# 72: BOOK OF THE WEEK — “The Dragonfly Effect”
Story behind the Book Choice
Social media are fascinating to me. They have become part of our lives within less than two decades. Remember, Facebook, which really started the snowball effect, was founded in 2004. But social media have not just become part of our daily lives because we do something with them. In fact, they do something with us; they shape who we actually are. Just think of all the content out there about sports challenges during Covid and the entire self-improvement hype. You might like it or not, social media have become more than media — they can do powerful things, not just spread messages.
The doing part is actually why I like that the authors of The Dragonfly Effect do not talk about social media — they talk about social technology (check the eytmology of the term, it involves art, by the way). And that is also why I ended up getting the book a few weeks ago. I am getting deeper and deeper into the use of different channels to inspire action. And I do not mean merely for myself. I mean, I want to help more people spread their messages in order to enable others to act more efficiently and with higher impact. As the authors also share extensively, storytelling is an incremental part of inspiring action.
Impact is at the center of the Dragonfly Effect. The book offers compelling stories to underline each and every aspect about the four wings of the dragonfly. The metaphor itself is a great example of how you can get your message across in order to really make people learn. Nevertheless, I need to drop a critical note about the structure of the book when it comes to the enumeration of different “how tos.” For me, personally, I cannot remember well if all major information is sliced into enumerations from 1 to 4. For my taste, there is too much of this in the book.
That does not change the fact that the book is a great companion for people who want to start getting into social media. It offers a great mixture of basic insights about how readers can use specific social technologies, e.g., Twitter or Facebook. At the same time, and this is at least equally important, the book’s stories explain very well why one should engage with these social technologies in the first place. Remember, the book is from 2010 but the basic rules of why social technology has the power it has have not changed, despite the fact that more and more people are using them. And if they use it for good or for bad purposes, is up to them, as one learns in the Afterword by Dan Ariely. As always, I will focus on three topics that triggered some thinking.
- Ripple Effect
The Dragonfly Effect is about how social media can enable people to achieve incredible impact via the use of social technology — completely “disproportionate” to their resources. The ripple effect is closely related to how this works. Of course, I learned about the ripple effect from different management readings before. But when I read about it in the context of social technology now, it was again the emotional aspect that caught my attention. The “emotional contagion” that the authors talk about is such a powerful means of making people do something. But I am so sad about the fact that it is missing in so many places these days.
Yes, of course, you might argue now that manipulation is also caused by emotional contagion. Fine, I got it. I still want to talk about the positive effect. The authors in the book provide so many powerful examples of people who used social media to save, or at least prolong, lives. The case of Sameer is just one among many. It ended tragically while at the same time powerfully underlining the impact of social technology as a tool that, just some years in the past, simply was not available (read more about it here). The story of a four-year old with childhood cancer who started a lemonade stand to raise money for cancer research is another one (ALSF).
All these and many more examples from your daily lives show how powerful the effect can be if people who are touched by something pass on their emotional drive to others. The thing that I am sad about is that we in the “West” — especially in Germany — have very much excluded the emotional part from our institutions. For someone like me who is very high in emotions and very high in rationality, this is not endurable. But the point is: We are all human beings and we all have one head and one heart. And simply working with one while shutting down the other part might get you somewhere — but it does not get you to outstanding results.
Just look at what I am writing here — how I am writing it. These words are not special at all, there might still be typos in the end. Who cares? I am writing this with passion because I am really pissed off by this entire rationality paradigm. If we did not have this, we would have by far fewer people running to coaches and therapists because they would intuitively find the connection to their gut feeling. What is even more important, they would really become leaders of movements because their emotional energy would make people follow and do things.
Instead, we are all about being reasonable and calm and well-organized. Bullshit! Of course, in order to think clearly, I need to be able to master my emotions. But the most important thing happens before the strategic and tactical thinking part — your emotions trigger what you actually think about in the first place. This determines your mission. And your mission drives whatever comes afterwards. In most settings that I have come to know in the past, except for entrepreneurship and partly management, there were mostly sleeping pills on two legs trying to rationally explain everything to others and then expecting others to work on something that supposedly creates value.
The ripple effect does not work this way.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” — Robert Frost
One of my dearest mentors taught me a very important lesson right when I started as a an entrepreneur. She told me: “When I have a conversation with someone, I do not care what this person thinks afterwards. I care about what he/she does.” This was so decisive that, since then, I pass on this message to each and every coachee at some point. Yes, life is all about taking action. I wonder how we could lose track of this so much.
