Social Media – Are we all just a bunch of Sheep?

by Jennifer Osborne January 23rd, 2008 

Groupthink is fairly common in the board room but more and more I'm starting to see it in social media too.

Groupthink is defined as "a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas."

Basically what this means is that people will avoid putting forth opinions or viewpoints that are not likely to be popular with the group.

Groupthink has been thought to be the cause of such major disasters such as the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster and the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

And lately, I think that there is a propensity towards it in social media. In fact, I think it's all in the way that Digg-like voting sites are designed.

Social media is designed to encourage Groupthink.
I'm not saying that Groupthink is intentional. It's just that people use social media for more than just finding new content. It's also social.

To gain social status within the group one must:

  1. Submit new content on a regular basis
  2. Vote often (people will look at the number of stumbles, diggs, or karma points you've amassed to determine how big a "player" you are.
  3. Make lot's of friends

I'm a little shy myself. I tend to vote often and submit little. The problem with that scenario in social media is that it's not social enough. If you want to gain status in social media then participation isn't enough. You have to submit content on a regular basis.

This part IS by design. Attracting new content is probably the single most key success factor of any online community. If a community does not appear to be active and fresh then people don't have a reason to come back.

There are lot's of posts that talk about the power Diggers, Stumblers and Sphinners. It's always about how many submissions they have not how many votes they cast.

<Although if you look you'll see that Power Users tend to give even more than they take…it doesn't take 5 hrs per day to submit your own stuff. Voting takes the vast majority of this time>

So where does the propensity toward Groupthink Come in?
There will always be ho hum content submitted. Whether it's because competition for truly great content is fierce or because we all have a different benchmark for what great content is. Either way, somebody is going to think that something is ho hum.
Pair this with the NEED to be social.

Whether it's a psychological need or a forced need by the mechanics of the social media. People will submit less than stellar content and people will vote for that content. And I'm not even going to get into whether they read it first or not. That's already been well discussed. :)

Some people vote for ho hum content because they don't want to hurt the submitter or writers feelings. Others are more calculating and want to be able to count on that vote later on. Regardless of your motivations, social media is designed to be social.

Lot's of Content + the Need to be Social = a Propensity towards Groupthink

Over the long term Groupthink has a harmful effect on the community. In fact it can destroy a community. As the scenario above is played out many times a day, quality of content becomes the understudy as social pressure takes Center Stage.

After a while your most loyal community members (those with Stumbles or Diggs in the 5 digits) will start to get disillusioned. They will begin to miss the early days when the media was "pure" and may begin to resent the people that they see as ruining it.

Sides emerge, in-fighting becomes abundant and your most active members eventually leave the group to become the early adapters in the next new thing.

How does a Community Avoid Groupthink?

Through strong, visible Leadership.

It should be clear who the leaders of the group are. The rules should be clear to any newcomer and it should be clearly dictated what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Warning, strong leadership takes time. Moderators need to be selected from people who are already very active in the community. They're already investing the time and exhibiting leadership qualities. Let the natural leaders lead.

But it's not just about rules, we all have a personal responsibility to act accordingly. What is right and wrong in the off line world applies online as well.

  • Do challenge content that you don't agree with. But be RESPECTFUL of others feelings. Open honest debate can take thinking to the next level.
  • Don't take shots at the writer / submitters themselves. This is hateful and non productive behavior.
  • Do respect the community and it's focus. Only submit content that is appropriate to the community.
  • Don't intentionally classify content wrong to get more eyeballs. Solicitous Spamming drives people nuts.
  • Do read the guidelines for a submission before you submit. If you make a mistake people have to go in and manually fix your mistakes. The moderators time could be better used participating in group discussions. Helping to gently reinforce codes of conduct.

So listen up Kevin Rose, Garrett Camp, et al, you started these communities. Now that Digg, SU, etc, are successful and you're Gazillionaires, your job isn't done. Provide some leadership. Be accessible. Listen to your community.

And if you are too busy on a beach drinking margaritas, then pay someone else to.

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48 Responses to “Social Media – Are we all just a bunch of Sheep?”

  1. Matt Ridout says:

    Very nice post, although your point:

    Do challenge content that you don’t agree with. But be RESPECTFUL of others feelings. Open honest debate can take thinking to the next level.

    Sometimes it doesn't matter how respectful you are you will enter a flaming war, especially on the more "entertainment" side of social media

  2. Andy Beard says:

    Having mentioned herd animals in my Twitter profile for almost a year, I actually had my first negative reaction to it the other day.

