Applying Circuit Breakers to a Social Media Mob Mentality

Cyndy Aleo-Carreira has a good post out today, When FriendFeed Creates a Mob. The post describes the activity on FriendFeed related to a Thomas Hawk post regarding the director of visitor relations at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In case you’ve missed it, here’s a quick summary:

  1. Thomas Hawk was shooting pictures at the SFMOMA
  2. The director of visitor relationships told him to leave
  3. After pleading his case, Thomas was kicked out of the SFMOMA
  4. Thomas blogged about it, asking people to Digg the story to get it maximum attention
  5. Many people on FriendFeed dugg it, and currently the post has 3,780 diggs

In her post, Cyndy points out that we’re only hearing one side of the story: Thomas Hawk’s. I can’t blame Thomas for that. He was only blogging the incident from his point of view. That’s what blogging is about. But she and Jeremiah Owyang both argue that the use of the guy’s name and calling him a “jerk” (it was originally “asshole”) meant that the post transcended a normal beef, like Comcast not handling someone’s moving well. It was personal, not a slam against a faceless organization.

Was it a mob mentality that took hold?

For the record, I did participate in this:

I trust Thomas Hawk’s point of view, so I was comfortable with the Digg and the Like. Noting the Digg count was probably a bit much. Generally, I thought of it as an authentic telling of an event by Thomas, and wanted to show my support. But I pretty much left it there. I’m not a photographer nor have I had any problems at the SFMOMA.

Also, if the SFMOMA director came out with his own explanation of events, I’d Like that, digg it, share it. I’m not out to tar and feather the guy. Rather, there is a greater issue of individual liberties versus the protection of artists’ rights and individuals’ privacy here. A worthy area for discussion and examination, as Steven Hodson points out. I’m glad that Thomas wrote up his experience, and that it got attention. It should.

But Cyndy’s post does cause me to wonder how one would stop a mob mentality taking hold on FriendFeed, or any social media site.

When Mob Mentality Overwhelms Our Information Filters

In a recent post, I wrote about the emergence of a new role in social media: Information Filters. Particularly on FriendFeed, but on other social media sites as well, we rely on others to surface content that is interesting to us. They do this through their Google Reader shares, Diggs, direct posts, Likes, comments, etc. Some people have a natural talent for this, and they become powerful information filters for others.

I’d say that Information Filters are the primary line of defense against any mob mentality taking hold. Through the various ways they share or don’t share, Information Filters hold strong sway over the agenda of what is discussed.

What would a mob mentality look like?

  1. Our Information Filters buy-in to a “get this guy” mentality and start spreading the word as rapidly as possible
  2. The sheer volume of links, Likes and comments overwhelms the more thoughtful discourse that typically marks FriendFeed

#2 above in particular is where things get dicey. You’re no longer relying on your usual Information Filters. The frequency with which you’re seeing an issue show up becomes the measure of its importance, not the trusted referrals of your Information Filters.

Three Options for Applying Circuit Breakers to a Mob Mentality

Off the top of my head, I can come up with three ways to slow down a mob.

  1. Automatic restrictions: Like the New York Stock Exchange’s trading curbs, FriendFeed would automatically apply the brakes to a URL that gets to much play on the site. New shares of the site link stop bouncing to the top of FriendFeed. New comments and Likes no longer cause the link to bounce to the top. This, of course, would be terrible. Really good posts would have a tough time going viral.
  2. FriendFeed staffers intervene: Similar to the automatic restrictions, except it’s done manually on an ad hoc basis. This is better because truly egregious cases could be addressed, not just an “hot” story. But it puts the FriendFeed folks in a really bad position. As soon as they put the kibosh on a story, the howls of censorship would begin and the vibe of FriendFeed would tank.
  3. Our information filters exercise judgment: This is the right call. We rely on our Information Filters to find content that is interesting, sharp and correct if facts are used.

Information Filters = Circuit Breakers

As noted earlier, Information Filters are people adept at finding interesting content and sharing it. Interestingly, Mona N is exactly on of these people. She finds all sorts of unusual things that people love. I know I do. So her pumping up Thomas Hawk’s SFMOMA blog post was a case of an Information Filter saying “Hey, this is really important information for you to know and act on!”

By virtue of their role, information filters can also act as the brakes should things ever get out of control. Why?

  • They tend to have a large number of followers
  • Many of their followers are frequently reading what they share
  • The ongoing conversation they have with others establishes their “cred” when it comes to discussing new ideas, opinions and news

People who are Information Filters can simply not share whatever it is everyone else is talking about. The lack of their participation reduces some of the heat that can surround an issue. They can also more actively put a stop to an overly emotional mob that forms. With posts, comments, blog shares, etc. People will listen to them. Their participation this way can allow cooler heads to prevail.

It Is Social Media After All

On FriendFeed, Derick Valadao left a great comment on Cyndy’s post:

To those who would say behaviour like that stated in the article isn’t group think I have to disagree. We voice our opinions here on popular entries because we think it will be the right thing to say. We want to affirm the sentiments of the post (for the most part). I have yet to see a social network that can combat against this phenomenon. When we reward opinions with popularity or regard we inevitably create this phenomenon. That of why I appreciate small voices in the crowd who are willing to go against popular opinions. Now we should ask ourselves how we can build that into a social structure if we ever intend ok bringing credible interesting stories to our community.

I look to our Information Filters to play an important role in Derick’s call for a social structure. Having users, particularly those who have been “voted” as our information filters, dampen the creation of any mob tendencies fits well with the idea of social media. It is all about the users. We really should sort these things out ourselves.

It does put the onus on those who enjoy positions as information brokers to elevate their game, and to think hard about the effect they have on the people and organizations they shine a light on. Jeremiah Owyang has a new post out Tracking the Toronto Explosion on Twitter: Opportunities and Risk. I’ll close with a quote from his post:

The community (myself included) must be mindful of what’s real and what’s not, over hyping or spreading false information [that] could impact lives.


See this post on FriendFeed:


About Hutch Carpenter
Chief Scientist Revolution Credit

8 Responses to Applying Circuit Breakers to a Social Media Mob Mentality

  1. Hutch, this is a great evaluation of what happened and what might have stopped it. There are very few people who can elicit an immediate Digg from me, which is why I’m often late, even on friends’ articles. I need time to parse.

  2. Shey says:

    Personally, I didn’t “like” the stories in FF or dugg or share it at all. I try not to advocate disrespecting folks back even if they are in the wrong.

    I agree with Thomas’ opinion, but not his methods.

  3. Pingback: Social Media Now | Social Media Club

  4. Thanks, Corvida, very thoughtful and considered post. I’m adding it to my summary… Thanks again for being constructive.

  5. Thanks Cyndy – I also need time to parse things. I can like something intuitively, but to really grok it I need time.

  6. Shey – sounds like a good policy.

  7. Thanks Richard – BTW, this isn’t Corvida’s blog. But I’m glad you like the post all the same.

  8. Pingback: Daily Post to RED66 08/12/2008 | RED66

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: