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Social Media and the Consensus Trap

Social networks have been hyped for some time now as the Next Big Thing in the IT industry. While some of their advantages are obvious, it is important to consider that their not-so-obvious side effects might have far-reaching, questionable consequences.

Before some of you applaud “I have always told you so! Social networks are horrible! They are just ad driven personal data redistributors! Run for the hills!” I would like to point out that even the toughest skeptics will have to agree by now that social networks – Facebook, Twitter and the like – have been growing at an astronomical speed and have quite surprisingly achieved an astoundingly dominant internet presence. Huge amounts of (shareholders’) money is changing hands; billions of users are logging on daily and creating billion of pages of content. Much to the disappointment of the doomsayers who hoped to see them do a dayfly-like disappearing act, social networks seem to be here to stay, whether you like them or not.

Regardless of their undeniable (and baffling) success, there are some troubling side-effects that should be taken seriously. Before I come to the point, I would like to take a step back and take you thousands years back to the realm of ancient China.

In about the 10th century, a mega-trend started in China: foot binding. Little four-year-old girls had their feet broken and bound so that they grew slowly and to a point.  It was an extremely painful process. Women with bound feet couldn’t walk, and suffered all their lives from pain and horrible, incurable wounds and infections. I will spare you the picture of bound feet, but an x-ray image gives you an idea of how badly those poor women’s feet were deformed:

It seems like it must have been a horrible idea from the beginning – and yet practically all women did it. What’s more interesting, having that kind of foot was a NORM. A women who had natural feet had no chance of marriage. Yet it wasn’t any kind of oppressive dictatorship that forced them to break their feet and suffer lifelong pain. They really WANTED to do that and were even really proud of their deformed feet, even though they could barely use their feet to walk! A key motivation for the foot binding was the fact that men, for some reason incomprehensible to people in our culture, had developed a sexual obsession for bound feet so women with natural feet were generally rejected as unattractive.

Having deformed feet became a social norm and remained that way for about 1000 years. It is estimated that during that period about one billion Chinese women had their feet broken, bound, and deformed.  The practice was so persistent that all attempts to stop it were futile until it was brutally brought to an end by Mao Zetong and his authoritarian communist regime.

The way I see it, the whole problem was a SOCIAL issue. The odd foot binding example demonstrates the power of consensus.

Which brings me back to the original issue of social networking side-effects. Social networks have one interesting characteristic: they bring hundreds of millions of users together in an environment where they all interact with each other. This creates a situation in which a social pressure for a “consensus” regarding many aspects of our lives becomes a global phenomenon. A user that openly expresses an unorthodox, unpopular opinion, will often be bullied, “unfriended”, berated, and punished in various ways by fellow users. This one unfortunate individual gets the impression that the majority of people in his or her social environment condemn her (his) aberrant views.

Also, the opposite situation also frequently occurs. If something is perceived as “generally OK”, “right” and “widely approved”, social network users quickly come to the conclusion that it is indeed right and acceptable without giving it any more thought. While I cannot offer any statistical proof for it, I am convinced that social networks, given their tendency for being easily influenced by widely applied PR strategies (a circumstance used as an argument to attract investors to those type of  technology ventures), are significantly more susceptible to the consensus phenomenon than any other social structure we have had on this planet until this day.

In my opinion this is not good news. The example of the Chinese broken feet debacle shows in a very graphic way that consensus (or “common sense”), while useful in certain situations, is not necessarily a virtue per se. Social networks have a blind spot on individuality. A rejection of “non-standard” thinking on social networks is quick and brutal. And it is a global problem. The last enclaves of differently thinking individuals are under siege on social networks. They are pressured either to blend in or be quiet.

We should be careful here. Great ideas are often created by unorthodox thinking individuals and are not consensus-enabled. They need time and positive feedback from their social environment to develop and become mature to the point that that they are of practical and convincing use to the rest of us. Social networks suppress that way of thinking. Groupthink is often the result, in which social groups routinely settle on common denominator thinking and tend to reject unpopular (read: new) ideas. There is a perverted consensus trap lurking in the social media mists.

So how can this problem be fixed? Firstly, we should keep social networks in competition with each other. We still have a fair number of different social networks that allow for certain variety of trends. The real problem, however, is likely to arise when a social network dominates the market and becomes a “global village”.  The power of consensus, adored by PR agencies, would become prevalent. Secondly, it would be very helpful to prevent social networks from replacing our real-life social environments. Future generations may feel perfectly comfortable with blending-in into a digital social net instead of maintaining real friendships and relationships.  That would, however, result in a globalization of their emotional lives and reduction of their ability to think individually. I don’t think it is an inevitable trend. If we inoculate them through certain educational measures, maybe just by simply telling them at a young age how a consensus-driven society works (or does not work), they would consciously avoid the pitfalls of becoming Borgs.

Some may argue that this is just all fear mongering or the typical moaning and groaning of an aging person who is obviously losing his touch with reality. To defend myself I can only say this: technologically, the social networks are a simple beast. Socially they are quite superfluous and easy to see through for someone who has spent 30 years in the IT world. Besides, I use social networks just like anyone else – I simply don’t use them uncritically.

Others might point out that the proposed measures to mitigate the consensus trap won’t work. In this case I would be happy to hear your opinions.

Social media is a fascinating phenomenon and it would be foolish to generally condemn the networks. They have certain value, not only to PR agencies but also to the users who love this new networking art so much that they will sacrifice their privacy if that’s what it takes. We still don’t know what effects the continuing advance of social media will bring about. However, I think the consensus trap should not be one of them and it is up to us to prevent it. If we don’t, bound feet might have been a minor pain compared to what may happen as a result.

P.S. You can learn more about the foot binding here or here.

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About the Author

Roman MildnerRoman Mildner, Certified Project Manager (PMP) and member of the United Mentors Network (UMN), has worked in the IT industry since 1992 and an independent consultant and project manager since 1998. His professional offering includes IT strategy consulting, project management and process improvement. For more details, please visit his UMN page.

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