The crowd effect: when crowds have a mind of their own even in social media

Crowd effect

Crowd effect happens all the time. Sometimes they are so mundane that we hardly take notice. Yes, we hardly take notice that there is a lot to learn from a humble fish. The fish under the spotlight is the Golden Shiner. For starters, making an effort to be selfless is one.

Crowd effect is a special state of fascination, where the ‘hypnotized individual falls into the hands of the hypnotizer’.

I borrowed the above line from the book titled “The crowd: the study of the popular mind” written by the French author Gustave le Bon, published in 1895.  Gustave le Bon was a French polymath and a gifted doctor.  He worked in diverse fields such as Sociology, Psychology, and Physics.

Computer technology never existed then nor was there any social media during his time.  But then, his study on the Psychology and Sociology of crowds led to the book. He is considered one of the pioneers in that area.  You can find the book here on Project Gutenberg.

His works on understanding crowds and their behavior ring so true in today’s social media usage. Understanding human nature is important. It has a considerable influence on individual and the crowds, social institutions, religion, education, work execution, office rumors, industry unions, trade associations,  fanaticism, celebrations, social mobilizations and much more.

The fact is Technology is secondary and it is an enabler.  Understanding human nature is primary within the context of social media and the crowd effect.

Perfectly sane individuals behave so differently in the midst of a crowd. They are swayed by the opinions and feelings of the crowd. Isn’t it.

We have seen it happening to ourselves. How many times have we stopped and looked at a construction site or a random event that happens on a busy road? We have stopped because we have seen other onlookers standing by on the roadside. They are puzzled, just as you are and they are eager to know what is the hustle all about. Being curious, huh?

 A busy construction site
A busy construction site

If you are looking at the above construction site picture and forming an opinion, then there are chances that hundreds of other people are also watching the same page, this very moment and forming opinions just as you.

Thoughts collide.

It is pretty much in the same way as how we behave and interact on the internet. It is one massive crowd (3.7 billion active users, at any given time, to be precise).  All of them swayed and influenced by each other’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

Crowd effect and the group mind theory

There are many theories surrounding this crowd behavior and the crowd effect. One such popular theory is the group mind theory.  The theory states that individuals are motivated by each other. Even though they (individuals) exist apart, they act as one group.

Individual thoughts and feelings are stimulated by each other’s thoughts and feelings.  The understanding is that when there is a common cause in a group, individual minds in that group co-operate towards that cause.

The group mind is not the sum of all the individual minds. In fact, the ‘crowd has a mind of its own’ distinct from the individual minds that constitute it.

Crowd effect: Answers from the animal world

There are numerous examples of such behavior in the animal world. Fish, bees, and ants are all good examples.

Iain couzin from Princeton University has spent a considerable part of his life studying animal behavior in swarms and flocks. His particular interest fell on a very tiny bland fish called the Golden Shiner.  The Golden Shiners swim in shoals and they prefer to swim in the shadier parts of the ocean which are darker than usual.

Both, the lab experiments as well as studying their (Golden Shiners) behavior in their natural environment and habitats, have shown remarkable patterns of intelligent crowd behavior and crowd effect.

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Social listening: Go beyond data and look for meaning

Social listening for social media conversations

We listen to social conversations all the time. Listening to these conversations helps us to understand other people and also understand the world. Active listening also helps us to learn and build relationship with others. That way, listening is a very important skill. A new kind of listening has surfaced in the recent years ­­– listening to social media and it is called as “social listening” by some media experts.

Social listening happens when you listen to conversations that happen around your brand or company on social media. A simple act of listening to understand others has gained prominence in the commercial world. Now social listening (Commercially at least!) is all about gaining insight about your brand and company by paying attention to the conversations that happen on social media.

Companies have begun to realize the importance of gaining insight and market intelligence about their products and services.  An interesting article in the HBR: “How to get more out of social media-think like an anthropologist” talks about how data scientists and managers should read into these online social media conversations and not straight away reject or pass them.

There is an emphasis on meaning management. Managers glean data, not just on consumption patterns of top brands and general perception of the products but also the culture, the geographical and political landscape of the place and the people. When you want to find meaning in a conversation, you need to understand the context.

Data managers and data scientists need to move away from looking at data as merely points on a graph, when they glean from social media sources for information processing. Even though Big Data analytics is essential, understanding social media conversations requires, delving deep into the culture and social perceptions of the people involved to gain insight.

Social listening requires cultural sensitivity and understanding context

Interestingly, the authors in the article point out that, modern day Data scientists lack the skill and effort required to understand and glean the meaning out of such conversations. Truly to their job and function, as data managers, they have the reductionist attitude.  They reduce complex data into lower level data as Ones and Zeros.  It is good for other data processing (for example: – Efficiency and profitability calculation), but may not add any value to the process of meaning management for online social media conversations.

Social listening efforts for gaining insight and understanding customers requires marketing professionals and company personnel alike to straddle between information and meaning. As mentioned earlier, finding meaning requires sound understanding of the context.

It is time for cultural sensitive data analysts and info-culture builders within organizations to read the meaning out of such conversations.  Such culturally sensitive data analysts can take complex data and form higher order and meaningful information out of social media conversations.

Finding meaning in a conversation involves context. Context is naturally out of the question for information processing professionals and data scientists. Context involves, for example such information deriving questions such as: “Who said it?”, “Why they said it?” and “What are the challenges ?”. Answering such questions gives meaning and valuable context to social media conversations.

Insight and intelligence can be derived from the context.

