Ever wonder how social norms occur? Those that openly support the majority viewpoint on an issue are lauded so that behavior is reinforced. Dissenters, on the other hand, are denounced so they clam up for fear of being ostracized. This phenomenon is called the spiral of silence.
The spiral of silence theory is believed to be a function of evolution. Animals that are isolated from the herd don’t usually live very long. The same is true of humans. Safety in numbers is a core survival instinct reinforced by the brain’s ancient limbic system. That’s why we evolved as social creatures that build communities.
In addition to cultural conformity, this tendency to self-censor also explains why it is so difficult to change the status quo. People are generally afraid to voice public support for a perceived unpopular opinion so it takes quite a bit of individual courage, capability and effort to build support and overturn the majority view.
Since social media is widely believed to be a uniquely open public forum, Pew Research and Rutgers University conducted a study to see if the spiral of silence effect is diminished on Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) relative to offline public environments. The results were startling and their implications far-reaching.
It turns out that people were far less willing to discuss the Edward Snowden-NSA controversy on social media than at any other public forum. That effect was more pronounced when they believed their friends and followers would disagree with their viewpoint. Even more startling, social media users were also far less likely to express unpopular views offline.
An additional finding was that people got the vast majority of their information on the subject from traditional sources. Only 3% of responders said they got at least some information from Twitter. The number was 15% from Facebook. So much for the popular notion of Twitter as an effective newsfeed. It appears to be essentially worthless.
These fascinating findings led me to draw several poignant conclusions.
Contrary to popular wisdom, the Web 2.0 movement that spawned user-generated content and social media increases conformity and stifles diversity. Indeed, the more we live online, the more we think alike and behave as a social collective. Online personas and personal brands only give the illusion of uniqueness. In reality, the opposite is true.
You may think your smartphone and Twitter account gives you a bold, unique voice but, in reality, you’re mostly just preaching to the choir and perpetuating one brand of Kool-Aid or another. The truth is, the global shift from physical to virtual interaction perpetuates groupthink and suppresses creativity.
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until they pry my MacBook Air out of my cold dead hands: The wisdom of crowds is a myth. Crowd is just another word for mob. Wisdom only comes from one place: the mind of a human. Likewise, innovation comes from individuals, small teams, and competition – not from digital collectives.
Perhaps one good thing will come of this. It does seem that people are finally getting the message that the Internet is forever and what they post online becomes an indelible part of their reputation like a bad tattoo that can never be removed. That may explain why SnapChat, the ephemeral messaging app with no revenue or business model, is reportedly valued at $10 billion.
While it may be tempting to hang the study’s findings on a growing sense of caution among the Twitter and Facebook crowd, it doesn’t explain why their users are almost half as likely to discuss controversial topics or unpopular views face-to-face, as well. Too bad.
There is another aspect of the spiral of silence that I find intriguing. It was always thought to be an age-old phenomenon that maintained cultural stability. A quiet majority sustaining the status quo balanced a vocal minority agitating for change. Unfortunately, the Internet has thrown that equilibrium into chaos.
The problem is that any dumb notion or loony fad can go viral and be adopted by the masses as common doctrine. There are hundreds of examples including vaccines causing autism, veganism being healthy, wireless signals causing brain cancer, homeopathic remedies and our obsession with self-improvement and personal productivity.
Now you know why the most technologically advanced civilization in history is rife with miracle cures, pseudoscience, and political correctness: social media, groupthink and the spiral of silence. The pressure to conform is enormous. Funny thing is, I’ve been saying that for years, unpopular as it is. Why do I do it? Simple. I could care less what anyone thinks – on or offline. Nobody’s going to shut me up, that’s for sure.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.