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.

The fish swim in shoals from one shady part of the ocean to another. This movement does not happen through the estimates and computations from the minds of any individual fish. Actually, there is no computation at all.  The fish adhere to a simple instinct and simply trust their neighbor fish.

Experiments have shown that the fish ‘measure or know’ only one dimension. Dumb as they are, they only know if their environment is dark or bright (a single dimension). If it is a darker shade, the individual fish just slow down and wait. And all other fish swimming in tandem just follows suit and clump together.

They use their instinct and move as a shoal. By moving as a shoal and trusting each other, the fish together or rather collectively, are able to assess and measure other dimensions of height, distance, speed and the effort required to swim quickly to the shadier or the darker portions of the ocean.

In effect, or rather the crowd effect is that they all move as one and compute as one. This is one fine example of collective intelligence at work. We can call it the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ as well.  Many migratory birds and animals display the same remarkable collective intelligence.

“The group solves a problem when none of them are aware of” that’s the catch phrase.

Thanks to Ed Yong, the award-winning writer from the National Geographic, who has explained the same phenomenon so lucidly in his article titled “The real wisdom of crowds”. You can find the article here.

You can also read our blog post article “Why following the crowd is beneficial”.

This is something the human species can learn and emulate.

Can Social media provide such an environment?

Or can social media users display such intelligent crowd effect?

These are the questions that need to be answered.

We are not far behind.

Crowd effect and unpredictability

But there’s one more thing that we need to be aware of. It is the unpredictability of the crowds. Crowd behavior among humans is complex and their crowd effect is varied as well.  There are wide ranging contentions and arguments among scholars on what constitutes a crowd and its behavioral aspects.

I found some good content on the site written by Gary T Marx and Douglas Mc Adam on collective crowd behavior. You can find the content here.

Crowd behavior is more controlled and easily predictable when there are set procedures, established rules for people to follow. Individuals in such groups abide by these norms and traditions. For example, the crowds that form during celebrations, contests, religious ceremonies and other social mobilizations follow a certain pattern. The individuals in those crowds follow the rules and procedures set by those events. Studying such crowd behavior is not a big challenge.

But on the other hand, we have other crowd behavior which poses a challenge of unpredictability. For example, there are crowds that form at a roadside event, randomly and then there are the crowds that form at an accident site on a busy road. Individuals in such crowds do not follow any set pattern or tradition. They just gather out of instinct. This crowd behavior is challenging enough for it is unpredictable.

Some examples from History

Disastrous incidents have happened in the past. One such intriguing incident was during the FA cup football match in England in the year 1988. Frenzied fans behaved erratically in a manner which resulted in a human crush. Many died. Experts and researchers were baffled by this bizarre incident and are still clueless as to why the crowd behaved in a certain disastrous manner.

Still another example is the stampede that occurred at Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during the annual Hajj. This happened in the year 2015. Hajj is the annual pilgrimage journey to Mecca that Muslims all over the world undertake. They travel to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

Thousands of pilgrims died in what they term as the ‘human crush’. They say that the extent of the crush on the road was at about 1000 ft.  The crowd went out of control, they went on a stampede. What caused the frenzied crowd to behave in such a manner, nobody knows.

The incident was reported to be as one of the deadliest days in Hajj and one of the worst accidents to happen in the history of the world. For a detailed report on the incident, you can find the article here from the New York Times.

Unpredictable crowd effect happens in the Now

There are have been attempts by many researchers to study the behavior of such unpredictable crowds. To forecast, predict and to find the patterns. But they have not succeeded. The mind of the crowd in frenzy is indiscernible. They happen so fast and quick that there is hardly any to time to respond. They happen as we speak and read.

But such unpredictability may not be the case for millions of users on popular social media. There are viral posts and viral news that travel like a contagion in an epidemic, but seldom have they shown any frenzied or disastrous results.  Crowd effect in social media goes through certain set rules and procedures. These rules and procedures allow us to predict and forecast user behavior on social media.

But these rules are not hard and fast, meaning – the rules constantly change with time and allows the social media usage to evolve. The crowd effect happens in the now.

Finally, what I would like to say

Sustaining the crowd effect in social media depends on introducing suitable incentive structures. These incentive structures can be put to good use in swaying the crowd behavior in the right direction.

Suitable incentive structures can bring in the desired crowd effect. Swaying the social media crowd in a certain direction and inculcating the desired crowd behavior through incentive structures is very much like how Golden Shiners, the fish, have a natural preference towards the darker or the shadier parts of the ocean.

The fish are dumb, as to their uni-dimensional sense. But collectively as a shoal of fish, they are far smarter and intelligent. They think and move as one single mind.

It is not the same with humans. We are all smart individuals. But collectively, are we smarter? do we possess higher order intelligence? Well, that’s a different story. This is not to say that we are selfish, but somewhere deep down there is a lack of trust within our own species. Time will tell. Till such time we got to learn a lot from the humble fish.



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Ramkumar Yaragarla

I am 43 years old. Founder, Loving dad and Husband. Worked as an IT Business analyst and program manager in several Fortune 100 companies.Alumnus at the University of Warwick, UK. I love the WWW and write on Social aspects of information, Social collaboration, Digital Sociology, Digital Humanities and Work life balance. I enjoy playing on the beach with my 9 year old daughter. I am open to your suggestions and comments.
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