  3. What are you getting at Matt? Just joking – couldn't resist!

    I agree with you and unfortunately when that happens it's a missed opportunity to take a good idea and look at it from another perspective.

  4. An excellent point, Matt. I think the best social media will allow and encourage the respectful disagreement to show. For example you should be able to comment negatively or even say ho-hum without it being seen as trying to start a fight.

  5. Jennifer, this is a very interesting post. I get the feeling you have been the recipient of "hateful comments".

    My question then is really for other people in industries that really don't have controversy to write about. Like if someone sells Rugs via eCommerce what kind of controversy can they really stir up or even write about to get peoples attention.

    I bring this up because when it comes to SEO related articles this is easy to push buttons, but many out there are in passive industries and just can't get into this niche. Your feedback would be appreciated.

  6. Dr.Mani says:

    Nice post. Made me pause and think a bit. That's GOOD! :)

    As a keen student of group dynamics online, I see a lot in your post that had me nodding in agreement.

    All success
    Dr.Mani

  7. neal says:

    james surowiecki, in the wisdom of crowds, talks about breaking cascades in the same fashion: strong independent thought; in social media, i believe the dependence on each other's support causes cascades among friends who vote on each other's submissions; however, the cascade is broken when it reaches the open community to whom the submitter has no direct mutual affiliation. if all the submitter's supporters vote for that content, if the community disapproves, it will use features such as bury to ensure the submission's exposure is limited. even if a story becomes popular because of the initial traction spurred by the submitters' friends, the rest of the community will make itself heard by commenting it's disfavor.

  8. How very fortuitous — this is exactly the theme of a topic I posted on Pownce earlier today:

    "Here's the thing, I've just had a lively chat with a guy on Skype about how he thinks technology X is better than technology Y.

    The problem is, he only really thinks technology X is better because there's more people using it.

    That's neither a justification for his argument, or a feature of technology X.

    If all people are going to do is ignore the facts, avoid proper scrutiny and adopt a herd mentality, they're denying themselves the chance of being a thought leader…"

    Jeff, good stuff, man!

  9. Andy Beard says:

    Neal, in many ways it also encourages the opposite.
    In an attempt to be popular, and maybe squeeze in the occasional more radical content, people will tend to submit content that will be popular with the masses rather than their own preference, even voting on content they don't agree with to seem biased in a certain direction.

  10. I think that anonymity within the space also has a big impact.

    The size of the space (Digg is much bigger than Mixx), how well known you are, and whether your avatar is a default+alias versus your name+face are all going to affect how comfortable people feel opposing popular views.

  11. Chris1234 says:

    Nice post .. this article makes me think

  12. Thank you Darren! I have not been the recipient of hateful comments (yet) however I've seen a lot of it lately.

    I think that there are opportunities to get attention in "passive industries" as you put it. For me, the key elements are 1) to match the social media to the audience. So for example, if there's an environmental spin you can put on a rug story then it might be appropriate for one of the environmental niche SM sites (there are many good ones).

    2) I would try to come up with a post or article that your readers are going to be interested in (versus just writing for the social media site alone). The more relevant your post is the more relevant the social media traffic will be that it generates.

  13. Dr Mani, thank you!

    Neal, I'll add "in the wisdom of crowds" to my reading list.

    Wayne, LOL! Seriously though, I think as social media is integrated into our everyday lives, this topic becomes more important. The more committed we become to our communities the more social responsibility that we feel.

    Andy, I agree!

    Thank you Chris!

  14. Sometimes a blessing, other times a curse, but I'm just like my mother in that I say exactly what I think.

    Sometimes that gets the odd nod of approval, other times looks of dismay.

    Either way, I just say it how it is.

    But as Jennifer points out, people like me are in the minority, which is a shame.

    But then again, our society is built upon conformity and hierarchical leadership…

  15. Baaaaaaahhhhhhh!

    Just kidding, great post Jen. Was at a party over the weekend, My wife and I were just joking about the state of social interaction, I believe the animal we used as the archetypal reference we used while drawing an analogy to the conversations we witness was the Parrot, so it's funny to see you play off the sheep thing.

    Great post.

  16. Jennifer,

    Thanks for responding to my post. Many articles are written with comments made and typically responses are very few if any or relevant.

    Keep up the good work and I will see what I can come up with to write an exciting article on rugs :) .

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