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Monday, May 15, 2006

Mavens, Persuaders, Connectors and Us

A week ago I closed the first essay in this two-part series with a take of how Malcolm Gladwell's concept of "Connectors,"  ie. people innately skilled at translating the Democratic message for the Majority, applies to our current political situation.  At the end of the essay, I invited readers at dailykos.com to highlight folks they see as Connectors.

Kossacks put forward this brief list:  Brian Schweitzer, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, Russ Feingold, Rev. William Barber, Andrew Duck, Ed Schultz, John Edwards, John Murtha, Howard Dean, George Lakoff, Molly Ivins, Alex Sanders.

Now, the above list is an interesting...though not in the least complete...snapshot that helps prove a point I'm going to make below:  if you want to know something, ask a Maven.

What's a Maven?  In this essay I will address just that, and take the analysis begun in the first essay (using Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point) and apply it to the netroots.  In particular, I will show how political activism on the internet is most effective when we understand the nature of the role we play.  Understanding that role, and political models based on Gladwell's framework, helps point to the task at hand for the Democratic Party and the netroots in 2006: connecting and persuading.


1. Bloggers as Mavens


My dailykos userid, the number that appears at the end of the field in the status bar when you drag your mouse over the name kid oakland, is 2046.  

Sometime on October 17th, 2003, at the end of the week that Markos switched the already popular blog, dailykos, over to scoop, I created userid 2046, better known as "kid oakland." In doing so, I followed some 2045 other kossacks, a mix of "Innovators" and "Early Adopters," who had joined the new "scoop" version of the website.  (One might think of Markos' implementation of scoop and the initial surge of kossacks registering there as a kind of "mini-Big Bang" that shaped the character and structure of what we now know as the dailykos universe.)  

You can say many things about the group of people who signed on at dailykos in the early days of scoop, but, in a nutshell, it's safe to say that we were, like kossacks today, obsessed with knowing the latest political news and prognostications and we were eager to talk about it.

Markos has rightly characterized the readers and users of dailykos.com as "political junkies."  That seems self-evidently true; political news is what draws us there.  We are also, I would argue, using Malcom Gladwell's terminology, pretty universally Mavens.  Here is how Gladwell describes Mavens:

The word Maven comes from the Yiddish, and it means one who accumulates knowledge.  In recent years, economists have spent a great deal of time studying Mavens, for the obvious reason that if marketplaces depend on information, the people with the most information must be the most important. [snip]

...although most of us don't look at prices, every retailer knows that a very small number of people do, and if they find something amiss--a promotion that's not really a promotion--they'll do something about it.  If a store tried to pull [a deceptive] sales stunt too often, these are the people who would figure it out and complain to management and tell their friends and acquaintances to avoid the store. [snip]

The critical thing about Mavens...is that they aren't passive collectors of information.  It isn't just that they are obsessed with how to get the best deal on a can of coffee.  What sets them apart is that once they figure out how to get that deal, they want to tell you about it too.

Sound familiar?  Clearly, bloggers are Mavens; the whole phenomenon of rapid information sharing here in the blogosphere involves the work of thousands of Mavens who have found in the internet an amazing medium to spread the news, to "tell other people."  Most of us did this already, to one extent or another, in the offline world; blogs, however, magnified both our access to information and the scope of the audience we could share that information with.  Blogs also brought us into contact with many other fellow Mavens we might never have "met." We've created a community of Mavens here online.

Political bloggers, then, are Mavens who are obsessed both with knowing the latest political news and talking about how that news impacts politics. That dual interest is what inspired Markos and Jerome to build these incredibly "sticky" communities, and what inspired those of us who have joined those communities.  Together, we've built the online haven for political Mavens that many call the "blogosphere." (Or, as skippy calls it, "blogtopia".)  

This reality, as I implied in my first essay, has both upsides and downsides; if we use Gladwell's Tipping Point to undertand what makes the political blogosphere tick, we can understand our strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, if we intend to maximize our effectiveness we have some obligation to do so.

Political Mavens, like all Mavens, are obsessed with incontrovertible facts; whether that fact is a poll result, an impending scandal, a court decision or any other bit of political news. Among political Mavens, facts are the coin of the realm.  The less well known, the newer, the more significant and, even, the  more controversial, the incontrovertible fact, the  more our radar goes off.  Think of the diary list on dailykos; it's like a running scroll of alarm bells for political Mavens that screams:  "New Fact here!"  "Incoming!"  "BREAKING."

There are two components to our obsession with facts (ie. news).  First, the facts themselves; and second, what those facts seem to imply when applied to our shared set of values.  We bloggers are uniquely skilled at pointing up all sorts of new and overlooked facts and, like all Mavens, we are obsessed with what those facts imply about the future and the status quo, their perceived usefulness to ourselves and others as Mavens.

