Against the Herd

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Social Media is fascinating because it provides a democratic opportunity for all voices to be heard in social debates.  It used to be that the prevailing voices were those who could be published in the news media, academic journals or in books.

And, in this emerging media sphere, if you can rally your fans towards a particular cause, the presence that you can have on social media can be quite overwhelming in favor of one opinion over another.

In sociology, this phenomenon is commonly called “Group Think” …eight symptoms of its presence, identified by Irving Janus in 1977, include:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
  6. Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  8. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

In the past 6 months, I have personally witnessed three very specific examples of this occurring on Twitter.  In each of these scenarios, a dissenting opinion is shared by one person and the following actions are seen in quick succession:

  • The twitter stream of supporters reacts loudly with overwhelmingly positive information in favor of the majority,
  • The dissenter is identified, belittled and personally attacked,
  • Those in the majority “high-five” each other publicly over the attack,
  • Others who support the dissenter stay silent publicly, but send direct messages of thanks to the dissenter, and
  • The conversation resumes positively in favor of the opinion of the herd.

It’s not easy to be a loner voice when this type of behavior is evident.  And, rarely, is the dissenter the first to make a personal attack.  They are often sharing a concern, identifying something they are observing or gut-checking their own perceptions of a current situation.

Perhaps it is because social media cheapens the words “friend” and “follower” that we take personally dissenting opinions?  Harmful extensions of these behaviors are already seen in the statistics related to cyber-bullying among the younger generation in our schools, resulting in serious public education campaigns aimed at quelling mobbing behaviors that have unintended consequences.

Now, I personally believe that the people involved in all three of the examples I have witnessed are well-meaning people, but it illustrates that even good people can occasionally vilify or attempt to neutralize the voices of perceived opposition.

One of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr is as follows when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964: “Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

When you see comments that you disagree with online, consider whether your response intends to open or close the dialogue.

Now, I realize that some will argue that I closed the dialogue tonight by choosing to publicly note that I unfollowed several people that were sharing a lot about one particular topic.  These people have many followers and likely weren’t even following me back as I am not in their industry.  I did share and will say that I have respected each of these folks from afar and learned much about social media and engagement from their activities online.

And, for the past week, I have shared concerns about the current publicity campaign that they are involved in.  When I first started seeing information about the release of the new “Surviving Your Serengeti” book, I took the test and even marked the book as one of interest to me as a manager in my profession.  However, when I started receiving messages asking if I was part of the “Herd,” I had to say that I wasn’t.  It didn’t take long before several “Herd” members clued me into the dynamic marketing campaign that is currently underway among a number of Herd members on Twitter.

What troubled me most today was the volume of tweets that weren’t sparking conversation, but rather flooding my twitter stream with advertising.  Yes, I tweeted my concerns and called out the folks that I unfollowed.  It wasn’t in any attempt to make myself seem cool.  In fact, I’m the first person to admit that I’m a nobody.  My follower count is small in comparison to the folks I mentioned.  My only hope was to share that I, as a future client and everyday citizen, was concerned by the heavy marketing focus.

My passion is seeing people engage in quality conversation using social media tools.  I sincerely hope that as we encounter voices that disagree with us in social spheres that we will respect the concerns without belittling the people.

Conflict over issues can be a good thing as it serves as a crucible to our ideas and thoughts.  It is when we seek to squash the people themselves that we risk weakening the civility of our discourse, whether online or in-person.

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  1. Well I think that about sums it up. It was interesting to go over the stream later and watch what happened. I must say that some of the comments in response to you were absolutely dismaying, and those folks will no longer enjoy my ear.

    As a member of the Herd, I was struck by the general lack of conversation. I spent a good portion of the night reading the book, and there is much to be talked about without having to “advertise” or fill the stream with noise. I think it could have been an opportunity to connect rather than alienate. In the long run, I am hoping this episode will be one of those “growing pains” that pushes social media forward. Sorry that you had the experience that you did with it.

    1. Thanks, Jason. I appreciate your kind words. I hope it is a situation that we can all learn from in the future. I know that I’ve jumped on bandwagons at times, too, and need to be cautious about doing that, too. It’s so easy to do that we need to keep a vigilant eye on its effects.

  2. Cheryl –

    This is a well crafted, well written and well reasoned “response” to the onslaught of the Serengeti (and other similar “campaigns” on Twitter and other social network platforms).

    Many of the people involved in this I consider personal friends. I’ve met the author of the book, and he’s a good guy. But I happen to agree with you — the campaign has crossed the line and moved into spam territory.

    I know my sentiments will be very unpopular, and possibly surprising, to some of my friends. But if they look back, I don’t believe they will find one instance of #serengeti in my Twitter stream. Not one mention of it on my blog.

    What I *should* have done was have the courage to step up and say, “Hey, think about what you are doing here. Many of you chide agents that go on and on about their listings. You are pretty much doing the same thing here. You are spamming the social media stream, you aren’t “selling a book”. And of you are “just selling a book” then you should back off the people who are “just selling a house”.

    (Don’t get me wrong. The last thing I want to see is people tweeting listings. But you get me point).

    1. Thanks, Jay and Mike. I appreciate your kind comments and appreciate that you took the time to read my post. I am particularly touched by your comments, Jay, about having the courage to step up. This is one of the most difficult things to do and something we often avoid. I’m glad that we can have this conversation as it serves to help us reflect and consider how we each of us engages with others.

  3. I’m unaware of the particular situation you speak of, as I was not monitoring Twitter as closely as I sometimes do. But this is a dangerous trend, in social media and society as a whole. I find myself, from time to time, having to really think about what I say because it is TOO easy to jump on a bandwagon. And it can be hurtful to do so. We’re all learning this social media thing as we go, and let’s hope we are all courteous to the real people behind the @names as we go. Thanks, Cheryl, for (as usual), adding needed perspective.

    1. Thanks, Morgan and Thad. I know this situation is not unique. Had it only been my first time to see it, I’m not sure I would have written about it honestly, but it can be a dangerous trend if we aren’t conscious about how our actions affect others. The seeming shield of technological anonymity eliminates the view of the person who receives the message which can be an unfortunate side effect to chatting with people online.

  4. Everyone has an opinion, each one important. With the proliferation of social media everyone now also has a vehicle to voice it. That’s great, but also extremely complex to grasp and manage. One thing is for sure – the diversity of opinion is showing us all how we can each improve the way we live in this new “open” and “transparent” world. I appreciate your comments and hope that you will one day read and enjoy the book. May the encouraging message it carries still touch the lives of many people in a positive way.

    1. I agree with you and thank you for sharing, Stefan. I also wish you success with your book.

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