Social Media & 'Groupthink'

By Dawn Lospaluto
In October 20, 2011

In the mid-19th Century, Scottish journalist Charles Mackay published a fascinating book about group behavior titled, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.  If he were alive today, he might have called it, Popular Delusions, the Madness of Crowds, and the Extraordinary Influence of the Media on Both.

The ability of groups of people to move as a single mass and override the judgment of any single member is well documented by Mackay, and we have plenty of examples from the last 170 years that we can add to his catalog. But the unrelenting pervasiveness of the media now tucked in our pocket, plugged into our ears, and affixed to nearly every public and quasi-public wall is well on its way to making “groupthink” a dominant characteristic of our age.

The curious thing about the incessant drumbeat of media coverage on the topic of the day is that it can lead to two quite disparate results: compliance or reaction.

The compliant tend to have a response that agrees with the media message—or, at the very least, gives the topic an importance in direct proportion to the amount of media coverage it receives. The reactionary runs screaming in the opposite direction—generally accompanied by statements such as, “I’ll slit my throat if I hear one more word about_______”—you fill in the blank: Michael Jackson’s doctor, Anthony Wiener’s text messages, Occupy Wall Street, The Tea Party, etc.

The problem with either result is that, like the madness of crowds, it usually leads us to make a judgment based on our emotional response to something—or, perhaps more properly, our response to the message about something—and to immediately and often irately close our minds, rather than embark on a quiet, thoughtful exploration of the issue on our own.

Social media offer a prime example. Some business-to-business marketers have jumped on the social media bandwagon without seeking any evidence of bottom-line results. It is just “the thing to do” right now. Others have turned their backs on the whole idea—when they hear someone talking about Tweets or Facebook walls, they make a beeline for the exit.

As usual, the truth likely lies somewhere between. Should you be using social media in your marketing efforts? Yes—if it works or can work for you. No—if it doesn’t or can’t. How will you know? By learning all you can about it and how it could be applied to your business and your customers and prospects, then, if you think it has promise, by trying it, testing it, and ultimately making an informed individual decision.

Dawn Lospaluto

Epicomm Senior Director of Communications, Dawn has been the editor of Epicomm 's "Bottom Line" magazine and its predecessor publications, "NAPL Business Review," Printing Manager," and "The Journal of Graphic Communications Management," for 20 years. She also writes and edits several Epicomm member print and electronic newsletters, including [Re]View, Management Bulletin, Highlights, and Discover; press releases; and various marketing materials; and oversees Epicomm 's book publishing program. Dawn previously served as corporate managing editor for Allied (now Honeywell) Corporation and as a reporter and editor for New Jersey's largest evening newspaper. She is a graduate of Douglass College (Rutgers University) and holds an M.A. degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she has served on the adjunct faculty.

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