Social collective behavior : How following the crowd benefits us

Social collective and group behaviour

The great science magazines of the world are over flowing with articles on the human social brain and how socially intelligent we are. Socially intelligent beings like us have complex social collective behaviors as well. Isn’t it. We can easily dismiss it, saying social collective behavior is like any group behavior. But then, understanding it within the context of a “how following a crowd benefits us” makes good sense, from the perspective of social networks and social media.

Interesting enough, the recent article in The Economist titled “Connective action” dated March 26th, 2016 talks about Olsen’s book “Logic of Collective action” on how large groups of people would organize, collaborate  and group themselves based on certain incentives and whereas  others, the vast majority of them would gladly do a “Free ride” on the efforts of others.

Olsen’s theories on group behavior questioned the then dominant wisdom, (this was in 1965) that if everyone in a group has common interests, then they will surely collaborate and work together for the same common goals or interests. Fair enough, but are we seeing this kind of behavior in our online social media networks?

The late economist Mancur Olsen’s theories on groups and political science holds good even today as we see how the social, economic and technology worlds are connected to organize networks and online behavior.

It is no different as we see through our own examples in Facebook and LinkedIn, that people do not have to be part of a group to post comments or likes but still can have their say on a common cause or movement. To make this impactful and effective, we will have to bundle it in a framework and present it in a way that is made resourceful and benefits the masses much like how Google and Facebook operate.

Now, let us look at some of the fundamentals from this interdisciplinary science of what makes social collective behavior tick and sustain. Let us also understand the concept of information cascades and how they can throw some light on what makes people abandon their previously built rationale and bind together.

What is social collective behavior?

Inspite of a growing interest on collective behavior and social intelligence, world over, there is concern of what “social collective behavior” would actually mean.

From a sociological perspective, social collective behavior would mean the study of crowds, fads, fashion, disasters and social movements. A specific collective behavior depends on the context. If it is in the case of crowd, then a question arises what actually is a crowd? We can say that a crowd is a group.

Certain structure and pattern arises when a social collective behavior happens in a crowd. Nevertheless, the behavior is shaped by the characteristics and the cultural background of the persons who form the crowd.

If the crowd, is from a typical office building or a religious movement we would always see shades of established behavior among them.   Many research practitioners say that, from a functional understanding and  perspective, and within a context of a crowd, social collective behavior need to defined, studied and understood in situations where there is no cultural guidelines, no cultural definition or structure attached to it.

Strong cultural guidelines in religious gatherings
Strong cultural guidelines in religious crowds

For example, there are strong cultural and established guidelines of crowd behavior with respect to disasters, contests and celebrations. These can be related to more general group behavior. Whereas a short lived crowd watching a construction building or a flash crowd which has just formed at a random accident site on the road, calls for studying patterns in social collective behavior.

For example, in a large religious group or crowd, people behave with lot of fervor and devotion. The experience of the people in that crowd is based entirely based on tradition and culture and people in those situations behave in a manner which makes best sense for them and for their perceptions.

Taking into account the above arguments and research findings, we can define social collective behavior as

When people are connected and collectively act, they influence each other’s behavior and any aggregate individual behavior in turn influences the masses. Together as a collective network, they produce path breaking outcomes.

The current discussion of ‘how following the crowd benefits us’ as a social collective behavior falls entirely into context where there is no established or set cultural guidelines for people to behave in a certain manner. Now, having said that, it becomes important for us to understand and study the social collective behavior of crowds. For example, understanding the behavior of the crowd in social network embedded within a social media allows us make the incentives structure better. We will talk about this in a little while from now.

Social collective behavior is always unpredictable

Much broader scope would be to understand where large number of people or crowds congregate or assemble. History has always pointed to disasters which could have been averted.

Crowd behaviour in Football stadium
Crowd behavior in Football stadium

For example, the crowd which went berserk at the English Football stadium during the 1988 FA Cup in Hillsborough, England. Many people have died during this disaster.  Investigations revealed that it was due to overcrowding. But no one new, how the crowd, the frenzied fans would behave during a semifinals match.

Another example, would be the stampede that happened during the Hajj at Mecca. Hajj is the annual Islamic pilgrimage that Muslims all over the world undertake the journey, at least once in their lifetime.

