Once an innovation on the Web catches hold in the market, there's often a "lock-in mechanism" that freezes out radical changes to that innovation. In the 1970s, Irving L. Janis's book "Victims of Groupthink" described it as "a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures." In the Age of Social Media, where social networks like Twitter and Facebook have consumed our lives, has Digital Man evolved into the the current version of "groupthink" or the herd mentality?
Social networks may be stifling because mass opinion-sharing can encourage groupthink. "An overabundance of connections over which information can travel too cheaply can reduce diversity, Viktor Mayer-Schönbergerfoster groupthink, and keep radical ideas from taking hold," writes network expert Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, noting, for example, that open-source software is rarely altered beyond simple enhancements.
It is a known fact that social networking websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter can build one's online capital and reputation, but it also has a dark side that can stifle creativity and foster narrow-mindedness if you’re not careful.
If we were to apply the 8 signs of Janis' "Groupthink" thesis to the social media space, it's interesting to see how these pychographic triggers might be affecting our networking conduct?
* Invulnerability. Members of the group are so overly optimistic that they are willing to take extraordinary risks and unwilling to heed signs of danger.
An example here might be the rallying cry we heard from the streets of Tehran and their access to the microblogging site Twitter which was used to amplify their protest message to the world. While on the one hand, using Twitter as a communication tool was eye-opening, might it have created a false sense of security? As the West joined the Iranian protesters online, did we put people at risk? I myself was approached by several of my LinkedIn contacts to remove Twitter profiles from blogs that I had posted that listed Iranian Twitter account names.
* Rationale. They rationalize away negative feedback and warnings that might otherwise cause the group to change course.
Are we encouraging children to be intellectually curious or merely teaching them that every question has an instant and obvious answer? Does Google or Twitter Search make us less intellectually curious as we rely on their easily accessible database of knowledge?
* Morality. So convinced that they are on the right side of the issue, they ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
When people spend so much time communicating with others through a computer-screen, they lose face-to-face social interaction skills. A significant part of how people communicate with each other is through body language and facial expressions. When that aspect of communication is removed its easy to view online interaction as less personal and more disposable. We may become less inclined to feel compassion, empathy or do the right thing on behalf of others we meet in the social media space. There is a tendency to be more spontaneous, less thoughtful and more misunderstood as result.
* Stereotypes. The group sees opponents as so evil, weak or stupid that they are not worth negotiating.
There is a tendency for a black and white interpretation of the facts, lacking nuance of interpretation or analysis. This is the viewpoint of the fundamentalist. It is a slippery slope when one starts to believe in the ancient adage "so it is written, so it shall be." Once opinions are expressed in 140 characters or less, people have a hard time taking back their words. Those that do are considered less trust-worthy, and may be shunned by the group.
* Pressure. Any member of the group who expresses doubts about any of the group's shared illusions is pressured to keep silent.
We have fallen in love with the term “meme” which in the web context is a piece of cultural information or basic idea that travels from one person to another, and along the way the idea is mutated and adapted by each sender, the idea equivalent to genetic adaptation. It's similar to the old kid’s game of whispering a sentence in one person’s ear and having it pass from one person to the next until the final version is totally changed from the original. We somehow have put “this is a good thing label” on this form of idea bending.
* Self-censorship. Members of the group avoid deviating from the group consensus, and even suppress doubts in their own minds.
The very nature of social networks encourages users to provide a certain amount of personal information. But when deciding how much information to reveal, people may not exercise the same amount of caution on a Web site as they would when meeting someone in person. Consequently we let our guard down more often online.
* Unanimity. Members share an illusion of unanimity, in part because those who have doubts keep them to themselves.
Thinking becomes simplified, where we are less inclined to go against the grain. Conformity is an easier path to tow and makes us feel more apt to follow the leader. An example here is how we follow the "trending" topics on Twitter, so much so that we might stop everything else just to "chime in." By acknowledging what 'appears' to be important to others shows that it is also important to us, whether or not we gave it any thought at all, prior to it appearing as a trending topic. This allows us to feel like one of the team.
* Mindguards. Members sometimes appoint themselves as mindguards to protect their leaders and fellow members from doubts about their decisions.
This speaks to cyber-bullies, those that will defend a cause vehemently to the point of suppressing the thoughts of anyone else who might disagree. Think about all the 'experts' you have uncovered on social networks that are held in high-esteem because they have a legion of followers. One defends these 'superstars' because they are believed to have all the answers. Otherwise, why would so many people be following them? We learn to not question their authority.
If any or all of these symptoms ring true with you, perhaps it is time to stop and think how we are all using this great tool called social media. I, myself am an avid fan of Twitter, and find myself at times aligning myself to 'groupthink' just because its sometimes an easier path to persue. But when I take a step back and analyze my true feelings, I realize that it's not beneficial to me nor my followers to "follow the pack," particularly when I have a difference of opinion.
All those in favor cartoon
So perhaps in countering consensus-thinking, we consider some alternatives. To do this, someone in the group has to be critical. According to Adrian Gaskell, Content Manager at CMI, Adrian Gaskellhe thinks that "encouraging critical thinking is not easy, but it is possible" And he offers up the following suggestions.
- Devil's advocate - Someone in the group has the role of playing devil's advocate, poking holes in the decision making process.
- The power of authentic dissent - Sometimes the devil's advocate isn't believed because they don't really believe the points they make. An authentic dissenter doesn't have these problems.
- Nurturing authentic dissent - Leaders play a key role here in encouraging dissent.
The most recent example of 'groupthink' in modern-day history in my opinion was the Bush Administration. where even the term 'neo-conservatives' inferred fundamentalism. Here was a group of elected and non-elected officials whose world view strictly adhered to the black-and-white execution of all issues from war, to oil, to compromising civil liberties.
As with most new Internet technologies it’s up to us to choose how to use the power, so let’s engage with it wisely, less we fall down the same rabbit hole over and over again!
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