THE BLOG
04/29/2013 11:48 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2013

The Social Media Borg: A Culture of Likes

AP

As social media emerges out if its infancy, we are starting to get a sense of its personality and characteristics, what it will look like when it grows up. We're seeing early signs that the promised democratization of information and the ability to seek and engage in open dialogue might actually become a forum for forced groupthink instead.

The pressure to "fall in line" with community groupthink is a very strong force in our social engagements. On Facebook we're given the option to "Like" the activities, photos and status updates of our friends. In fact, Facebook now allows you to "Like" the fact that other people have liked the posts of others (lost yet?). Tumblr allows you to "reblog" and Twitter allows you to "favorite" or "retweet;" each social network has its own set of tools to encourage us click our way into a digital singing of Kumbaya.

These Web-based positivity tools were merely a precursor to the evolution of today's "Culture of Likes." There is growing pressure for people and brands engaged in social communications to publicly share their sentiments -- when they agree that is. Disagreement is frowned upon and pushed to back channel conversations. "That talk is not appropriate for polite company," my mother used to say.

Public Disagreements are Uncomfortable

It's like sitting at a dinner table with another couple who argue with each other instead of joining the friendly and non-threatening group conversation. Except that when such dialogue occurs in social media, it's amplified across tens of thousands of people who collectively squirm at the spectacle.

The marketing brains and bean-counters at the social networks have carefully crafted gamified agreement within their platforms to encourage this behavior. They're fully leveraging Maslow's theory that people crave "love and belonging" or their need to seek the respect of others, when structuring their platforms. After all, knowing what the collective likes or responds to most frequently is an incredible asset for these businesses. Be it to better manage and direct our online behaviors, or to sell this knowledge to advertisers, groupthink is a money maker. Debate and discourse is more difficult to quantify and monetize in the social networking model.

Think about it; why are there no "dislike" buttons on social networks? Or a "hey, I disagree with you" poke? People are shunned for publicly sharing disagreements and often relegated to the fringes of social communities. They're labeled contrarians or criticized for hijacking conversations for their personal gain and promotion.

Resistance is Futile

It reminds me of the Borg, the cybernetically-enhanced antagonist in the popular Star Trek franchise. The Borg is an assembly of conquered species that, via cybernetic implants, become a collection of drones connected to a single "hive mind." Each serves the will of the collective; each falls in line when ordered; dissension is considered a virus and met with an adjustment to their implants or death. Each new species encountered in its travels across the universe is met with the iconic phrase: "You will be assimilated, resistance is futile."

However gamified our online agreement might be by the business of networking, humans revel in collective positivity. The attachment theory, sometimes referred to as "sensitive responsiveness," references the attachment people make to those who show empathy towards them. This research began with studies of infants and how they become attached to individuals who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions during their early years. Our need to gravitate towards -- and attached ourselves to -- people who empathize with and support our point of view has extended to an active promotion of such behavior in social media, our modern communication channel. The collective agreement provides a sense of stability and security and so we shun those who don't subscribe to that style of communication.

Value of Dissention

I believe there's great value in dissention. Public debate is the foundation of a progressive society and one we all relish. Yet, it's mostly avoided on social networks. We praise the act of "whistle-blowing" through social media channels when people call out governments or businesses that are behaving contrary to publicly accepted morals and laws, but reject those who challenge groupthink and the status quo.

The "wisdom of crowds" is an oft cited modern phenomenon, popularized by James Surowiecki's book of the same name. Surowiecki argues that the collective wisdom of people in groups results in decisions that are often better than could have been made by any single member of that group. Of course today that collection of people is not a group of familial people but a mass of people connected online in a Borg-like collective. The wisdom of crowds has become the net sum of "Likes," shares, and tweets instead of the result of open public debate.

Positive Dissension

We should not be afraid to debate our beliefs. Provided that public dissention is not offered through hate-speech or personal attacks on others, but exchanged in a professional discourse, we should be celebrating those who ask questions and publicly debate the how things stand, instead of pegging them as "social media trolls." Possibly due to the heavy media attention that is being given to cyber-bullying, we're quick to attack people who take a public stand against another, or we're less likely to take such a stand for fear of being classified a bully. There's a clear line between public debate and cyber-bulling however.

We've become so hyper-sensitive to contrary points of view that a mob-mentality takes over, where crowds jump on the opportunity to attack someone for dissenting. Amy Tobin of ArCompany wrote an excellent article outlining a case where a large community of followers joined to attack a person who publicly called out the statements of their social media leader.

Social media has provided us the opportunity to create a culture of open dialogue, yet I fear we're wasting that opportunity. We should embrace and celebrate what I call "positive dissension," the act of publicly debating business, political or societal norms for the sake of re-affirming long held beliefs or breaking status quo.

As social media moves goes from infancy in to its toddler years, maybe we need to teach it how to handle disagreements in a positive and constructive way. Maybe we should go so far as to encourage it.

Do you agree or disagree?