Response: How Does the Web Define Authority?

The real questions are: whom do we trust, why, and under what conditions is trust transferable?

Chris Brogran asks: How does the web define authority?

First is an important matter of language.  There is a large difference between authority and an authority.  Authority is power formally granted by a position or role.  An authority is some who has power or influence; it’s a matter of trust by others for a given context.  E.g. I trust my doctor to diagnose an illness, but have no reason to trust him on gardening.

There are many reasons we (dis-) trust others, including: shared opinions; length, frequency, and consistency of interactions; and how our peers feel about the individual the given context.  These are all correlated, but frequency and peer opinion have the biggest impact on transferability of trust.

How use doth breed a habit in a man! — William Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona

Frequency can be no surprise, it’s the underpinning of blanket marketing.  Familiarity bred through repetition.  Ever wonder why you stop on a TV show you dislike while flipping through the channels?  Of course, that could be me making excuses for lousy taste.

Peer consideration is the tricky bit.  There is a lot of research going into this, but there are some great seminal works that are written for non-academics covering the spread of innovation and adoption of scientific principles.

When our peers already have some experience or opinion on a topic or an authority, then our own opinions are strongly colored by these existing opinions.  In fact, as odd as it may sound, given a pattern of relationships where the opinion of all but one individual is known, we can predictably estimate both what the opinion is, and how strong the opinion is, of the unknown person.

But how about when we something brand new to us and our peers?  Frequency plays a big role here too.  If lots of people, even people we know nothing about, say XYZ is a good idea, we’re likely to give it the benefit of the doubt, trusting the wisdom of the crowd.

So, strictly speaking, is (dis-) trust transferable?  Depends.  If trust already exists in our network of peers, yes, and predictably so.  If the context is brand new to you and your peers, there is no trust to transfer, but we use frequency as a proxy in our decisions.

So what does this all mean?  Let’s look at an example: you’re trying to decide whether you agree (trust) what I have written.

I am new to writing about this, and I’m not particularly active in social media, so chances are we don’t have peers in common.  You can google for what others have said about me, but you’re not going to find much relevant to trusting me in this context.  Ultimately, because I don’t have a track record (frequency & consistency) for participation (peers) in this context, I am at the mercy of how similar our outlooks are, and any opinions that may develop in comments.

How Would You Promote Education through Social Networks?

I was recently asked to put together some thoughts about the potential impact Social Networks could have on education by a really savvy M.D. over at Cerner, and I thought this audience might be interested too.  I have not seen too much about this topic, and would really like to hear your thoughts.

Peer Learning & Diabetes
Peer Learning & Diabetes

Social Networking sites simplify conversations by lowering the cost to communicate to large groups, both for the speaker and the recipient.  Accomplished by enforcing small messages, recipients can easily consume or ignore the content with trivial effort.  This in itself has some pretty interesting impact on one’s social network.  But, the messages are also semi-permanent,  consumed at leisure, and are often open to any interested peers, not just the intended recipient.

Open recorded dialog offers a unique value in communication:  the conversation doesn’t end just because it has stopped.  This persistence and openness in the dialog has some interesting conceivable implications for education:

  1. Participants can join into the conversation, well after it’s stopped. This is a biggie.  This open availability allows individuals to pick up the conversation where it left off, taking it in new directions their own context brings with them.  It is this factor that not only contributes to many new ideas, but also helps drive quality by squeezing the most out of existing ones..
  2. Discuss once, available to all.  The SN creates a naturally accumulating body of knowledge, available to all with thanks to your favorite search engine.
  3. Record the process, not just the answer. Following along with a conversation, you can actually learn with the participants, not just gain from their answers.  Further, many times the conversation is not going to answer your specific question, but you can gain insight from the ideas already discussed, and get pointers to more places to look.
  4. Don’t have to know conversation partners in advance.  In conjunction with (1), you can put a question out to your peers, and see who responds.  Find experts, even when you don’t know where to look.