It is touted that gaining insight through social media conversations should be a regular feature for company personnel. This should not be relegated to the marketing department alone. Infact, the ‘C’ positions of the organization should also get into this art of social listening as an everyday affair.  Understanding “Customer thought and intent” is after all the Holy Grail in business.

Social listening has the potential to drive innovation and corporate strategy. A recent example was the social media conversation, about a major food chain brand which went viral on Whatsapp, a popular social media tool. The conversation and spread on the social media was about the poor quality of uncooked chicken which was served to customers. Even live photographs of the food condition went viral.  The food outlet was shut down eventually after the event. This event alerted the company officials to rectify their grave mistakes.

There are many such examples around the world. Data scientists need to be sensitive to such information on social media. There are all kinds of signals sent about a brand. Some are true, some may not be and still some are amplified by culture as well. Thorough research may be required for the company to make a response but then the representative samples may not include the actual consumers. Any information coming out of social media is relevant as long it talks about the situation or the mistake at hand.

Finally, what makes it worthwhile is that, it pays every effort to interpret online social media conversations and embrace the context involved in the conversations to gain insight and to understand customers thought and intention.

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Do ants have brains ? Yes, collective intelligence.

Do ants have brains - Collective intelligence

What is common among these three seemingly different but connected things – Ants, Birds and the Hollywood Movie, Lucy. Yes it is, Collective intelligence. Before we get into the subject of “Do ants have brains” we will understand briefly about collective intelligence.

Collective intelligence can be defined as

A shared or a group intelligence that is a result of collaborative, collective and coordinated efforts of individual members in a group.

We have known that general intelligence exists within individuals and can be correlated from various cognitive activities performed by individuals. The question is “Does Collective intelligence” also exist in the same levels for individuals in a social group or a social network?

Social networks have lives of their own depending on how we create them. They follow a cyclical pattern of creation, growth, rapid spread, global influence and long sustenance. Perhaps we can say that social networks can never die. We might be surprised to know that a social network thinks on its own and does its own independent actions.

The more we contribute the more it grows and each one of our contributions has a significant impact on the network as a whole and the network can collectively deliver where no one individual can do it alone.

Measuring collective intelligence – Learning from researchers.

There is overwhelming evidence and research that collective intelligence is so very important for a social group or a social network’s productivity and success.

MIT center for collective intelligence had published a report on “measuring collective intelligence” in a social group. It states that such intelligence is not about the individual intelligence in a group but it is about the sensitivity of the group as a whole, taking turns in the conversation for commenting, sharing opinions, ideas and answering to replies and the percentage of women in such groups.

The study shows a interesting finding that they have found a general collective intelligence factor called “c” . The factor is not related to the average or maximum intelligence of the individual team members but to the collective intelligence of the entire group.

The sensitivity of the group as a whole towards commenting, turn taking in responding, answering to group members as well as number of women in the group or social network.

There is lot of research that is going on with respect to the factors that affect collective intelligence in a social network. The number of women and the degree of collaboration that happens within that group has an impact on the collective intelligence of the group.

Do ants have brains ? What we learn from Ants, Birds, Fungi and the Hollywood movie – Lucy.

If you had seen the Hollywood movie “Lucy” you would be thrilled to the end. Good story line and movie direction of a slightly complex subject. Good direction by Director and Writer, Luc Besson.  The main protagonist Lucy, played by Scarlett Johansson gets transformed to a single invisible cell and disappears at the end.  In the movie, Lucy gets injected with a special super chemical which gives her brain the ability to use 100 % of its capacity, gradually. With this capacity she has the ability to transform herself and in this case into a single cell.  The individual cells in turn can act collectively together even though they are separated by space and time. Mind boggling isn’t it. Yes possible!

The movie is a worldwide hit but then it has received varied response from critics who say it is a misrepresentation of science.  But that’s something which we have not known and not experienced so far. We feel it is a distant possibility.

Garden ant and collective intelligence
Garden ant and collective intelligence

Let’s take an example of a colony of ants. The properties and super characteristics of a colony of ants is far more greater than an individual ant on its own. The amount of super co-coordinated effort a colony of ants can put together for reaching a bottle of jam is tremendous and they end up achieving it anyway.

This coordination is possible only when the ants are collectively acting together and not the feat of an individual ant. Such feats are the result of coordination and collective intelligence of many individuals. It is no ordinary feat that they build  huge ant hill all working together in a coordinated effort.

We human beings are multi cellular organisms. All the cells in the human body have their own individual properties, but then they all work together. By working together, they form a higher form of life called the human being.  This form is far more different and evolved than a single cell with its individual properties.

The bottom line is that we are essentially a huge bundle of cells (A few trillion cells approx.). According to the Smithsonian magazine there are about 37.3 trillion cells in the human body.

Another manifestation of the same phenomenon is about our thoughts. Our thoughts are not the product of a single neuron in the brain but a collective making of billions of neurons working together to create a pattern.

Such cooperative action and collective intelligence in social networks and in our society makes our civilization progress in leaps, allowing us to evolve with that wisdom.

The social network factor
Birds and Collective intelligence

Birds for example form a social network. When a flock of birds can collectively coordinate and determine the direction by combining the desires of each and every  bird in the flock, that’s real intelligence and you can say  that’s wisdom.

Another living thing, the fungi also behaves intelligently and collaboratively work together to find the best patch of ground to grow. It can even find the best path as well to reach it.

We have a lot to learn from the animal world.

End note

Image credit : Pixabay

Further reading resources :-

  1. Why some teams are smarter – New York times
  2. MIT centre for collective intelligence – MIT
  3. Collective hive mind – Science focus
  4.  Ants and brains – Reference
  5. When ants make decisions – Inside science
  6. Ants can navigate despite tiny brains – BBC

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