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October 15, 2010

Social media’s rampacious herd: of gadgets, madness and crowds

In Babbage’s column this week, Virtual Lemmings, he argues that humans are a gregarious lot, which gives rise to herd mentality, while Will Self writes of superficial advances that provide us with more disposable time we just fill it up fiddling with iPhones.

First, let’s look glance through a few headlines in today’s Mashable. One talks about how many texts an average teenager sends per month, another that Obama was answering tweets during a town hall event and, one that caught some sense of my imagination, was by Jessica Faye Carter on why Twitter influences cross-cultural engagement.

In Wilfred Batten Lewis Trotter (no relation of Del Boy) was known for his studies on the herd instinct, which he outlined in two papers in 1908. Trotter argued that gregariousness was an instinct in line with bees, sheep and packs of wolves, while William James proposed a little earlier that the impulse of an instinct is of such  axiomatically obviousness that any idea of discussing its basis is ultimately foolish.

Elaborating upon this, Professor Lloyd Morgan defined instinctive behaviour as: “that which is on its first occurrence independent of prior experience; which tends to be to the well-being of the individual and the preservation of the race; which is similarly performed by all the members of the same more or less restricted group of animals; and which may be subject to subsequent modification under the guidance of experience.” Social media would not quite fit this criterion, perhaps.

But it’s to this millennium I turn and who better than “The Madness of Crowds: Gadgets”, by Will Self. In his column he talks about how he often succumbs to: “one of the great delusions of the modern world: namely that a gadget or device will allow me to do something I’ve been doing for years faster and more efficiently, thereby gifting me more of the kind of time I so desperately need: down time.”

He describes in some detail about “gizmos” that do nothing for him and yet when confronted with an advert or hear some “Twittery spiel of some deranged early adopter”, he flies off into some imagined computer-generated fantasy of “techno-adequacy”, when really “we yearn to dabble for ever in the rock pools of juvenescence”.

Satnav, he argues, “has to be the ultimate useless gizmo when it comes to saving time. I’ve lost count of occasions I’ve had to deprogramme a minicab driver and persuade him that just possibly I know a better route across town than his dash-mounted white pebble, as I’ve lived here my entire life.”

But getting back to Jessica Faye Carter, she believes that” “We might be intrigued by a comment we see in the Trending Topics, and we visit the person’s profile to see if it’s someone we want to follow [herd mentality]. Or we see a Trending Topic we’ve never heard of and want to know what’s going on…

“But even without the third party apps, there is a universality of shared experience that underlies interactions on Twitter. Nancy Perez, CEO of Social Media Wired, sees Twitter as a place of shared human experience, noting that ‘the interests, behaviors, thought processes, speech patterns and daily commonalities of life translate [Twitter] conversations into the universal language of humankind.'” Or, how Will Self would have it: “How mad is that?”

In “The Dynamics of Crowd Conflict” it states: “As human beings, we have a natural tendency not to want to be alone in what we think. If we have a thought, opinion or view that we thought no one else had, we might compromise that view in order to fit in somewhere. Human beings are social creatures and fear nothing more than being alone. Adolescents get pinned with having more of a ‘herd mentality’ than adults, but I would argue that the bandwagon psychology is rampant even among the most mature adults.

“The bandwagon psychology, or the ‘herd mentality’, is the process of a person joining a group of people that believe in something, even though that person might not believe in it themselves…Human beings are more connected than they think according to the bandwagon psychology.”

The has been weighted to be typically cynical, so I’ll introduce James Surowiecki, who thinks us lemmings are in fact “often better than could have been made by any single member of the group”. In the “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations”, he breaks down the advantages he sees in disorganised decisions into three main types, which he classifies as cognition (thinking and information processing); coordination of behaviour, which alludes to optimising the utilisation of a popular bar and not colliding in moving traffic flows; and cooperation (how groups of people can form networks of trust without a central system controlling their behaviour or directly enforcing their compliance.

Surowiecki also studies “rational bubbles” in which the crowd produces very bad judgements, and argues that in these types of situations their cognition or cooperation failed because “the members of the crowd were too conscious of the opinions of others and began to emulate each other and conform rather than think differently”.

“Crowds collectively swayed by a persuasive speaker, is the main reason that the reason why groups of people intellectually conform when that system for decision-making has a systematic flaw.” And he asserts that this can lead to “fragile social outcomes”. Also, emotional factors, such as a feeling of belonging, can lead to peer pressure, herd instinct and, in extreme cases, collective hysteria.

In the Economist, Dr Reed-Tsochas and Dr Onnela are quoted as having “duly discovered that the social networkers’ herd mentality was intact, with popular apps doing best, and the trendiest reaching stratospheric levels…What did come as something of a surprise, though, was that our inner lemming only kicked in once the app had breached a clear threshold rate of about 55 installations a day. Any fewer than that and users seemed oblivious to their friends’ preferences.”

At some level then, virtual lemmings as described, we all seem to be.

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