Social Magic

July 30, 2008   

Last night, I gave a talk at Ignite NYC (thanks Brady for pulling it together!). Above is the video of my talk and below more detail on what I talked about:

In college, I studied the concept of leadership pretty intensely (thesis here) -- and, while that was challenging enough, the concept of Charisma, one inherently derived from that study, totally fascinated me to the extent that it still puzzles today.

This is no surprise: Charisma is one of the least understood social phenomenon's in the history of sociology. Max Weber was the first to give great attention, and he did quite well; but I think French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu nailed a definition of Charisma when he called it "Social Magic which works." I'm not saying that's THE definition, I'm just saying it works.

Anyway, as with any magic, it's hard to understand, but fun to explore.

One way of exploring social magic is identifying "tricks" -- the how -- people use to create charisma. Here are three social magic "tricks" -- bundled capital of the "Charisma Economy" (a much longer post/book I'll write later) -- which "work":

Tertius Gaudens with WONDER!

Ronald Burt used the concept of Tertius Gaudens (popularized by: Georg Simmel; roughly: "the third who benefits") as a way to explain "structural holes" in networks. Simply, the idea is that when you stand in between two would-be interested "nodes" (people, networks, etc), you can derive either "informational" or "control" benefits: You know me; you know someone I want to know or has information I need to know; you can either control the condition through which I meet the person or you can learn the information and pass it on to me, with benefits.

However, this is basic power manipulation -- not charisma, which happens through magic and wonder!

So, the charismatic terius gaudens must leverage his or her position to create a sense of awe. A great example of this is how my friend Gary Vaynerchuk has succeeded and then blown up.

As Gary will tell you, he's a arbiter at heart. He frequently references trading baseball cards as the context with which he became passionate about wine.

Then, with that passion, he realized that the Wine World, as out of reach and snobbish as it was, needed an ambassador to the masses. Standing between the masses and Wine, Gary was a wonder. "How is it that he explains Wine so well to these people?!"

Beyond Wine, Gary has since found larger success as a Media Man. Again, he's found how to stand between two interests who "don't get" each other -- Old Media and New Media -- and has been a perfect pal to both.

When we, the New Media, see Gary on Conan or Ellen or Mad Money, we are in awe. "How has he penetrated Old Media?" we ask, forgetting for a moment that they are our enemy.

Meanwhile, when Old Media sees Gary reaching the EXACT demographic they would (and are) DIE for online, they wonder, "How. Does. He. Do. It?!"

And this, my friends, is Charisma as the tertius gaudens.

Pleasurable Cognitive Dissonance

Some call it irony, and they're absolutely wrong. Pleasurable Cognative Dissonance [my friend Ronan says I'm using "cognitive dissonance" incorrectly here, so I'll come up with a new term] is what you create when you're able to make people genuinely assume something about you and then be absolutely pleased then they're blow away.

The caveat: You can't deceive -- it must be organic. It must be 100% authentic.

Case in point: Tay Zonday, and this video:

Look at him! Twenty-five years old and looks like the most eager, do-gooder teenager in the world. More over, he's probably going to make a valiant effort at entertaining you, in his white t-shirt and video funky setup... he's probably gonna sound like everyone else on YouTube, but you'll give him a chance.

That's what you thought.

Then: BAM!!! He starts singing and his voice -- that voice -- hits you like two big jars of honey. Whoa momma, this guy his good! And the lyrics are interesting!

And that's how he got to 25 million plus views and a gig with Dr. Pepper to turn his song into an ad for a new line of Dr. Pepper named after him! Introducing... Cherry Chocolage Rain! (Will it cause Pleasuable Cognitive Dissonance too?)

Bricolage for Good

Now, Bricolage is a term I've throw around a lot on this blog -- the most notable time being when I published the "cafeBricolage Manifesto."

Nevertheless, the real point of Bricolage in this post's context is that it has the highest percentage chance of creating Social Magic.

First, let's start with this definition from French anthropologist Claude Lèvi-Strauss:

And in our own time the ‘bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman.

Now, the kind of deviation Lèvi-Strauss is talking about is the process of doing things unorthodox-ly.

For example, if you're supposed to buy a single speed bike when you want one, the bricoleur finds old parts from any old kind of bike, and figures out a way to create a single speed bike that rocks!

The reason this is a high form of social magic is because you're essentially creating something out of nothing. Magic!

Another form of bricolage is hacking. The "good" hackers often use devious means to find security holes, and then report them to the right authority, essentially creating value from a devious act.

All Together Now

In my talk for Ignite, I wanted to give a closing example which incorporated all three. I chose the Million Dollar Homepage (Wikipedia article here).

For those of you who don't know, the Million Dollar Homepage was a gimmick gone right.

The idea: with a million pixels on a web page, one could sell perpetual advertising space on the page for $1/pixel. Now, the only reason it would be worthwhile for an advertiser is if people come to see it, which makes it a good thing the whole idea is so ridiculous.

End of story: it worked.

With a trio of social magic tricks, Alex Tew got his $1,000,000 by:

1. Standing between advertisers and views (tertius gaudens)...

2. neither of whom knew why it was beneficial to be there, but thought it was intriguing that the other was (pleasurable cognitive dissonance)...

3. which then created a screen full of images and a $1,000,000 for Alex (creating something where nothing existed before).

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