Community and Diffusion: Two Ways of Thinking About Influence

James Buchanan won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work on specifying models of good government. He was a relentless champion of the power of constitutions to constrain the ambitions of the sovereign. I would desperately like to agree with him, but I have a difficult time accepting the proposition that the US Constitution acts as a hard behavioral constraint at all. What would I substitute in its place? What tools do we have to ensure good governance? Well, when I come up with a slam-dunk plan, I’ll post it here first so that we can get all that sweet Web traffic in advance of my own Nobel Committee recognition. In lieu of that, I’ll continue to ask my readers to take seriously the import of petitioning the sovereign for redress of grievances. Each statute is, in the limit, a death sentence for truculent offenders. It can be worth killing to preserve good law and order, as it can be worth risking scouring the earth of every trace of human life to avoid, what, Communism I guess? Unfortunately, my experience parsing survey data suggests that typical respondents routinely fail to acknowledge the explicit consequences of legislation: that it must ultimately be backed by lethal force to have any meaning at all.

Sam Wilson

Consider, if you will, the Amish. The Amish are a source of endless fascination for me (as many Sweet Talkers and friends know—I heard you all groaning the second I mentioned them just now). On the one hand, they reject many of the amenities of modern living. On the other hand, they selectively adopt in highly strategic ways, with a mind to maintaining their particular set of values. It varies from community to community, but Kevin Kelly estimates that they’ve remained consistently around 50 years behind us on average.

The particular aspect I would like to draw your attention to is their political resilience. See, this is a very close-knit community. The willingness to stick to some pretty harsh ostracism for those who break the rules keeps them quite cohesive. A fascinating episode in the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch (as they are known) was their tense fight with the state over how their children were to be educated, which I read about in a book by Donald Kraybill. Pennsylvania was reforming its public schools to be less like the traditional small, close to home sort and more like your modern centrally determined school district variety. The Amish did not like that, and many were willing to go to prison to fight it. To make a long story short, they ended up negotiating a compromise with the state, one that has lived to this day.

The particulars are less interesting to me than the very fact that the state of Pennsylvania felt they had to back down in the face of a community of non-voters who contributed (especially at the time) very little in the way of tax revenue. But the Amish were cohesive group, firm on their values, and, crucially, their willingness to go to jail drew a great deal of media scrutiny to the matter. What I take away from this episode is that communities can wield strong influence on behalf of their own values, if they are fairly united and willing to take a stand in public. This is especially true in a modern democracy, but the influence apparently goes beyond the number of votes from the community itself—because in the case of the Amish that number was zero.

The Amish are way, way down the long tail of communities. That is part of what keeps them so cohesive and part of why most of us (who are by definition in the majority) are not, in this great big society we live in, typically in groups that are nearly as tightly bound as an Amish community. For many of us, small changes in circumstances—like a job opportunity or a scholarship offered at a particular university—can end with us moving great distances away from our present communities. The costs and the benefits of our more cosmopolitan world are entangled in this fact.

Nevertheless, we do experience community, in a variety of contexts.

Consider the power law distribution, that universal form taken by networks. Almost everyone has seen blockbuster movies, by definition; I might as well be saying “most people have seen what most people have seen.” But this point is crucial. There are a small number of movies that can claim a vast supermajority of all time humans have ever dedicated to viewing movies.

However, as Chris Anderson reminded us all, most of us have seen movies that a fairly small fraction of everyone else has seen.

In other words, everyone has a foot in both worlds—nearly everyone experiences the same things in the head of the tail, and nearly everyone has their own more obscure stuff they’ve explored in the long tail. The head of the tail creates homogeneity, that lubricant for the process known as the diffusion of innovations; once someone adopts an innovation the odds that people who are a lot like them will also adopt it drastically increases.

The long tail creates heterogeneity on a large scale, but it also creates small-scale homogeneity. Power law distributions are fractal; scale down to the level of indie films and you just find a smaller power law distribution. People who are into such things are relatively homogeneous among themselves, meaning that when one of them adopts something, it increases the odds that it will diffuse among the others. And this isn’t domain specific—it could be that a certain style clothes and accessories, or even a certain brand of smartphone, suddenly diffuses disproportionately among indie flick aficionados.

Now, let’s turn to the real matter at hand: politics.

Sam’s quote at the top embodies a spirit of throwing up your arms in the air when it comes to politics that I connect with pretty strongly. But I would nevertheless like to share some thoughts on the nature of social influence, which includes politics in its umbrella.