The point of my first essay was that we "Early Adopter" Mavens are often not so good at understanding the distinction between how facts appear to us versus how the majority understands those same realities. We are invested in our interpretations. This happens naturally and is in some ways inevitable.  We in the "early Adopter" netroots fail to understand how our world view interacts with the world view of "the Majority," and this happens as a function of being "early Adopter Mavens."   We're great at sussing out facts, but we see those facts in terms of the start points, obsessions and assumptions that made us Mavens in the first place.  "This poll is great news for John Edwards!"  "Bush's speech last week is directly contradicted by this news out of Iraq!"  "George W. Bush is Toast!"

The exact same reality that political Mavens see in one light...while still remaining an "incontrovertible fact"...while still being "true" and "important"...is not seen in the same light by the very people we seek to persuade and connect with in the majority.  That does not, in the least, diminish the power of any given "fact" or our role in discovering and promoting it, but it should, I think, cause all of us in the blogosphere to stop and think for a second about that reality.

In a nutshell, "Mavens" and "Early Adopters" are necessary but not sufficient forces in the process of creating a tipping point that crosses to a political majority.  A "community of Mavens," such as the one we have built at dailykos.com and elsewhere...is an extraordinarily powerful tool for sharing facts, debating their significance, and building community among ourselves and outwards somewhat.  This "community of mavens," however, is not in-and-of-itself a political movement, nor are our start points and assumptions all that useful when trying broaden and translate our political views so that they can win the support of the majority.  

People don't vote simply based on facts.  (Reality, as Stephen Colbert insists, "has a well-known liberal bias.") Further, as I argued in the first essay, most people won't vote to endorse a world view that they perceive they don't share.  No amount of "Maven"-sourced facts and persusasion alone will change this reality.

By and large, Republicans have understood this reality and executed around it...and, lately, Democrats haven't.

2. the Persuasion model versus the Connector Model:  2004


What was the single most salient and surprising factor in the 2004 presidential election?  I would argue that it was the Republicans use of "person-to-person" and "community-based" Connectors, and "Connector issues" to generate massive turn-out among their base.   George W. Bush won reelection not by "persuading" independents...John Kerry, in most instances, won more of the independent vote...George W. Bush won reelection by creating, on any of a number of levels, the feeling and perception of a "shared world view" among people most likely to turn out to vote for him and then successfully turned those people out to vote.  

In effect, Karl Rove was so confident of the power of "Connection," of this "shared world view," that he drove right over the need to "appeal to the middle" or "persuade" and won on the strength of Connection with very little persuasion or facts at all.  (As thereisnospoon pointed out in a great essay referring to the Overton window; the GOP very successfully moved the chasm in American politics.)

The 2004 election was a battle between a "Persuader model" and a "Connector model" for crossing the chasm.  Clearly, the "Connector model" won.  While this simplifies things a bit much (especially since I don't think John Kerry was necessarily a fully successful "Persuader"), the contrast bewteen the two concepts gets at the core my argument.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the critical role of "the Salesman" in creating tipping points.  Gladwell's "Salesmen" are gifted, if not "mesmerizing" communicators who "have the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing."  Translating that to politics, I am going to call Gladwell's Salesman: "Persuaders."  Persuaders are our politicians, our candidates, though they might also be us.

Simply put, the "Persuasion" model for crossing the chasm relies upon using facts and rational argument to persuade the Majority of the value of a political idea or candidate.  We may, per Lakoff, hone our arguments in support of those facts...ie. craft our fact-based message with frames that "appeal to the majority."  (And, as Lakoff points out, the GOP has done this going the other way for 25 years now.)  However, at the end of the day, the Persuasion Model is centered on rational argument that highlights the role of the "Persuader," or candidate, in making the case.  The Persuasion Model puts facts and persuasion at the center of politics (where they should be, if you ask me) and puts a high burden on the candidate, or "Persuader," to see those arguments through.  

Now, if our Persuader is William Jefferson Clinton, a candidate gifted at "Connecting" and a "Maven" extraordinaire (Clinton's innate skill at presenting facts was awesome), the Persuasion Model can seem to work like a well-oiled machine.  All three of Gladwell's critical factors are present: "Sales/Persuasion" "Connection" and "Facts."  If, on the other hand, the Persuader is a candidate with less skill at "Connecting"...someone like Michael Dukakis...no matter how persuasive a Maven that candidate is, in the absence of other forces that might help create "Connection", even with a candidate as highly skilled at persuasive presentation as John Kerry, the Persuasion Model will have great difficulties overcoming the challenge I mentioned above:

People won't vote for a world view that they perceive they don't share.

Republicans have known and used this insight for a long time now.  It's the core of their under-the-radar Connector approach.  Connection works off of building a "shared world view."  It is extraordinarily powerful.

George W. Bush won reelection based neither on persuasion or the facts.  He won reelection without even being a highly-skilled connector outside his base.  George Bush won reelection because the GOP created a grassroots Connector model that buoyed Bush despite his weaknesses at persuasion and on the facts.  Karl Rove knew that appealing to "conservative identity" was a powerful way to connect with voters in states that George Bush had to win, and did so.