Much of the above is available to any generic SN, from MySpace to any online forum.  But, what SNs offer over and above online forums, is trust.  The who you are carrying on conversations with, you know.  You know whether the respondent is knowledgeable or guessing, and can more likely read into the subtlety of their responses. Couple this trust with focused goals, as SERMO has for the medical community, and you open the pool even wider for advice.

You’ve noticed that the language I am using is around conversation, dialog, and advice.  Because of the short-form messaging, SNs are much more suited to peer-based education than seminars.  I have yet to see anyone artfully present more than maybe 1,000 words on the Internet; it’s no substitute for medical journals.  It is, however, an excellent place to discuss the journal contents, grind out all the last subtleties, and come up with ideas for your next article.

It is the pressure of our peers, after all, that gives us the support to try things we otherwise wouldn’t have.  — BILL TREASURER, Right Risk

In addition to these benefits, there are the possible benefits of all of this being a social venture: cultural norms.  If you, the educator, control a network, there’s a lot you can do to build group behaviors to reinforce whatever you are trying to teach them: group rewards if 90% of the class does their homework, peer pressure to go outside and exercise for asthmatics, peer support in the middle of the night not to give in to that nicotine craving, or even just introducing icebreakers prior to a convention.

Each of these has been around long well before the prevalence of SNs.  But today, SNs now provide an easy platform that automates much of the hard work, and create a reason for pools of trusted colleagues to come together spanning many timezones.  From your colleagues, and from their colleagues, ideas and new perspectives arise.  It requires motivation on your part, but this is prime time for peer education.

So, how have you used SNs for education?  Constructively used peer pressure in an educational setting?  What’s your example of peer pressure helping you?

[Photo credit: Chris Corrigan]

Implied Social Networks: People In the News with Rankings

As a follow up to this previous post with an image of the relationship between people mentioned in the news, I’ve been asked to provide more detail.

First, why bother at all?  Exploring the implied relationships may tell us about the individuals in question, but certainly provide more context to each of the other topics at hand.  This context not only provides additional understanding the of topic, but can also be a valuable research tool in quickly determining which other topics may impact the one at hand.

What are the relationships shown?  Shown are names occurring in the same news articles, which implies a relationship.  This relationship may a formal relationship, e.g. the working relationship of Bush (8) and Condoleezza Rice (10). Or, the individuals may be related to a common topic such as Michael Phelps (4) and Babe Ruth.

Following are the top 20 names, by centrality, and the number of different implied relationships for each.

People in the News (detail)
People in the News (detail)
  1. Barack Obama   1128
  2. John McCain 902
  3. Sarah Palin 405
  4. Michael Phelps 237
  5. Pervez Musharraf  95
  6. Kwame Kilpatrick  103
  7. Hillary Clinton   270
  8. Bush  158
  9. Joe Biden   218
  10. Condoleezza Rice  107
  11. Steve Jobs  160
  12. John Edwards   101
  13. Clark Rockefeller 69
  14. Britney Spears 122
  15. Brett Favre 65
  16. Bernie Mac  60
  17. Miley Cyrus 70
  18. Bill Clinton   148
  19. Anwar Ibrahim  34
  20. Stephenie Meyer   27

What’s the data set?  A random sampling of news sites including NYTimes, Google, Yahoo!, CNN, Drudge, and the like.

Is this an accurate reflection of news?  I am polling a number of the big news sites, so hopefully it’s not far off.

Any surprises? Miley Cyrus!

Deconstructing Delicious: Merlin Mann

Merlin Mann has a large set of public delicious tags, and I thought I’d take a stab at their interrelation.  By my measure of centrality, his top 20 are:

Merlin Mann's Delicious Tags
Merlin Mann's Delicious Tags
  1. 43folders
  2. domains
  3. tumble
  4. music
  5. sanfrancisco
  6. macosx
  7. flickr
  8. mbwideas
  9. gtd
  10. movies
  11. design
  12. tv
  13. selflink
  14. mac
  15. heh
  16. email
  17. productivity
  18. lifehacks
  19. the_man
  20. cigars

Why Merlin Mann you might ask?  Well, I like his work, and he has a walloping collection of tags.

Want your tags drawn and quartiled?  Leave a comment or drop me a line at…