring of boundaries between and online and offline – just look at the amazing take-up of the Twestival worldwide (including Twestival Paris, which we are organising). But still, there are gaps, as evidenced by workarounds such as smileys and endless text acronyms and abbreviations, and people working in social media need to be mindful of the limitations they face.

On the same subject, there was very little talk of online, marketing or even ‘social media’ at the event. Not that I’m tiring of the term like Bobbie Johnson is – it’s just a word, after all – but it’s a mere means, and it’s far more interesting to look into the people behind the media and what interests them.

The play element of the day was just as important – reminding us that what we do in our profession should be fun, useful or preferably both, if we’re to do work that we can be proud of. Our thanks go to Mark Earls, James Cherkoff and Johnnie Moore for a highly stimulating morning, and if you get a chance to see them lead a discussion any time soon, we strongly recommend it. How about that for influence?