Can Small World Theory Explain Polarization? #blogredux

small world

This week in Blog Redux: can small world theory explain polarization? This week I’m reviving an old post from from July 10, 2010. The post was titled How information needs and small world signatures are related to affinity and relevance. Ahh the good ole days when we didn’t have to worry about SEO and we could just write to communicate!

This blog post was based on my undergrad degree, in particular the work of Elfreda Chatman. Unfortunately she passed away very unexpectedly soon after I graduated. I wish she were around to know how much she impacted my work, and so I could work with her now.

As always, I’ll re-post the blog in its entirety here, and add my comments as a quote that start with Thoughts from 2020.

How information needs and small world signatures are related to affinity and relevance

Last week I wrote a post asking if anyone knew a technical term for truthiness.

No takers on that so that request. So now this is my reflective post to work my way through the idea that unscrupulous information impostors will be able to figure out how to use social media to control information networks. How can that happen? Think about information.

Thoughts from 2020: I wrote that post as I was working out my presentation for Bitnorth. That presentation was on the digital divide, and how can normal people compete with media that intend to manipulate videos and stories to get their message across. Spoiler: the bad guy was Andrew Breitbart.

Information Needs

We talk alot about the digital explosion of data at EMC, but how is data different than information? Information has more depth than data because information responds to a need. There may be a need for the information, but if that need is never expressed the information seeking process never begins.

Thoughts from 2020: this point about information is really important. We are overrun with data, even more so 20 years later. The data we pay attention to is the data that responds to a need. That’s what marketers do, look for (or create) an information need, and convince you that only their product can fill your needs. That’s also how propaganda works.

The way that people process information is dependent on the small worlds (or communities, or tribes…) to which they belong. The roles we play in our small worlds also impact if we are able to express a need for information.

Thoughts from 2020: I went along with the social media craze of talking about our “tribes”, mostly because it felt pointless to fight it. But ten years later, we have native twitter, and seriously great posts from citizens of native nations explaining why saying tribes is appropriation and actually has a negative impact on native people today. Follow some native people, learn more, and stop encouraging people to “find their tribe”!

Small world signatures

Once you belong to small world, you have to conform to that group’s signature (or style) to remain a member of the world. The signature defines how a group will handle events, topics that can be discussed (or must be excluded), the form of interaction, and the level of meaning of events.

The style also instructs group members how to deal with outsiders. Usually, if a stranger enters a small world they present enough raw information about their world to allow members of the group to see a worldview beyond their own. If the stranger understands the rules the group has for information exchange, the stranger can continue to share his alternative world view. But if the stranger forgets to stay within the group’s signature, the members of the small group won’t communicate freely anymore.

Think about Windows admins vs UNIX admins. Think about very technical people and marketers. Think about women in technology. Think about teenagers and parents. Think about yankees and southerners.

Thoughts from 2020: Think about our current political climate. All sides have these small world signatures, and it is interesting to see how some of the political groups define the signature (hats, catch phrases, how to interact).

Also think about what happens when an outsider tries to interact. If the outsider says or does certain things, the communication channel is abruptly closed.

How this relates to social media

Relevance and affinity are two goal posts companies are driving toward with their social media programs. Its the place companies want to get after all of their investments in listening and building reach. The idea is to build real relationships with customers, not to just market at them.

Here’s my idea:

Relevance is being able to meet an information need. If a company has done their homework, they know how to be relevant and end up in one of their customer’s searches for information.

Affinity is being able to know a small world’s rules for exchanging information, and being able to copy the pattern so that information exchange is possible. Its understanding your target community, connecting on their terms, talking their language.

Thoughts from 2020: I believe these definitions of relevance and affinity have held up. From a corporate marketing standpoint, this is very hard work. I feel like for the most part this was abandoned when community was ditched for pure digital marketing.

If we think about the current political climate, and how digital and social media marketing tools have been used to sway elections, the implications are more sinister.

Here’s what scares me

Information imposters can have play this game too. They can study small worlds, make themselves relevant to information searches of their target population, and build affinity. If they are able to do all of these things they should be able to infiltrate a small world. Will they be able to change the group’s signature? Will they be able to change the rules so that people no longer have a need to search for information?

