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10 Characteristics of Mob Thinking on Social Media

It never ceases to fascinate me how certain topics go viral on social media whereas others do not.

Just like with branding, it is of course possible to artificially induce a “high” on a certain topic, at least for a time. But in the end a craze has to have enduring value on its own merits.

As most of us know, here are some of the kinds of topics that tend to attract a lot of interest: amazing talent; brands, shopping and coupons; celebrity news; cooking or decorating; family-related/relationship-oriented issues; heartwarming stories; holiday-themed updates; information of a specialized nature; opinion, well- or humorously articulated; shocking information; social awareness or activism; tragedy; unity of diverse people; violence caught on video; and of course, weird news.

Less well-understood is the way groups think collectively on social media. In other words, how does social media act to create a collective consciousness among members who interact around shared interest in a topic?

This collective consciousness, also known as “mob thinking” or “hive thinking,” has certain observable characteristics that tend to repeat regardless of the issue at hand.

  1. Story: Complex, even convoluted story with seemingly no beginning and no end yet simple to understand and compelling to the average person by the nature of its subject matter–usually negative–such as abuse, exploitation, etc.
  2. Articles of Faith: The group’s story is really a cause, which creates a community of those who believe in what it stands for, at all levels of the spectrum, from mild-mannered to extremely engaged–and sometimes even “over the edge.” The cause itself is axiomatic, but the evidence upon which the group decides to form its beliefs is subject to extensive debate.
  3. Leaders: The group has unelected leaders, or spokespeople, whom others believe in and follow, who represent the beliefs of the group confidently and in a concise, engaging manner
  4. Researchers: The group has a researcher or group of researchers, loosely affiliated or not. affiliated at all. The role of researcher favors those with highly advanced computer research skills to seek out and store data in an accessible way, as well as those articulate enough to explain what the research means and/or to present it graphically.
  5. Martyrs: The group has someone who has lost their lives, or something very important to them in life, by virtue of suffering for the cause (perhaps unwillingly).
  6. Common Enemy: The group is united to advance a cause but also to beat back an enemy that does not wish them to succeed, because they benefit from maintaining that which the group opposes. That enemy may be a person, a group of people, or simply a constellation of ideas or values that are disfavored. The more tangible the evidence that the enemy causes harm, and the more resistance the group receives from the outside world, the more they are likely to become entrenched in their views.
  7. Projected Self-Image: People join the “mob” based on an idealized image of themselves, not based on their activities in “real life.”
  8. Shared Characteristics: The people who join may be wildly diverse, but they also share certain values, beliefs, or personality tendencies that make it possible to interact in a way that is instantly recognizable and appreciated.
  9. The Spectrum: Though they may share certain personality characteristics (such as the desire to be heroic), members of the group will always represent a wide spectrum, from the rational to the “unhinged.”
  10. Always On: The conversation happens in fits and starts but nonstop, and you can join it as many hours a day as you wish, and enter and leave it at will.
  11. Familiarity of Strangers: Although members of the group do not know one another in real life, they derive comfort from the anonymous fellowship of believers.Most group member are anonymous, although some feel comfortable naming themselves. Anonymous identities are an opportunity to express a belief or emotion strongly held.
  12. Respect: The members of the group value one another. There is an ethic of respect among the group simply by virtue of joining it, or even lurking around it and reading what it produces.
  13. Intelligent Skepticism: While anyone can put forth a theory online, the conversational nature of the environment tends to weed out illogical or unproven statements, when then “die on the vine.”
  14. Evidence and Pseudo-Evidence: At the end of the day, all social media “mob thinking” prides itself on having arrived at some form of truth. However, it is also true that groups have limited access to information and therefore must piece together circumstantial evidence. Additionally, due to the fact that social media is fragmented and favors brevity, accurate information may be presented in a distorted or out-of-context manner that advances an agenda rather than the cause of truth. Complicating matters is an information environment where the beliefs of the group will inevitably fall under ideological attack by others who seek only to dissuade them. In response, some members will dig in their heels and insist that they are “right,” while others will call out inaccuracies, distortions, and areas of confusion in an attempt to keep the group on track.
  15. Mainstreaming: Over time, the more convinced the group is that a certain belief system is true, and the more people join this “movement, the more likely they can convince others that the “unbelievable” actually “makes sense.” If the body of believers reaches critical mass, their ideas, once reviled, become the “conventional wisdom.”

Psychologically speaking, it is a hallmark of maturity to be able to stop and think critically, as well as to reflect on your motives, before you actually make a life-changing decision. Similarly, in the context of organizational dynamics, healthy groups don’t act rashly. They stop to take stock before making any major moves.

On social media, it’s great to be able to express yourself, and explore your ideas and values. But it is also a hallmark of maturity to pause and think critically about what you’re “liking,” sharing, and generally spending your time on. While the virtual world may seem somewhat “unreal,” at the end of the day it is populated by real people: you, me, neighborhood, nation, world.


All opinions my own.


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