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March 27, 2009

Embracing Hierarchy in Groups to Increase Engagement in Education

Two overlapping foundational concepts for this post:

1) Hierarchy Matters

In his best lecture submission to "Big Ideas," Mark Fournier opens by stating he will convince the audience that hierarchy formation in humans is natural, predictable and consequential:

"It is natural in that hierarchies will form wherever people congregate.

It is predictable in that where you stand in the hierarchy depends on your ability to attract and hold positive social attention.

It is consequential in that those who hold low positions are at greatest risk for depression."

He frames the last one in the negative, which isn't as much fun to work with. I don't want to put words in his mouth or stretch his research too much, but I can say, when I get lots of positive social attention, I feel more confident. So I'm saying hierarchy exists and it is consequential - it can foster either confidence or depression.

I'll get into more detail on this later, but Professor Fourneir is using "positive social attention" as the ranking attribute.

I'll come back to the emotional ramifications. For this post, I want to take it in a slightly different direction.

Social attention matters because:

2) Attention Creates Activity and Activity Creates Attention

The causal relationship between attention and activity is easily illustrated by visualizing the opposite: if no one was listening, would you keep talking?

If you stood up at a dinner party, the glasses pinged and all eyes turned your way, wouldn't you feel a strong need to say something?

Our attention is highly social. We want to pay attention to who and what our "friends" are watching, because we are primed to follow the leader (or the hierarchy), and social attention points the way to the leader. This dynamic is so strong that social linking within Facebook and Twitter on certain topics is starting to exceed self directed Google searches. This trend shows our bird like flocking is getting better as our social coordination tools improve.

The flocking and focusing of people's attention creates activity for the folks being watched. This cycle is largely responsible for the initial and continued success of Facebook. Facebook is solid in its market position due to the massive amount of content it has from its users (over 1 billion pictures a month are uploaded). Though Zuckerberg got a lot flack for it, the newsfeed was a way to increase the amount of attention users received for their content and this made them put up more content. More content created more attention, and the cycle continued.

Facebook's latest redesign is attempting to continue this virtuous cycle of attention and activity.


I learned it by watching Facebook.

The simple genius of the Facebook approach, and the huge lesson for education, goes like this:

Hierarchies will always form in a group. Embrace this. Facilitating the group formation and attention will increase participation for those receiving the attention.

The individual goal then, for education, is to provide every student with a group where they can be on the positive side of the hierarchy, increase their engagement and participation, and experience all of the positive mental effects of that status.

The systematic goal for education is to provide a fluid system of smaller overlapping groups. With this model, instead of one big group where some are cool and most are not, there are many small groups where more individuals will have a chance to "be on top." This design will mean more individuals getting more attention and increasing their activity accordingly. This design will systematically increase engagement. Facebook proves it.

Facebook's success with this systematic goal is why Facebook has more photos than Flickr - a site dedicated to photos. It's not about the type of content, it's about the fragmenting and leveraging the social attention of groups.

For education, the topic is not as important as the design of the social attention.


Let's say your college has a million bits of participation and that leads to x amount of student success. At best, your college is following the Flickr model of content segmentation by major.

What if an alternative social attention design could lead to a 4x improvement in engagement in activity across any topic? (4x is the current difference between Flickr and Facebook.)

What would your college feel like with 4 million bits of participation and 4x your current student success?

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