And now this post is getting too long — so I have more reflecting to do. What do you think? Am I on to something here?

Thoughts from 2020: Ten years later, and my predictions were correct. And frankly, that terrifies me. The question now is: how do we fight this? How do we take back social tools to unite us, instead of divide us?

All of this came from a paper I wrote in my undergrad days, the material was from class notes in my Information Needs and Preferences course which was taught by Elfreda Chatman.

Thoughts from 2020: Are you interested in finding ways to fight the polarization in our world? Do you want to help link small worlds instead of fighting against each other? We are too. Please subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on LinkedIn if you’re interested in learning more.

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Does Literacy Matter in a Digital World?


Literacy. It is the foundation of American Public Schools, and an important arc in the story of democracy. But what does literacy really mean, especially in a modern, digital world?


This is the Miriam Webster definition of literacy:

Being educated, cultured; able to read and write; versed in literature or creative writing; lucid, polished; having knowledge or competence.

But when you boil it down, the generic definition of literacy is the ability to read, write, and perform math so that you can function in your society. That’s why in the United States, children are required to attend school and obtain a high school diploma. Graduating from high school (or passing a GED [General Educational Development] test) is the measure to prove basic adult literacy.

But is literacy simply the ability to read, write, and do math? Do you just need to read the words that are put in front of you? Do you need to be able to regurgitate what you read into written words, or do you need to be able write your own thoughts?  And does this include the ability to evaluate the validity of the information that you consume?

Applications of Literacy

Literacy is important, as it seems to be an indicator for societal success. For example, this chart from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that you can earn more money the more education you have. This chart seems to reinforce that the true meaning of literacy is the ability to read, write, and perform math so that you can function in your society.

Literacy rates and earnings

But there’s a dark side. Literacy opens doors financial security and the ability to function as equals in a democratic society.  Literacy tests were used in the 1800s to prevent Irish immigrants from voting, and then again in the Jim Crowe era, denying black voters their right to vote. These citizens were given 10 minutes to take tests like this, and 1 wrong answer meant you wouldn’t be registered to vote. There are several ways to interpret each question, meaning if the voting registrar didn’t want you on the rolls, you weren’t going to be on the rolls. For interesting 1st person accounts of this, visit this site.

Media Literacy

As technology improved, there became more ways to consume information that reading printed words, and more ways to transmit information than writing words. There had to be different ways to describe proficiency with all types of media. This is how the National Association for Media Literacy defines media literacy:

Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication. In its simplest terms, media literacy builds upon the foundation of traditional literacy and offers new forms of reading and writing. Media literacy empowers people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators and active citizens (emphasis mine).

Part of the definition – being critical thinkers and makers – is important when it is easy to create persuasive content. How can you tell the information you’re consuming is real, that it’s not trying to trick you into believing something else? How can you be sure it’s not propaganda?

Media Evaluation: How to Tell If Content Is Useful or Propaganda?

The original meaning of the word propaganda came from a committee of cardinals established in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV named Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or congregation for propagating the faith”. The goal of this group was to promote Catholicism in non-Catholic countries. By 1790, propaganda meant “any movement to propagate some practice or ideology”. (via) But after WWI’s large-scale propaganda, the word took on a negative connotation.

The Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) was founded in 1937 to do something about the fascism propaganda that was beginning to be shared with new technologies (radio broadcasts, film, etc.), hoping to provide citizens the information they needed to avoid being duped by misinformation. They believed that education was the American way to deal with disinformation.

Digital Literacy

Now we come to the electronic age, and we need to update the literacy definition again to account for the new ways to consume and create information. The American Library Association defines digital literacy this way:

Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills (emphasis mine).

Evaluate takes on a more important meaning in this case. With media literacy, you know who gives you a pamphlet, or who placed a print ad in a newspaper. But how do you figure out how content is put into the feeds of applications you use? How do you know who is creating the information that you are consuming via algorithms in your feed, and how that information got there in the first place?

I think the IPA had it right. The only way to combat misinformation, propaganda, fake news, whatever you want to call it, is to educate ourselves on how it gets into our feeds, and how to distinguish it from non-propaganda. We need to become digitally literate, and we need to make sure are family and friends are digitally literate as well. That’s why I started Digital Sunshine Solutions.

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