Thursday, January 1

Measuring Popular: Social Media Meets Gilligan's Island


Long-time industry analyst Barbara French once wrote (link below) that "we've got some very bright people on both sides of the debate — those advocating that we equate influence with popularity/connectedness, those advising against it. Neither side is ready to blink." Well, for those advocating for it, I suggest they study the work of Sherwood Schwartz and blink.

That's right. You'll find all you need to know about how influence, authority, and popularity interact by watching Gilligan's Island.

Influence

Influence is the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, and opinions of others.

The Professor, AKA Roy Hinkley Jr., Ph.D., had individual influence, even though group think had more. (So did Eunice "Lovey" Wentworth Howell, mostly over her husband but occasionally the younger female castaways.)

In 1958, social psychologist Solomon Asch devised an experiment to examine the extent to which pressure from other people could affect one's perception. Almost 37 of the 50 subjects conformed to the majority at least once, even when the majority had chosen a clearly erroneous answer. (Hat tip for the reminder: HireCentrix).

It didn't require any sense of authority or popularity; only a simple majority. However, perceived authority or popularity can potentially compound the allure of conformity. And sometimes, in the wrong hands, the results can be disastrous.

Authority

Authority is the power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, judge, or influence by proven knowledge or experience in a field.

The Skipper, AKA Jonas Grumby, had authority. (So did Thurston Howell, III, but his authority did not translate into an admired quality given the situational parameters of the island.)

In 1963, Stanley Milgram gave the world a glimpse into obedience by publishing the results of his experiment, which proved the authority figure in the experiment could convince participants to deliver electric shocks past safety limits, even when the recipient of the shocks protested and expressed life-threatening danger.

It didn't require any popularity, only a blind belief that someone seemed in charge. A simple majority can compound the allure of obedience. And sometimes, when given to the wrong people, it can be disastrous.

Popularity

Popularity is most simply defined as being commonly liked or approved of, but there's a bit more to it.

Ginger Grant was popular. (But among viewers, people liked Mary Ann more).

In 2008, behavioral geneticist S. Alexandra Burt at Michigan State University found that genes elicit not only specific behaviors but also the social consequences of those behaviors, which means your genes may drive your social experiences and predispose you to popularity in certain social settings. But there is more to it than that. In this study, the 200 male college students were in a unique campus environment where "rule-breaking behaviors" are generally admired. In another social setting, they may not be popular.

In 1993, the Administrative Science Quarterly published "Power, social influence, and sense making: effects of network centrality and proximity on employee perceptions," which explored the relative contributions of individual attributes, formal organizational positions, network centrality, and network proximity in explaining individual variation in perceptions of work-related conditions in an advertising firm. Simply stated, like many studies have found — social settings, structural centrality, perceived leadership, situational timing, and role satisfaction all play a part in making someone popular. And sometimes, when the wrong people become popular, it can be disastrous.

Ergo, exhibiting qualities considered admirable within a specific social network can help someone become popular.

It's also why Gilligan may have been the least popular person on the island, but he was easily the most popular comedic icon among viewers who found the comedy and sometimes accidental genius of the character to be admired qualities.

Influence, Authority, and Popularity Online

Michael Litman, who is equally fascinated by the concept of online authority, touched on part of the equation (and provided a sum up of definitions from people with perceived authority online) by simply stating that authority cannot be measured online. He's mostly right.

When you consider various social psychological studies and what we know about cognitive psychology, everyone started as equal as Litman suggests. But since human beings are human beings, we are generally predisposed to create systems of hierarchy and authority. So, it only stands to reason that people quickly went to work attempting to build such a structure in this new social setting.

Fortunately or unfortunately, much of this hierarchy has been built mostly around popularity measurements or largely "reach" as I mentioned on Tuesday, which is easily summed up by how many links, readers, followers, friends, etc. someone has earned. However, it's always important to consider that these measures might be gamed, blatantly, through mutually reciprocal agreements or, covertly, through sycophant behavior (hit tip for the perfect word: Chapel).

The reason reach has been incorporated into the equation is because it's borrowed from the advertising industry and mainstream media's obsession with eyeballs. But in the end, social media gravitation to reach doesn't mean anything because real influence requires offline measures such as changing behavior or tangible outcomes and real authority comes from something other than popularity (even though all three are sometimes interconnected).

“Popularity is the one insult I have never suffered.” — Oscar Wilde

For anyone who knows anything about Oscar Wilde, there is an irony in his comment that makes it all the more colorful. While he may have never penned a blog or joined a social network, he was one of the greatest celebrities of his day, frequently wearing his hair long and decorating his room with peacock feathers and lilies. And even though his situational timing was perfect (because that is what his world needed at the time), he always backed it up with his biting wit and the pledge not to beg forgiveness for what he thought. And what did he think?

"All that I desire to point out is the general principle that life imitates art far more than art imitates life." - Oscar Wilde

For all the mentions of people drinking the Kool-Aid in regard to social media (backed up by studies from Milgram and Asch), we ought to know by now that Wilde was as right today as he was one hundred years ago. If you're not careful, social media has a greater chance to change individuals than individuals ever do to change social media. And if there is any wisdom to be taken away, perhaps it is that participants would be better off searching for truth rather than the cult of personality.

Why? Read some of the work by Walter Lippman, who believed distorted information is inherent in the human mind and only by seeing through stereotypes can we find partial truths. Or ...

Simply recognize that for all the importance placed on influence, authority, and popularity on Gilligan's Island, they never got off the island (er, special episodes aside).

In other words, even if you could measure all the nuances of influence, authority, and popularity, why would you want to? It seems to me, throughout history, we've proven that chasing after the shadow of perception often leads us away from reality.

Related posts pertaining to influence, authority, and popularity online:

Does Influence Equal Online Popularity by Barbara French
Measuring Influence vs. Popularity by Shel Israel
Influence and Popularity in Social Media by Servant of Chaos
Ego Trap: Influencer Lists by Peter Kim
Twitter Popularity Does Not Equal Business Acumen by Jennifer Leggio

2 comments:

Barbara French on 1/1/09, 6:23 PM said...

Rich, Thanks for the shout. Using Gilligan's Island as a metaphor for influence, authority and popularity is so entertaining.

I've often thought that the other castaway island series, Survivor, would make a great case study on authority-influence within a fishbowl and popularity among the onlookers. Surely some grad student somewhere is working on it...

Best regards,
Barbara

Rich on 1/2/09, 8:10 AM said...

Barbara,

You're very welcome. Your post was solid and deserved inclusion because it goes a long way in helping people understand why there is a discussion.

Survivor could certainly work as an analogy, though classic pop culture can be as interesting as social psychology. Besides, it speaks volumes when we consider that audiences thought Mary Ann had more sustainable likability over Ginger, probably because Ginger knew she was popular.

Glad you enjoyed it.

All my best,
Rich

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