Both the incidents project unpredictable crowd behavior. There were no set cultural underpinnings behind these crowd behaviors.

Even as an individual belonging to a democratic society, it would be highly relevant to study the characteristics and workings of social collective behavior.  Even as we seek to understand and study social collective behavior, it would be impossible to know and predict crowd behaviors in advance. It is only after studying similar instances where large number of people or crowd involved, the characteristics and quality of people interaction in such previous scenarios, would we be able to predict to a certain extent.

Social Collective behavior in social networks

Social collective behavior, within the context of a social network lies at the intersection of Mathematics, Economics, Social science and we can even say Cognitive Psychology and Ethnography.

From computer science and mathematics we learn about how complexity arises, as we design and find solutions. From Economics, we understand how people’s behavior affects by providing them specific incentives. From Social sciences, Psychology and Ethnography we understand the characteristics, the structures and behavior of people across cultures and within the groups and their mutual differences.

Social collective behavior, is nevertheless a phenomena which affects aggregate behavior. It has links that connect us and has long standing effects on the consequences of the behavior of the population as a whole.

New patterns and practices emerge over time. These practices are nothing but new ideas, opinions and new technological innovations of a large population. We can call them as social practices and they become popular culture over time. Some evolve and become established and some become obscure. We have always known the examples of Facebook and MySpace.

These new social practices spread very rapidly through a population and affects each other behaviors.

People would invariably want to belong to a group and conform. They are influenced by what others do and eventually would like to do what others do. Understanding this becomes the core to understanding social media networks and behavior.

At least on the surface, people want to make decisions based on how others have faced the same or similar situation. We all want to keep it simple. But then, the million dollar question is why are people influenced by others behavior.

Why we follow a crowd – A Social collective behavior unfolds

There could be many reasons. “Private Information” is one. Valuable private information is cited as one of the reasons. If a group is making a decision or a choice, others infer that the group might have better or private information on which they have based their choice among various alternatives. It is natural for us assume that the group has made a better choice and compelling us to follow suite.

Other reasons for such behavior can be attributed to the fact that when a “direct benefit” can be gained.

People want to align with others and gravitate towards a group when there is a direct benefit involved regardless of their own decisions.

A good example is Google’s You tube. Whether “You tubehad good features or not, people just thronged the site and once “You tube” became the most popular site for video sharing, people saw an added value in using it.

Overtime, this sort of behavior raises subtle issues. Interestingly, people would start making decision based on a mix of private information and also conformance to what has already happened. It so happens that they just “Follow the crowd” without any rationale.

This phenomena is what we can term as “Information Cascades” where there is no rationale or limited rationale and people make decisions based on the crowd and in fact they follow the crowd and leave the private information behind.

In other words, such network effects magnify the brand value of existing product or an established social media network, drawing in more crowds and groups and thereby increasing their perception and value manifold.

It would be very difficult to displace such established social media networks unless the newcomer has got a better technology, features, being way different and starts in an area of the population where new technology is welcomed and then again they follow the same inherent network behavior.

A recent article in the MIT talks about how social media systems can generate sustainable value in the future. The current social media systems generate social crowd mobilizations which are short lived. Such short lived crowd do not contribute to sustained societal and business change. The authors point to better incentive structures embedded within the social network as a long term solution.

I think, the discussions we are having on this blog post with respect to the degree of private information and direct benefits can sway the crowd and the behavior towards long term sustainable change.

Introducing incentives – Creates information cascade

Let’s see how people behave with structural effects in the network structure and how they influence each other’s behavior. The way a network is structured provides useful information and insights in how they influence people.

We need to understand here that the network or group behavior is based on

“Private information” and “Direct benefits” and they exist both at the individual and population level.

We have seen that as individuals, we sometimes get influenced by what our neighbors do rather than the whole population network. So it is implicitly understood that the underlying network structure reflects this aspect.

Here comes the idea of introducing incentives. When individuals are provided incentives to adopt to the behavior in the network, there can be information cascade effects where a small group within the network adopts and slowly spreads the adoption to a wide population throughout the reaches of the network.

The underlying network structure, which can also be the software application and the technology architecture of such structures, play a pivotal role in cascading this effect.

