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January 23, 2008

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

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.

Author:  Jennifer Osborne writer and marketer for Search Engine People.