Social proof is a psychological phenomenon that you may recognize more easily as the “herd instinct”.According to Wikipedia it is “is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others reflect correct behavior for a given situation”.
It seems to be a smart move when you first think about it. If you’re in a strange situation, observing the sections of the other people in that situation should provide us with clues to help determine the best possible behavior. That’s how we learned to behave in every level of school we went to. It is how we obtained our view of the social graces.
As business people and professionals adopt new marketing techniques using social media, social proof comes into play. Blog posts like this, and a plethora of business books tell us that we need to create or curate content, become a member of the community, and be perceived as a valued and trusted member of the community to achieve the most business purposes. So to learn how to implement these new tools, we watch how other use various social channels so that we can determine what behavior will be successful for our business purposes.
The problem this creates is that not all of the methods adopted by others will work for us. In fact some models actually start having unforeseen adverse consequences. For example the process of aggregating information shared by other was adopted by some people as a method of curating quality information. The process might have originally been a collection of links in a blog post, but the idea became so popular that a vendor came along toffering a simple way to aggregate tweets and blog posts shared by members of your community.
The new program seemed great and there was swift early adoption. As a result of that early adoption, newcomers to the space observed the proliferation of these”dailies” and quickly mimicked the actions of the existing community members. Soon there was an avalanche of new aggregations as they started to publish newspapers of their own. Now online “newspapers” have become almost burdensome – there are so many of them filling the twitter stream we ignore most of them. It takes a special relationship with an individual to trust that they are sharing something new – so instead of creating relationships, the efficacy of the newspaper is almost a burden on existing relationship – defeating its original purpose.
So while a new participant in social media, eager to find effective short cuts might think that simply automating their curation is effective because of the number of people they see using the tool, they should be mindful that any tool, no matter how good or effective can be ineffective if its not used with planning and thoughtfulness.
The value of social proof as a method of identifying appropriate and inappropriate behavior relies upon the amount of observation involved. Without knowing what the reaction of the community will be to our action, we don’t know whether the activity is one we want to undertake. In the physical world, when we see people interacting in a classroom or at an event, the consequences of their actions are usually visible at the time we view the action. The loud talker in a library gets “shushed disapprovingly by the librarian (or has a youtube rant created decrying their actions). The person who brings a gift when they are invited to dinner is thanked by the host. The person in the office who helps when there is a problem is thanked and becomes well regarded by their peers.
Online when we see actions, we don’t see the whole picture at once. For example if we see people using quotations in their twitter stream or self serving links on a regular basis, we don’t know how effective those things are. Do the quotes amplify their online identity? Do they somehow drive eyes to their website? Do they increase interaction with their community? Or are they merely placeholders in the social stream? If a person’s twitter timeline consists only of their “daily newspapers” are people actually clicking through to read? If they are does that increase the social capital of the “publisher”?
For those reasons, individuals and companies that are engaging in the social space need to spend some time doing their homework before they decide to accept the social proof that is presented to them. If you don’t see the action and its consequences, you might not be getting the right clues for determining what actions will be best for your interaction. I would find several people that seemed to accomplishing the types of things I want to accomplish, see what they do to get their results, and then determine if those things are achievable and sustainable in my life.
That worked for me- what works for you?