The Dangers of Herd Mentality in Online Publishing

Blogging can be a really weird hobby especially in the development space. Obviously, the majority of what I personally write is geared towards developers – at least on some level.

Some articles are straight up “How To’s” (such as get a post ID by its meta value) that are meant for anyone. Others are meant for people who may be experienced in software development, but not necessarily WordPress, and others are geared towards open conversation in which anyone that works as (or for!) a developer can have an opinion.

But there’s a problem with this: Whenever you – or I – opt to write an op-ed piece about why someone should avoid using a certain plugin or practice, or we share how certain things are Doing It Wrong rather than Doing It Right, or anything of like, we run the risk of cultivating an environment that fools us into thinking our perspective is of much more significance or is much more “correct” than it really is.

Herd Mentality and Facebook

Here’s one example that should resonate with many of us, because I think we’ve all seen this happen on Facebook:

  • John Doe shares his opinion on some political, religious, economic, or other controversial issue
  • John receives a number of ‘likes’ and comments that support his statement. At this point, it’s safe to assume a portion of his audience ignores it, or those who disagree remain silent.
  • This results in John receiving a reinforcement that the majority of people that he knows and interacts with support his view.

The problem is that on networks like Facebook, Twitter, and other online communities – including blogs – we’ve crafted an audience that generally share many of our own thoughts.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about this, either.

We rarely share our controversial opinions with people who we know will disagree. Instead, we share with those who we know will support us.

But I think this can breed herd mentality.

Herd Mentality and Blogging

The same thing happens on blogs because although we aren’t necessary creating our own following or friends list, we do attract people interested in our content or that share the same mindset.

In short:

  • We write an opinion-based on article
  • We tweet it out or those who subscribe to our blog (who are obviously interested in our content) read it
  • The audience then shares their opinion the majority of whom agree

And the same problem exists: We’re given the idea that our opinion is more or less correct because the majority of the people who have talked with us have agreed.

Sometimes, I think that this is a good thing; other times, I believe that we’re writing to an audience that we’ll never actually reach because they simply don’t follow our blogs. Thus, we’re left with the same people who share the majority of our opinions.

It’s as if we try to write these definitive posts on a topic only to have it go out to people with the same beliefs rather than those to whom it could truly educate.

Herd Mentality and WordPress

At this point, let’s consider WordPress. Go to any local meetup – especially one’s geared towards beginners and/or power users – and you’ll find that there are people who are starving for knowledge. Sure, some of their questions may be a bit simpler than what you’d expect, but that’s not a bad thing.

But my guess is that many of us would not chat with them in the same way that we share our opinions and thoughts on our blogs and on Twitter because it’d be deemed disrespectful.

So why do we do it online?

Regardless, I’d rather be the kind of blogger and/or developer who spends more time educating people (as well as learning from others) on why things should be done a certain way, what things should be avoided, how to achieve this, that, or the other, and do so all the while without coming off as being frustrated, snarky, or simply arrogant.

Unfortunately, I feel as if I see the opposite happen all too often. It’s a shame, because the people who are on the fringe of wanting to jump in can be intimidated by other people who are more experienced voicing their thoughts and opinions in such a way that keeps them at bay.

Migrate From The Herd

Finally, I’m not saying I’m exempt from this. This is something that I think everyone can do a better job at doing. The problem is figuring out how to do it. Honestly, I don’t know how to do it for anyone else.

What I do know is that I’m responsible for this particular area of the Internet so I can focus on making it as positive as I can, and everyone else can focus on their respective area.

I’d hate to lose out on a potentially good designer, developer, blogger, commenter, or someone who is eager to get into the space simply because those who are more experienced are contributing to herd mentality.

So as I aim to write how to’s, opinion pieces, and other articles, I want to make sure that I’m envisioning an audience that’s representative of both those who are curious and those who are experienced.

6 Replies to “The Dangers of Herd Mentality in Online Publishing”

  1. This is how “trends” are perpetuated and why I’ve always appreciated your steady and focused approach to WordPress. That’s what sets the trend setters from the trend followers. That being said, the herd isn’t always going the wrong direction.

    Bottom line: Educate yourself and form your own opinions.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Tom. This (web technology) is obviously not my space, but here is some food for thought from political science that may — or may not — be worth considering with respect to what you (someone else??) has termed “herd mentality.”

    There are two bodies of political science literature (at least, two that I am aware of) that speak directly to this. The first comes from international relations and looks at how we ended up in Vietnam and escaped nuclear disaster during the Cuban Missile Crises, to name two of the most famous examples. These studies consider the key decision maker (the president, if we consider the US example), and analyze the group of individuals that he or she surrounds him- or herself with in a crisis situation (cabinet, joint chiefs, etc. in the US case). Here we find a phenomenon that we term “groupthink” in which the key decision-maker has selected key advisers that agree with his or her positions, and frequently reinforce what he or she believes to be the correct course of action. Groupthink, as you have suggested, can be a significant challenge to overcome given that we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals.

    The second comes from political behavior and electoral studies, and looks at how the electorate comes to form opinions with respect to particular policies and candidates. More specifically, for your purposes, this body of literature consider how and, indeed if, the electorate updates its preferences. Unfortunately this literature has actually shown that in the face of counter information — facts that falsify the beliefs held by an individual or group of individuals — the preponderance of individuals will not update their beliefs, but rather become more strongly convinced of their prior beliefs. The best example of this is the so-called “birthers” movement: provided with Obama’s birth certificate, there were calls for a long-form birth certificate, and even some claimed that it was falsified. This body of literature, to some extent, counters what you have proposed — putting critical opinions (or, at least, against the current) out there. Frequently, putting critical opinions out will actually reinforce what others believe that is counter to what you have suggested. But there is an upshot. More recent literature has demonstrated that education-level conditions this effect. That is, the more highly-educated the recipient of said counter information, the more likely he or she is to update his or her opinion. The converse is also true. The upshot for you, at least, is that consumer of the type of information that you post on are likely to be highly educated, so given your subject matter and audience, going against the current with a well-reasoned argument may well help avoid a “herd effect.” Trying to educate your friend on the err of their ways after a political facebook post, however, will likely have the opposite of the intended effect.

    Professor signing out ;)

    1. I’m familiar with groupthink (it played a role in the Challenger tragedy as well). Though the example that I gave regarding, say, Facebook is more closely aligned with groupthink, herd mentality is something different and usually appears to occur in groups that aren’t necessarily appointed or formally organized.

      It’s one thing to choose who we associated with online, say on platforms like Facebook, but it’s another to follow a subculture of bloggers, authors, or whatever who are part of an industry – say development, design, videography, etc. – and then track what their audience says in the comments.

      Groupthink can prevent a person from speaking up even if they know they are right about a given situation. Herd Mentality – or Mob Mentality – can result in a person blindly following what they perceive to be a trend and want to be accepted by that group.

      Gotta say, though, I dig seeing my sister-in-law chime in on this :).

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