nollet_monksYou know what happens to a Carthusian monk when you hook him up to electricity? He jumps. How about if you have 200 Carthusian monks hold hands and then zap the ones on each end? They all jump. But, more importantly, they jump at virtually the same time. This is how we know that electric current is practically instantaneous. To get more of the story, go here (some source say 700 monks).

I doubt that I need to convince anyone about the power of electricity, but the other lessons here are important. When we are holding hands with someone, we are influenced not only by that person, but by all the people that person is holding hands with. Research has shown that people three and four handshakes down the chain have an influence on our health, weight, good and bad habits, and can influence who we date and where we get jobs.

And that research was before we had the internet. Now we hold hands with many more people. We hold onto old and distant friendships through Facebook, we connect with people we don’t know but share interests with over Twitter and in groups on various social media. The chains of influence are ever more complex and overlapping.

But the signals that travel along these networks are not so simple as a bit of a electricity and the results are not as predictable, or measurable, as making someone jump. Our behaviors are strongly influenced by our networks, but as we develop more networks, we are also more free to choose. The Framingham study, on which a lot of the research in the book Connected was based, is a longitudinal study of a small town that began back in 1948. But the people in the study are basically a monoculture, and many of the networks are influenced by geography and family.

As we create online networks, we often choose people with similar interests, ideology, or prejudices. Then we spend a lot of time reinforcing each other’s beliefs. This could be why, instead of the internet bringing about a weakening of the walls that divide us, it has often seemed to make those walls higher and more rigid.

Memes are a particularly strong tool by which networks form and harden. I’m using the term in the modern, Internet sense, not the original Richard Dawkins meaning. A meme is typically an image with text, conveying a short thought that reinforces someone’s belief system, for better or worse. Memes are attractive to influencers, marketers and communicators, because they seem easy to create and can spread quickly. They are often far-ranging. But they also flow along networks, it is doubtful that they create new ones.

Still, a big part of communication, advocacy, and marketing is energizing your advocates or your existing customers. The people who have already chosen to hold hands, so to speak. For these groups, some of the fastest flowing current around is often composed of the simple meme.