I think one of the most important lifelong projects we can engage in is to work on building what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “networks of uncalculated giving”, something that Adam Grant has examined empirically in the context of work. Contra MacIntyre, I think that these networks can be relatively dispersed geographically and can include relatively weak ties among them; the giving may be uncalculated but it also may be highly context-specific or constrained. Grant’s work increases my confidence that such networks can act in a manner similar to the Amish; while lacking the advantages of being quite so tightly bound, they are capable of acting in concert in such a way as to make influence possible, when focused. This is my (still imperfectly formed) notion of what influence-by-community means in the modern world.

Anyone who has read my many pieces opposing telescopic morality knows that I think people should focus more on the things in front of them. In the context of politics, this means prioritizing the most local level of politics available to you. Consider that the Amish fight was not with the federal government. They have, over generations at this point, built a certain amount of clout with the governments that have jurisdiction over them; preserving this clout primarily by using it very selectively and very rarely. Community, in short, can become a vehicle for moving politics, on some margins and in certain contexts.

In human social systems, the head of the tail seems populated by big, dominant structures, but things bubble up from the long tail all the time. In the marketplace, this is obvious. Google went from a pair of nobodies to one of the biggest, most influential companies in the global market because usage of their core product diffused to a big majority of Internet users.

The same thing can happen in ethics and rhetoric. Deirdre McCloskey believes that the Great Enrichment happened because of a shift in rhetoric; in diffusion of innovation terms, we might say that pro-commerce rhetoric had remained in the long tail but three hundred years ago began to diffuse in Holland and then in Great Britain.

I think such things are very, very unlikely to happen to your little corner of your long tail of choice. But the magnitude of such an event makes the expected value actually quite large.

And for that reason, I think it is important to get your rhetoric, your ethics, and your political ideals right—in some senseIf you are going to pontificate on matters of political institutions, that is; which most of us here are guilty of.

There’s an interesting debate in the analysis of influence between those who think that you can identify highly influential hubs (Malcolm Gladwell’s “influencers”) who drive diffusion, and those who think that influence is far more broad-based and unconcentrated.

I tend to think there’s something to both sides. The American Constitution and the Napoleonic Code, and to a more limited extent the Japanese Constitution, are cases where it appears there are big disproportionate and lasting influencers. Nevertheless it seems to me that these things weren’t possible without some prior diffusions having occurred; some broadly shared set of values and practices which allowed these institutional changes to take root. Moreover, the particulars of each once implemented were highly influenced by the on the ground knowledge of the implementers.

But for most big diffusions where we think of a dramatic incident or high profile person who is associated with it, I think that Paul Adams’ broad-based explanation is probably more viable. Here’s one model: via the interlocking chains of different long tail communities, a new framework of ethics and rhetoric slowly diffuses across the population. At some point it hits the 10-20 percent that Everett Rogers says is the magic threshold. Then something or someone acts as a catalyst for change—a big media event happens, or a protest movement is organized, say. And this kicks off the diffusion process. In this story, the old ethical-rhetorical framework was slowly rotting, and the dramatic event is simply the hammer that comes down and shatters it. The hammer has influence, to be sure, but it’s far from the whole or most of the story.

This is all sort of moot for answering Sam’s question, of course. Whether you’re the hammer or simply a potential carrier of a new ethical-rhetorical framework, your contribution matters. It may not matter in the sense of being decisive, any more than your one vote will sway a given election. But we are a part of this process, not above it. And I firmly believe that participation brings with it certain responsibilities.

Of course, the amusing thing about my giving this answer to Sam is that he is one of the most responsible people I know, in this specific area. His enormous and excellent output at Euvoluntary Exchange provides plenty of evidence of that. My original concern was simply that his rhetoric might be too cynical, perhaps even corrosively so. Though it’s now fairly clear to me where he stands on the question of specifying good government, how he feels about this rhetoric angle is less obvious to me. Hopefully time and further conversation will bring more clarity.

2 thoughts on “Community and Diffusion: Two Ways of Thinking About Influence

  1. The Amish resistance is another example of peaceful demonstration and resistance. That works sometimes, as Ghandi is the most famous example. But of course it works only on certain ruling cultures, of which the American and British are examples. Maybe even exemplars. It wouldn’t have worked on Ghengis Khan or Kim Jong-Il. We should be thankful we live in a culture that respects that sort of demonstrative resistance and negotiates with it rather than crushes it. I will get to that in my responsive post.

    1. I agree, it’s the sign of a healthy body politic that this can happen at all. But I also think that specific communities are able to gain disproportionate clout on their own behalf even in some relatively tyrannical regimes. It just works differently than it would in the Amish case; it’s more about having more troops and guns under the control of community leaders, or perhaps more control over important natural resources, etc.

      Or conversely, forming groups that are able to act within the regime some way as a party that needs to be satisfied in order to get things to run smoothly, per selectorate theory or some other version of “every regime takes a coalition”.

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