The Contagion mechanism – Similar to how epidemic spreads

Social media networks underlying structure
Contagion mechanism underlying structure- How epidemic spreads –

How epidemic spreads. An example underlying structure

The Contagion mechanism – Similar to how epidemic spreads

This cascading behavior is also known as the “contagion”. In business terms, when the underlying network structure of a competitor is superior in terms of the application of technology then there is every chance to displace the leading social media network.

This so called “Contagion” mechanism is very much similar to how an epidemic spreads throughout the world. Studying the spread of epidemics throws light on the underlying processes which helps the proliferation of networks.

This act of spreading is dynamic and happens right inside social media networks. A good example of an underlying network structure is the “Search” mechanism in search engines and portals. It provides links in such a way that it extends referrals to others and accomplishes tasks this way.

Coming back to the definition of social collective, it so happens that when people are connected and collectively act together, they influence each other’s behavior and any aggregate individual behavior in turn influences the masses.

Social collective behavior in Whatsapp social media tool
Social collective behavior in Whatsapp social media tool

A wonderful example of this  social collective behavior, can be seen in Whatsapp groups.  People in the group remain calm till others in the group open up and start the conversation or post pictures.

Together as a collective network, they produce path breaking outcomes and this is in way how “collective intelligence” operates as well.

Individuals though these networks influence others in their opinion, the products they buy and the political parties they support and so on.

There is a lot of information cascade that happens where people abandon their private information and follow the crowd. People imitate others. Sometimes there is no rationale. Sometimes there is.

A random crowd: An experiment on Social collective behavior

Let us look at this experiment as an example which was conducted in the 1960’s. The experimenters created a group ranging from 1 person to 15 people. When one person in the group was asked to stand in the street and look up, very few people stopped by. If 5 people from the group were asked to stand in the street and look up, then more passersby were looking up. Finally with 15 people looking up, they found 45% of passersby stopped by and also stared up in the sky. So the threshold level of 15 can be considered as a tipping point to pull and influence a good crowd.

The experimenters concluded that, the more the number people looked up, the conformity grew stronger and the activity becomes larger.

There is also the role of information cascade that is at play here. Initially, when few people were looking up, the crowd saw no reason or rationale in following them. But when more people started to look up, the crowd decided to join as they perceived that there was some rationale or some reason behind it, they thought that the group of people had some private information that they didn’t know.

There are so many live examples as we see in the market, like the success of books being in the bestsellers category for a long time and the choice of consumers for a specific product or technology.

In conclusion, the wealth is in the network

The benefits of following the crowd are obvious. There are so many collaborative experiments that happen all the time on the internet. From the open source technology projects that happened in the last two decades the “Wiki” and the “Linux” are good examples. A group of volunteer programmers from all over the world, displayed social collective behavior and just followed the crowd to produce it.

The online posts and comments that people make, need not just be some unconnected stray ones nor the people who make them be part of any group or network. Their mere presence is enough.

As mentioned earlier, to make them effective we will have to bundle all of them together to make an impact. Such bundling is what is already done by social media networks in the likes of Facebook and others.

A very influential book called the “Wealth of Networks” written by a Harvard professor Yochai Benkler talks about how networks can be put to good use. Yochai writes about “Peer production” but in the sphere of political activity. Such collaborative “peer production” on the internet was useful in stopping two controversial bills (SOPA and PIPA) for strengthening IP rights online.

Such “Peer production” was serving its way in the recent rejection of Facebook’s free internet in India. The people of India organized the online Save the internet campaign to tell Mark Zuckerberg that his efforts are not welcome. We will talk more about “Peer production” on this blog soon.

So much for Mancur Olsen’s book “The logic of Collective action” written in the 1960’s that it is so influential even today and hits the mark in understanding the online world. None of the claims and arguments presented so far rejects Olsen’s theories.

People will not collaborate as a social collective behavior just because they have a common cause. They will collaborate only when incentives are provided and the masses will take a free ride for sure. There is so much to learn for emerging and new social media networks from this very thought provoking statement and just to mention, it is not a theory any more.

For further resources on this subject, please find below:-

  1. Networks, Crowds and Markets-reasoning about a highly connected world, by David Easley and Jon Kleinberg. The book is available at Amazon.
  2. Collective behavior and social movements – MIT . The webpage can be found here.

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