Social Media and the Groupthink Problem
I recently read a book by Jonah Sachs called Winning the Story Wars. In the last chapter, called “Living The Truth,” Sachs writes that Irving Janis, who discovered the “Groupthink” phenomenon, noted that “groups quickly reach consensus decisions with amazing disregard for obvious warning signs that they are on the wrong track. Extremely cohesive groups, oriented around a strong leader, will ignore or punish dissenting opinions.”
As a person who navigates the online waters quite often, this resonated with me. Many times I see “truths” being passed around that simply do not make sense. Recent examples include things like, “Asking about the ROI of social media is is like asking about the ROI of your mother.” A lot of people passed around this idea as a memorable soundbyte, and because it was started by an influential person (in this case, Gary Vaynerchuk), the group surrounding him passed it around without seeming to really question it. In the online world, if you do speak out against things like this, you are likely to be dismissed with a “haters gonna hate” retort.
Let’s analyze the groupthink idea a bit more closely and see how it impacts social media.
Quick Consensus Decisions
In 2011, Chris Brogan announced that he was unfollowing everyone on Twitter. This seemed like a rather sudden decision, and given that Chris had always built his online presence around engaging with people, it also seemed rather surprising. What was even more interesting, however, is how the groupthink phenomenon came into action. Shortly after Chris wrote his post, Darren Rowse, Michael Hyatt, and several others did the exact same thing in short succession.
The argument of who to follow back on Twitter, how many people you should follow back, and all associated conversations probably will never be solved in such a way that everyone is satisfied. Everybody has to find his or her own way to make sites like Twitter work for them. What was odd about the “great unfollowing of 2011” is that so many people in the same demographic (what one might call “A-Listers”) did the same thing at right around the same time. Could this have been because they knew they’d get support from others who had just done the same thing?
Obvious Warning Signs You’re On The Wrong Track
I’ve seen a lot of cases in the online world where the groupthink mentality has carried people down a path that’s clearly not going to be beneficial, and yet onward they trod. Perhaps the best example is the constant berating of marketing tactics that do not involve social media. How many posts have you seen that claim email is dead, advertising is dead, direct mail is dead, or everything is dead? I’ve seen quite a few without even really looking for them. Factually, there are plenty of warning signs that this is the wrong track, most obviously that people are being convinced to lay all of their eggs in the social media basket while also being told that nothing in social media can be measured.
Unfortunately, a lot of the people who support the “everything but social media must go” attitude are pretty influential in the online world. They have that “cohesive group” that Janis talked about. And so, even though there are warning signs everywhere, the journey into trouble continues.
Ignore or Punish Dissenting Opinions
How many times have you visited a blog, scanned the comments, and seen words along the lines of, “Well, haters gonna hate”? Sure, there are sometimes trolls, and dismissing them makes sense. In fact, completely ignoring them is usually the best way to diffuse their power. But what about someone who’s trying to point out flaws in the argument? What if someone is disagreeing with the post but they have good reasons for doing so? What if someone outlines all of the reasons why the post may be misdirecting people?
Are they really haters, or are they simply trying to have a conversation?
Unfortunately, the parallels between groupthink and social media have created an environment in which it’s nearly impossible to conduct a civil conversation while also disagreeing with a community leader, whatever that community might be. Perhaps you have seen situations where a blogger “calls out” one person only to have that person’s community rush over and “hate” on the blogger because everyone is loyal to whomever their community leader might be. This creates some of the ugliest situations in the online world, but I think a lot of it can be traced to this concept that “dissenting opinions must be punished.”
Think for Yourself
The easiest way to get out of this groupthink rut is to think for yourself. Of course that seems slap-me-in-the-face obvious, but clearly it’s easy in the online world to get carried away with what’s popular or trending at the time. Agreeing or disagreeing with a certain person can get you a lot of attention (negative or positive, but attention is attention online). One must overcome the desire to get some “buzz” and prioritize thinking based on his or her own belief system. This system should not change with the ebb and flow of the online tide, should not be overly formulated by a “leader,” and should not be used to ride the coattails of someone who is moving on up in the world. It should be everyone for him or herself, in an ideal world.
Why do you think the groupthink phenomenon is so prevalent in the world of social media? Was it always so or is this something new? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Marjorie Clayman is the director of client development at Clayman Advertising, Inc., her family’s full service marketing firm. Margie has recently published an e-book called The ABCs of Marketing Myths.
Lead image by snailsareslimy via Creative Commons