Social media: Movement & counter-movement

Social media: Movement & counter-movement

I’ve always been pretty strong-willed when it comes to speaking my mind and have never been much of a pack-follower. But I know my behaviour isn’t necessarily the norm. My brother – and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this – was always far more likely to be led into trouble when we were kids. He was the one caught smoking. I was the one who put up with being picked on because I didn’t.

Or was I simply following a different movement?

Yes, peer pressure. Kids are incredibly susceptible to it. But so are we as adults and it sits at the very core of social media behaviour. Human nature dictates that we rarely feel comfortable going against the pack.

How to start a movement

That’s why I really, really love this TED video from April this year featuring Derek Sivers on how movements start.

What I love about this video is how it wonderfully illustrates how, after a certain point, it becomes less acceptable NOT to join the movement by dancing inanely in a field. The same peer pressure or feelings of embarrassment that made it a risky proposition to be the first to join in, suddenly flips over. The risk to your social status by not joining in becomes greater than the risk of joining in.

I think Derek Sivers’ point is particularly important here.

The first follower is actually an underestimated form of leadership in itself. It takes guts to stand out like that. The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.

But, surely, there’s more to it than that. After all, there is a simple decision here; “I want to dance” versus “I don’t want to dance”. That question was the same when there was no one dancing and didn’t change when there was one, two or ten people dancing.

What changed was a social consideration – not a personal choice. Prior to rushing in, each dancer was inclined to being a dancer in the right circumstances, but had yet to be persuaded to. The only change is a shift in the social environment in which the decision is made. If my friends are dancing and I’m inclined to dance, I’ll probably dance. Peer pressure.

This is why the first few followers are just as, if not more, important to starting a movement than the first instigator.

…new followers emulate the followers – not the leader.

Yes, the leader might be the trigger, but the movement is created, spread and developed by the followers.

Yet there is an interesting side-note to this behavior that was illustrated on this very blog last week in the incredible reaction to my R U OK? – I’m not! post.

Movement & counter-movement

When I first decided to post my concerns about the #RUOK social media campaign, I thought it would just be me being my usual self going against the grain of opinion on the topic. I expected some people to agree but equally I expected a lot more to disagree. That was the goal – good open discussion about a social media movement.

In the first few days, I was inundated with messages and comments from people saying that they too had wanted to criticise the campaign but had felt that they were also alone. They didn’t want to go against the perceived wisdom of the crowd who seemed to be broadly supportive of the campaign. Jade Craven illustrated this behaviour to me in a tweet.

@Kimota I saw how the social media elite were rallying towards a cause. I didn’t want them rallying against me ‘coz they ‘knew best’.

All of these voices that were too intimidated to go against the pack suddenly felt able to speak up. What this created was a counter-movement. After the first couple of people commented on the post and retweeted it out, more and more people joined the counter-movement until it grew way bigger than I ever expected.

So I was surprised to then receive another comment telling me that some people who were in favour of the campaign now felt intimidated against expressing their support because of the backlash following my post. This was exactly the opposite of my intention as I wanted both sides to openly and freely debate. But it shows that the counter-movement had the same ability to influence an observer’s decision to join in or go against.

The peer pressure and group wisdom had been completely reversed.

I don’t want to recycle the RUOK discussion here. Save that for the original thread. But I find it interesting to observe how a movement and then a counter-movement both had the effect of making it feel less acceptable to voice a contrary opinion.

Proportional backlash

Just like Newton’s law, the scale of a counter-movement or backlash can probably be calculated in some kind of proportion to the initial strength of the movement. It might not be quite an ‘equal and opposite reaction’ but we see it all the time. The iPhone is a great example of a movement that has incredible momentum. But this momentum also amplifies the the potential counter-movement – as happened with the release of the iPhone 4 and the signal strength issues.

Steve Jobs was quite right to complain that the media and consumer backlash was far out of proportion to the nature of the issue – particularly in comparison to issues with competing smartphones. But the scale of the backlash was not related to other smartphones or the seriousness or otherwise of the fault. It was dictated solely by the scale of the initial iPhone movement itself.

Movement and counter-movement

The initial action or trigger that starts a counter-movement empowers those who felt less able to criticise before – those who had been primed against the original movement. It does this by giving them an issue to focus on as a rallying point and a sense of validation in speaking up. The bigger the original movement, the greater the number of people who become exposed and may become primed through various means for a counter-movement.

People are waiting to say their piece. They’re often waiting for the ‘permission’ or endorsement or the opportunity to do what they already want to do. Once the first person starts dancing, or the first blog post starts to criticise, or the first mention of an iPhone signal issue is made, observers suddenly feel able to admit that they agree or that hey, they too want to dance like an idiot in a field.

So many movements are just waiting to happen if the right trigger can be found. The same can be sad of the counter-movement as well. We see it all too often when a celebrity suddenly goes from cool to despised or a product goes from hyped to ridiculed.

The trigger is immaterial – if enough people are primed, it’s just a matter of time.