In effect, the GOP moved the chasm, and out-Connected the Democratic party in 2004.  Persuasion alone was not enough to defeat this tide.  

3. Conclusion


How do we change that in 2006?  In particular, how do we in the netroots play a role?  These are the questions before us.

I am not going to offer any pat aswers.  I've got ideas, as I'm sure you do and welcome your thoughts below.  But I would like to link the two halves of this essay together with this thought.

Mavens are incredibly powerful forces in the marketplace.  Facts are powerful.  We in the blogosphere who are lucky enough to participate in this "community of Mavens" have a vital role to play.  We need to understand and enhance that role.  Blog posts can take any of a myriad of forms (humorous, wonky, outraged, worried) and still fulfill the core function of effective communication: crossing the chasm.  I am convinced that good writing can persuade and connect.  And I think that's what everyone who's ever written a diary here or a blog post elsewhere has sought: to communicate effectively.  That's our job.  We seek to start, even if on a small scale, to use Gladwell's words, "a word-of-mouth epidemic that leads to a tipping point."

We must recognize, however, the validity of the truism that people come to the net both to learn facts AND for confirmation of what they already think, to find like-minded company.  Knowing this, its unlikely that the internet alone will ever prove to be an effective tool at "Connecting" across chasms.  Our online "community of Mavens" will not, by itself, cross the chasm.

As someone, however, committed to "persuasion" and "fact-based" argument, I think the blogosphere can greatly enhance our effectiveness on and offline if we understand and hone the role we do play.  The blogosphere has proven to be a powerful testing ground for sharing ideas and facts.  One or two of these stubborn facts have had very real consequences for the powerful. It has also proved to be a powerful meeting place, where we are continually innovating new ways to organize ourselves.

It seems to me inevitable that the Democratic party will have to retake the majority with an approach that incorporates fact-based persuasion.  That's the situation history has given us, and the facts are on our side.  Further, I do not think the blind promotion of "charismatic connectors" or "talking about values" to the exclusion of "fact-based persusasion" is the answer. That's too simple.  We have to use all the tools at our disposal: connection and persuasion.

That means that all of us, bloggers, candidates and party, have an obligation to attempt to understand the chasms that impede the effectiveness of our communication.  We need to learn what the factors are that lead people to tune us out despite the facts.  That was the entire point of my first essay.   Connection and persuasion are the task at hand.

Historically, the Democratic party succeeded at creating "connection" through an appeal to the shared ideals that underly the founding values of our nation.  We need to do that again.  That is one point I think this "community of mavens" can agree on: we seek connectors in that vein.  We seek powerful communicators who can persuade and appeal, who can unite the persuasive use of facts with powerful connection building.

Personally, I think the list of Connectors that dailykos readers responded with to my last post is promising, yet incomplete.  Like many of you, I would like to think that we are in the midst of expanding that list with every passing day.  Regardless, there's one thing I'm sure of:  as these new leaders emerge, you'll here about them in the blogosphere first.

What a bunch of Mavens.


  • Sadly I think too many people are culturally locked in spite of reality staring them in the face. The challenge we have is cutting through.

    During the '04 campaign while phonebanking I had a bizarre conversation with a gentleman in Wisconsin (a state Kerry barely won). He had a good paying union job under Clinton but was unemployed by Bush. When I called Kerry was making news for chastising Bush about not leading on the assault weapons ban.

    He told me that he objected to Kerry because he didn't want to lose his gun. I asked him if anyone had tried to take his gun while Bill Clinton was President and the assault weapons ban was in effect. He acknowledged no one had tried to take his gun.

    We spoke for a few more minutes and we seemed to have developed a rapport. That's when I learned about his job history. He even volunteered that he could no longer afford bullets for his gun and didn't have health care.

    I was incredulous. I asked him, "Let me get this straight, you had a good paying union job under Clinton. Now you don't even have health care but you're still voting for Bush over a gun you're not going to lose?"

    He responded, "Well, I think Kerry is a pussy."

    So I parried, "Bush avoided combat in Vietnam and Kerry didn't. So who's the pussy and who isn't?"

    He angrily snapped, "Well, I'll vote for who I goddamn want to."

    That conversation haunts me to this day. I won the argument but still couldn't persuade him. He was culturally locked and reality didn't seem to matter.

    On the other hand, I received email following a post on my blog entitled "Gay Rights Are Human Rights" a couple months ago from people who congratulated me on changing their minds.

    So I guess the ultimate lesson is we fight because they're things worth fighting for. We press on against setbacks like my telephone conversation with the Wisconsin gentleman. Because reasonable people can be reached and persuaded as I've learned through blogging. We just have to uncover them.

    By Anonymous Intrepid Liberal Journal, at 8:07 PM  

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