Well, this is not true, of course. I do not really wonder. I know part of the answer, at least. We live in a wealthy society in which academization is everywhere. Thinking is the most valued thing and, with the spread of social media, talking has almost entirely replaced this. The most important thing seems to be: be loud and reach a huge fan base — that is it. This will make you successful. It is all about the stories you have to tell. People will push the “like” button — bang, this is it. Great, and then you think you have impact.
I am very happy that this notion is slowly changing. Yes, reaching many people with your messages might move them to do stuff. But if media consumption is where the entire process stops already, nothing will change. Again, I am writing this here, so you can go like: “Great, what is such a blog doing?” The point is, writing can do a lot, as the authors of The Dragonfly Effect also demonstrate. But it is only one part of the entire process of creating impact — of really moving the world with the large-scale impact that social technology can achieve.
This again is the tragic side of the binary. People who write are thought to be weak at acting. They are “theoretical” folks, they do not get their hands dirty. These and many more stereotypes are so powerful. As with all stereotypes, they are partly true. This is part of the reason why I personally cannot spend more than a fraction of my time in academia. I am not saying that people do not fix any problems there with their daily work. They certainly do. But the inefficiency and the lack of pragmatic thinking and acting simply make people sick who are more into getting things done — of solving problems right away under high pressure. And no, the value of these things that need to get done is not merely social and not merely financial, as my final point underlines.
3. Social good and profit-making
It is quite funny that I am reading this book in a period when I am increasingly speaking up in favor of my own mission to bridge the talking-doing gap; the gap between business and academia; between social causes and profitability. It is exactly this combination of doing good and making money that social technology enables each and everyone of us to realize— if we want to. As the authors also show, this combination actually makes companies more successful than a one-sided focus on making money only. The opposite, however, the mere chasing of some philanthropic cause does not lead anywhere in many cases, at least not in the business world.
Yes, I am not talking about this as an expert. In fact, this balance between having a big heart and making money with one’s mission has always been a difficult issue for me. I still happen to fall into the trap of just thinking in one mode or the other. Still, awareness is the key to solving this and any other problem in the world. And this blunt dichotomy of either/or is making me increasingly frustrated as you, my readers, might be noticing. Not only in academia and the social sphere but also in the startup scene; there are so many people who blindly follow some vision without thinking of the economic part — and vice versa.
This both/and mode instead of always thinking either/or takes practice. And it takes self-knowledge. In addition, you need to have the guts to let others — also people older and more experienced than you — talk without allowing them to influence your decisions or doubt your inner feeling of purpose. I am not talking about mixing the two all the time. I mean, having the commercial and the idealistic aspect on your radar and employing one or the other, depending on the situation. This is nothing exceptional about the digital age, by the way. Entrepreneurs fulfil a social function in general. The problem is that with all the greed and the polarization, even entrepreneurs themselves might somehow lose sight of what they are actually working for.
What does all this have to do with social technology? A lot, obviously. The dragonfly effect enables you to pursue your business and/or personal mission much more efficiently, given that most social media platforms do not cost anything. You simply need to communicate as best and as authentically as possible. And in this communication, you need to make sure that both — the head and the heart of your audience — are moved. Otherwise, your message will not stick and they will not take action.
When I finished reading the book today, I looked at my first academic book published in 2014, my dissertation. I suddenly realized how much I have been dealing with binaries and dichotomies throughout all my academic work. And the conclusion I had back then was that the constant mixing of one thing with the other, the creation of some hybrid space, does not really work for individuals. You need to be on one side at one point in time. Still, you do not sacrifice the other side for whatever reason. It is also there all the time, even if you might have your focus somewhere else. This simultaneity is crucial.
My focus will increasingly be on solving the polarized approach to this discourse about the social value and profitability. I simply cannot stand the arrogance of some people who are claiming to change the world with their smart talking and have 0 — ZERO — pragmatic solutions to contribute; let alone the mere skills to actually touch some tools to go fix social ills. This is a mission that is big enough to be fulfilling. And now that I know about the dragonfly effect, I also know how to move people with this message of the balance between social good and business: focus, grab attention, engage and act.
May the dragonfly take off.
1) Do you use social technology for your personal/business mission?
2) Authenticity is a crucial criterion for making social technology successful — how much authenticity is too much for you personally?
3) In his afterword, Dan Ariely points to the potential misuse of social technology — do you think that social technology needs more regulation? If yes, how would you implement this?