Three lies about social software

Lie 1: Social software causes groupthink and herd behaviour

I’ve never quite worked out why people think this is the case; for a long time I just assumed this was a misconception held by those who’d never really experienced or used social software in earnest.

Then I read Kathy Sierra’s post on One of Us is Smarter than All of Us, and suddenly everything fell into place. [By the way, I really like her Past Favourites section, it makes it really easy and convenient to find a prior post.

People who believe that social software foments groupthink are similar to people who believe that Wisdom-Of-Crowds is about herd instinct. Here’s a quote from Kathy’s post:

  • Where I had it wrong is that his book’s premise (wisdom of crowds) comes with qualifiers.
    The wisdom of crowds comes not from the consensus decision of the group, but from the aggregation of the ideas/thoughts/decisions of each individual in the group.
  • At its simplest form, it means that if you take a bunch of people and ask them (as individuals) to answer a question, the average of each of those individual answers will likely be better than if the group works together to come up with a single answer.

It’s really like scaling up Belbin-like team dynamics on a gigantic scale. The “team” represented by a given blog community is actually a collection of incredibly diverse people, with common interests rather than common views. Much of what I learn from comments on my blog is from the extensions, the qualifiers, the provisos, even the complete disagreements. This is not groupthink, it’s anything but.

Humanity is a collection of individuals. A very long tail. 19th century marketing really loved pigeonholing people, and pigeonholed people may well have acted like Gadarene swine. [Talking about Gadarene swine. Many years ago, when I commuted in to London on the A4, getting ready for another day on the treadmill, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the Good Morning Lemmings sgraffito on the motorway stanchions. Made me remember to get off the treadmill before I got to work. Incidentally, if you want to see what I saw, here’s a link to a Hilary Paynter sketch on the topic]

Lie 2: Social software is full of inaccuracies and downright lies

You only have to read things like the Pew Internet report to figure out what percentage of blogs and wikis and IM are to do with reportage. Most of this space is taken up by observation, comment and opinion, not “reported facts”. I guess you have to be pretty arrogant before you can dismiss someone’s opinion is wrong; you can disagree with the opinion or the comment, but that’s about all.

Even for the small part of this space that is about reportage, it’s hard to sustain the “inaccuracies and lies” position. There’s always a variant of Linus’s Law in operation: Given enough eyeballs, all information bugs are trivial. If anything, social software is more honest than MSM when it comes to factual errors. They get corrected. And the original error-prone version disappears.

With MSM on the other hand, the lie is printed and continues to be an archived lie. And while you may get a retraction or correction, it tends to appear on page 32 sandwiched between dog shampoo ads and undertaker recruitment campaigns.

Lie 3: Social software destroys privacy

There are many reasons why I believe that privacy, as the West knows it, is dead. Some of it is to do with the web. Some of it is to do with social software, I guess. Some of it is probably even due to cyber-crime. But I think we’re missing the point. People share information willingly. Now some of them may not realise quite how much information they are sharing, and how this information may be used against them, but that cannot be laid at the door of social software.

People who don’t want to share openly still use social software. There are passworded wikis, closed-loop IM systems, even things like Orkut Crush. Openness is primarily a choice and not a condition.

11 thoughts on “Three lies about social software”

  1. Well argued, JP; but is this the argument that needs to be made? I recently read Bill McKibben’s NEW YORK REVIEW article on the climate crisis (“How Close to Catastrophe?”); and I thought his concluding remarks were right on the money. Here is what he said:

    The technology we need most badly is the technology of community–the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done. Our sense of community is in disrepair at least in part because the prosperity that flowed from cheap fossil fuel has allowed us all to become extremely individualized, even hyperindividualized, in ways that, as we only now begin to understand, represent a truly Faustian bargain. We Americans haven’t needed our neighbors for anything important, and hence neighborliness–local solidarity–has disappeared. Our problem now is that there is no way forward, at least if we’re serious about preventing the worst ecological nightmares, that doesn’t involve working together politically to make changes deep enough and rapid enough to matter.

    The three lies that you have so skillfully deflated are all lies about CONTENT (and they certainly deserve to be deflated); but the REAL social problem we face is that “disrepair” of our “sense of community.” Having better ways to share content of differing viewpoints certainly has its virtues; but, by virtue of the distal nature of that sharing, it does nothing to address the disappearance of neighborliness (whatever purveyors of “Internet community” like Howard Rheingold may say). There are those who argue that the recent political shift in the United States was enabled by the amount of content distributed through the Internet; but I am of the camp that believes that the change came about locally, even if the Internet was a great help in coordinating the logicstics.

    From that point of view, let me leave the “global community” that has grown around this discussion with a GEDANKENEXPERIMENT in the form of a question that each of us should ask: “When was the last time you talked with you neighbor about social software (or, for that matter, anything you do when you sit behind your computer)?”

  2. Aren’t the critiques against social software the same as the critiques against the participatory conception of democracy? Those who criticise democracy for creating groupthink and mob behaviour often overlook the fact that these faults are even more common in non-democratic states. Similarly, can anyone deny that groupthink was much more prevalent in the 50’s versus now when all media was essentially controlled by a small handful of companies (or the state in most countries)?

    The point of social software, as well with democracy, is that it offers a channel, a voice, for dissent.

  3. Hmm, interesting – but (as a researcher) I find myself questioning the premise of the article. I don’t recognise the three “lies” – perhaps because I don’t move in circles where they are being discussed; from a layman’s perspective I would suggest that that these are not the right “lies” to be questioning. Consider:

    – Social software is a more powerful phenomenon than anything that precedes it (ans: poppycock – though it may well be equally powerful)

    – Social software is social (ans: people are creating online personalities, cf declarative living)

    – Social software is the answer (ans: at the moment it is raising many more questions)

    – Social software is affecting all parts of society (ans: many are blissfully ignorant, and many more are technologically disadvantaged)

    Just thoughts! Best, Jon

  4. Great Post, JP.

    However, it seems to me that the problem with the first lie you take on is that it starts from the point of view that the software is the bit that matters in the equation. Truth is that herd-behaviour is caused by human nature rather than the technology we are so proud of (that said, our technology may or may not amplify it’s effect).

    I think you’re right in the interpretation of Surowiecki (I asked him the same question at dinner in September) – individuals interacting with each other, under the impression that they are acting independently is what creates the patterns we call ‘herding’.

    That said, it still strikes me how strongly negative we are towards the phenomenon and focus only on the negative examples when the truth is the same mechanism is now being shown by a bunch of behavioral scientists to be the underpinning for most behavioural cascades in the real world (e.g. Duncan Watts at columbia and Alex Bentley at Durham): copying seems to explain most of the cascades examined.

Let me know what you think

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