Network effects and social outcomes of the poor

Growing up I didn’t care much for superhero stories. In order for there to be a hero there necessarily has to be a victim. I figured since no one really wants to be the victim, I should not aspire to be a hero.

Perhaps that is why I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the traditional community service model of the enabled case manager providing services to the debilitated service recipient. There are several inherent problems with this traditional framing, not least of which is that the model defines service recipients by their needs rather than assets. Just as it is better to define words by their properties rather than lack thereof, so too should all people be defined affirmatively.

In keeping with this intention of positive definition, one of the things that defines all people regardless of economic standing is our social networks. However, positive network effects do not fit neatly into the standard community service narrative. Instead, we ignore the possibility that positive network effects can co-exist in poverty, assuming the poor are better removed from their networks all together, perhaps in favor of inclusion in a more affluent, mixed-income community.

I recently read an excellent article by Katya Smyth, founder of the Full Frame Initiative, in the Foundation Review titled “Leveraging Social Networks in Direct Services”. Katya argues that service providers do their clients a disservice by trying to treat symptoms in isolation, without utilizing the benefits of the greater social context and networks in which all people operate.

Indeed, social outcomes might very well be enhanced were social networks leveraged, rather than eschewed, in service delivery. That is part of the premise behind the Family Independence Initiative, which promotes the benefits of poor families working together within their own defined networks to lift themselves, and one another, out of poverty.

These ideas are natural permutations of the lending circle concept pioneered in microcredit.  Lending circles are not organized by the lenders, but instead by the borrowers who build their own networks to both ensure the borrowing group does not default, but also to establish a supportive network and pooled resources that financially benefit all participants.

While there are obvious untapped opportunities in utilizing the existing networks of those in poverty, so too should interventions aim to positively augment social circles where possible. In Katya’s article she notes that in professionalized social services as they exist today, a case manager is more likely to try to help an individual secure employment by sending out dozens of resumes to anonymous employers rather than leveraging existing contacts and relationships. In this case, the missed opportunity is not just a failure to rely on the social network of the job seeker, but more broadly the interventionist’s reluctance to extend her own network to those she serves.

Network augmentation is fundamentally at the core of Mark Horvath’s We Are Visible, which aims to connect unhoused persons with a broader community through social media. Mark has recently received some criticism that although his focus is on homelessness, many of the people who follow him on Twitter and partner in his efforts are not homeless themselves. Considering that the intent of his intervention is to empower unhoused persons with a broader social network, those criticism fall flat, as network strength is in part a function of network heterogeneity.

While the current thinking around social networks and the social sector is stuck in low-gear on simplistic social media advice for non-profits, the real power of networks is in helping people lift themselves out of poverty. My hope is that social media can catalyze wider thinking on the value of networks generally, as the true value of network effects is in the enumeration of poverty reduction, rather than number of followers of a Twitter account.