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

Posted by Gina Rosenthal in information | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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 imposters will be able to figure out how to use social media to control information networks. How can that happen? Think about information.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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

  1. I would say that if someone infiltrated a group and was able to connect deeper and influence a small portion of a group that the group signature would be at risk of changing.

  2. Dave Spencer says:

    But you have to let the imposter attempt this, if you want to let the world have any chance of growing.

    To use your lingo (which I apologize if I’m misusing, as my formal education and yours doesn’t really overlap much 🙂 ), if a world makes its signature too rigid, that world will stagnate, shrink, and eventually dry up. The world has to allow itself to shift over time as its population changes, as the problems it faces change, as the norms of the larger world around it change.

    So the person who enters a small world, and after adjusting to its norms begins subtly trying to change the group in a positive way (whether consciously or not!), has the same challenge as the imposter. And yet you need to allow that person to do this.

    I think it comes back to “trust but verify.” When I rely on the communities I’m a part of to help me make a decision, or to provide me with information, I do so with the risk that the communities could be facing manipulation, and that if I don’t verify the information I get from that community I’ll be leaving myself wide open to harm.

  3. gminks says:

    But Dave what about cults? They have very rigid rules, and people adapt. Actually that is what prevents people from leaving cults, they are taught not to look for information anywhere else, they are taught to only seek information from sources that match (or are acceptable) to the group style. This actually serves as a way to bolster the group and ensure it won’t dry up. Actually, cults are a great example of what happens if an information imposter is in charge of a group.
    And hey I had to take programming classes too so there is *some* overlap! 😀

  4. Gina,
    I like the idea of where you are going and I wanted to share my two cents. I studied social networking for a while and from that perspective what you talk about is A) most likely not completely possible and B) not the worst thing in the world if it does.

    Regarding A, the infiltration and total assimilation of an outsider into an intact group is an uncommon thing because of all of the social norms and subtle nuances of that group. In linguistics, even the slightest change in dialect would be noted. In sports fans, not knowing a certain player or a certain club-changing moment could be the giveaway. Which brings me to B, so what if someone did infiltrate the group? If an imposter spends the amount of time required to learn all of the subculture’s norms and styles, what would be so bad if he/she began to influence the group? Dave’s comment on change is great; you could call the imposter an early adapter of a new trend if you wanted. The shift in behavior of the group will likely not be blind (i.e., the Wisdom of Crowds) so any change adapted will likely go through the same norming process that the current norms went through. As for your idea of cults, where the flow of information is controlled, if the infiltrator isn’t the controller then there really isn’t anything to worry about as far as an infiltrator.

    Cool thoughts.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Mark Burke
    Accurate Assessments

  5. gminks says:

    Great points Mark! As you can probably tell, I’m a worst-case-possible type of person: what is the worst that can happen and how do you mitigate the damage. My train of thought was how do we make sure that the power of social media isn’t co-opted into something else, but now you have me thinking perhaps the underlying social networks would prevent that situation from becoming the norm.

  6. Hi Gina, good post. I like the idea of “small world signatures”. Although we are living in massive social networks, we see that people are still limited by the number of active relationships one person can maintain, or Dunbar’s number.

    Natural networker’s may be simply people who have a large Dunbar number, for most people though, that number is close to 150. What happens when the number of people who we need to connect with exceed our maximum number of relationships we can maintain?

    The network re-adjusts to optimize the connections, and when it does, sometimes very subtle signs are perceived and given, as Mark noted above. When that become explicit, we get what could amount to Ostracism, as I noted in the article you read yesterday.

  7. gminks says:

    I love Dunbar’s number, and I think it’s reality. I can make lots of connections, but it’s hard to maintain them. I good at recalling connections, esp when I want to connect an unconnected node. But I’m not sure I’m an “insider” with all of the people I’m connected with…
    It’s almost like trade languages. People who knew the trade languages were able to make tons of connections, but mostly to foster business deals. They weren’t insiders, but they had a type of status that kept them from being complete outsiders. And they knew enough of the signature to keep from losing the status they had.

    It is all very interesting. 🙂

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