Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Aliens, hobbies, and strikes: social media manifestation as social influence

This post will be about media, new media, social media. Of course we know or believe these have immense persuasive (and pervasive) effects on people. There is a vast amount of advertising linked to these media, for instance. Remember: the services are free and if something is for free, than you are actually the product and not the genuine consumer. Viewed from another, social psychological, perspective, I will describe in this blogpost how these media are also persuasive katalysts that do not have an offline equivalent. The core of the argument will be that social media nowadays (such as facebook and twitter) actually give some insight about the prevalence of previously covert behaviors or opinions and this insight will lead to higher proliferation of these behaviors and opinions.

Let's start with a flash-back to times where one had to rely on radio. It is 1938 and Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" is broadcast. It is a radio show, clearly fictional for some of the listeners. However, the show was produced as a life news broadcast of an alien invasion.

For those who did not tune in early enough it could have been the real thing, making these people in desperate need of information. What will be the first thing people do when they need info on how to act? Indeed, they look around to see what others do. Now imagine you are one of the listeners in 1938 and you need some social info as well. What is the most likely thing you'll notice? The frightened people running around the streets (the incorrect behavioral option) or those sitting in front of their radio while enjoying the hilarious show (the correct behavioral option)? The socially most manifest behavior is most likely to infect you such that the odds are quite high you'll adapt your behavior to these others. If Twitter would have existed back then, surely there would not have been a mass psychosis to the same extent as it actually happened. People would have turned on there smartphones, searched for a relevant hashtag and find out that at least opinions were somewhat more diverse, possibly triggering further information search and resulting in more correct behavioral options.
[Actually, according to some, there was not that much of a mass psychosis. Many listeners were genuinely frightened, but only few overreacted in a dramatic way. It did cause a lot of anxious phone calls to police stations - back then maybe the equivalent of a Twitter search]

So what exactly happened in 1938. Social psychologists could refer to it as a demonstration of large scale informational social influence

When does this occur? When you are in need of information, and eagerly so, and you have some others seemingly acting as an "expert" on the matter. Now, if the only behaviors you see are those of frightened people, there is no counter-evidence, which could explain why the show resulted in such a panic, particularly for some small groups of people that overreacted together (possibly influencing mutually).

What do social media have to do with this? Quite a lot, I believe. For about every behavior one could be in need of information, we rapidly turn to the internet and social media. Search engines are the new social information search. In contrast to about a decade ago this also implies that much more types of behavior reach a manifest level. We connect with the world and the world shares much more than only the manifest behaviors you will notice in public.

Two examples:
A lot of people nowadays find likeminded others with regards to their hobbies (if you're interested in postage  stamps and their history in British East Africa, there is a Wikipedia page about it, so you'll probably find others interested in the topic). I even suppose that many find their hobbies on the internet, learning from others in their extended network about activities that seem fun to them. Back in the days a lot of people would not have considered the option of taking up that hobby. Nowadays they do, because they notice others have made the same choice and act as an expert on the matter.

Opinions and debate
Recent stikes in Belgium revolve around a revision of the social welfare system that is outdated due to changing demographics. The strikes seem to draw a sharp line between two groups: those in favor (often a slightly older generation, involved in manual labor) and those against (somewhat younger, and certainly more involved in social media). Contrary to strikes a decade ago, it is quite obvious now that there are two large groups of people clearly opinionated about the topic. Back in the days, you only saw the strikers. The others stayed at home and talked about it with some friends. Now, likeminded people see each others' opinions clearly expressed on the internet, thus providing more opportunity to break the spiral of silence. Moreover, they might as well influence (or inspire, or nudge, or ...) others who are still undecided.
[Of course, the roll of social media in the Arab Spring seems a perfect example for the same principle, but it is also laden with lots of ideology, human sacrifice, and international politics, so I chose a less complex example. Moreover, during the Arab Spring social media were also used to explicitly mobilize people and my claim is that the mere online presence of a behavior or opinion could suffice to have a persuasive effect]

Bottomline: The online social network society should be considered as truly a different one. Social networks do have a bigger impact than we might think because they seem to affect the odds of us choosing one behavioral option or the other. They do so by rendering behavioral options and opinions manifest, whereas the same behaviors or opinions were covert in the past.

[Please, feel free to comment!]


  1. Nice article.

    I don't understand why psychologists call it "a demonstration of large scale informational social influence". For me it's just the opposit: people don't know what to do so they just imitate others.Thus in this case it cannot be a form of informational social influence, because the people are not able to find information about it by the others, that's why they act the same... . Social media can help to stop such 'primitive' reactions.

  2. Thanks for your comment.

    Why this would be "large scale", according to social psychologists, is because most of social psychology only deals with the influence of very small groups of people. The moment we are talking about social media, social psychological theories are clearly reaching their boundaries because they have not been amply tested in such mass environments. Still, I do believe that at least as a metaphor they remain applicable.
    Regarding your second point: I still believe it is informational social influence. If there is no manifest behavior of social others convincing you to do otherwise, then the manifest behaviors of those you can observe provide social proof and thus convince you even more to follow their example. Even if there is only one apparent option A, others can still influence the extent to which you will support that option. The role of social media now is indeed to make clear a large array of other options and the number of people supporting these options.