I’m currently knee deep into Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Christakis & Fowler and am thoroughly enjoying it.
One fascinating phenomenon the book explores is how emotions can spread from person to person. In other words, when you are happy you increase the odds your friends will be happy and, interestingly, that your friends’ friends will be happy. Indeed Christakis & Fowler’s research suggests that emotional states are, to a limited degree, contagious.
All this reminded me of playing competitive volleyball. I’ve always felt volleyball is one of the most psychologically difficult games to play. I’ve regularly seen fantastic teams collapse in front of vastly inferior opponents. I used to believe that the unique structure of volleyball accounted for this. The challenge is that the game pauses at the end of every point, allowing players to reflect on what happened and, more importantly, assign blame (which can often be allocated to a single individual on the team). This makes it easy for teams to start blaming a player, over-think a point, or get frustrated with one another.
As a result, even prior to reading Connected, I knew team cohesion was essential in volleyball (and, admittedly, any sport) . This is often why, between points, you’ll see volleyball teams come together and high-five or shake hands even if they lost the point. If emotions and confidence are contagious, I can now see why it is a team starts to lose a little confidence and consequently then plays a little worse causing them to lose still more confidence and then, suddenly they are in a negative rut and can’t escape.(Indeed, this peer reviewed paper showed that tactile touch among NBA players was a predictor of individual and team success)
Of course, I’ve also long believed the same is true of online (and, in particular, open source) communities. That poisonous and difficult people don’t just negatively impact the people they are in direct contact with, but also a broader group of people in the community. Moreover, because communication often takes place in comment threads the negative impact of poisonous people could potentially linger, dragging down the attitude and confidence of everyone else in the community. I’ve often thought that the consequence of negative behaviours in the online communities has been underestimated – Christakis and Fowler’s research suggests there are some more concrete ways to measure this negative impact, and to track it. Negative behaviour fosters (and possibly even attracts) still more negative behaviour, creating a downward loop and likely causing positive or constructive people to opt out, or even never join the community in the first place.
In the end, finding ways to identify, track and mitigating negative behaviour early on – before it becomes contagious – is probably highly important. This is just an issue of having people be positive, it is about creating a productive and effective space, be it in pursuit of an open source software product, or a vibrant and interesting discussion at the end of an online newspaper article.