Social Proof or Mob Rule?

Reading Time: 5 minutes


When I first saw Twitter in 2008 at the Web 2.0 show, I didn’t get it.  I still don’t.  And apparently I am not alone.  A recent Yahoo Research Study showed that .05% of Twitter users generate over half of all Tweets.  I’m talking about you Justin Bieber.  (#winning.) Being in the social media marketing space, I have to think of how to leverage all the social media channels, every mention of Twitter makes my head hurt.  After years of suffering I think I might have found some relief.

Enter the Color iPhone app.  No, it doesn’t provide any relief.  What it does is give me some insight on why I can’t understand the appeal of Twitter.  Here goes.

I’ve been using Color for the last few weeks.  I take pictures that the people who are in my immediate vicinity can see and comment on.  And vice-versa. Cool.  Why do I need that?  I don’t know. The pictures in my local Color group are of SOMA traffic intersections, grubby 20 something hipsters perched around a conference table, computer screens and coffee mugs.  Meh.

Maybe I’m missing something.  My underwhelming experience with color got me thinking about the other kind of social-mobile-location-based-sharing apps. With a little bit of breathing room today, I decided I would check them out too.  I installed Yobongo, (a neighbor here at Pier 38), Groupme, Beluga, and Instagram.   Yobongo – like an AOL chat room except of geeky 20 somethings instead of 13-year-old girls and 50 men masquerading as 13-year-old girls.  On Yobongo, I have a total of 2 girls who are discussing a gross-out Japanese game show.   I work in an office with 40 companies all in the Web 2.0 tech space and that’s the total action going on.  Groupme – can’t tell you, it wants a phone number, but the iPhone I am using is doesn’t have cell service, only Wi-Fi, so can’t use it.  Beluga – I don’t have a bunch of people I want to text at the same time.  Instagram – I’m kind of stuck with taking pictures of my desktop, or the window, or the coffee machine. I can’t see how I am going to use these things.

I’m probably harsher than I ought to be because I don’t like crowds. I become uncomfortable whenever I am in the midst of more than 200-300 people.  Going to the opera is a strain for me.   And the real value of apps like these three is that they allow people to share their impressions of shared experience at events that are spread out and have many facets.  At Coachella or SXSW, these kinds of apps would have an immediate application.  Where you have lots of very specific discreet experiences.  There may be 10 must see presentations or performances going on simultaneously.  Since individual participants can’t be all places at once, sharing media to communicate impressions of the fragmented experience is of immediate and significant value.  I avoid events like that.  The ones I do go to don’t lend themselves to the application of technology.

For example, I am a fair-weather baseball fan.  I’ll admit it.  My fandom for the Giants began last year when they spanked the Braves.   But I did go to some ball games. A Giants game may have 26,000 people at it, but I don’t need any technology of an iPhone app to mediate that experience.  I can hear the roar of the crowd. It’s clear what the general and the immediate experience is.  The crowd roars or boos or heckles depending on the action.  If I want a more substantive conversation, I can consult with the fans immediately around me.

One place where I think this kind of functionality could play a big role is at Burningman.  At Burningman, there are not dozens but hundreds of very high engagement experiences going on simultaneously.  No one can see them all or even be aware that they are happening.  Every year my friends’ photos from the event show art and spectacles that I had not even an inkling of.  It is just too massive to take it all in.

Which is a long way around to my thesis, which is: The events at which these kinds of apps gain their loudest buzz may be the only place where they provide any value.  Twitter, Yobongo and Groupme shine at SXSW, because this event has the precise conditions where the app can deliver value.  Take it out of its native habitat and you get streams of pictures of coffee mugs.

If I’m right about this then there should be significant doubts about the viability of the use case for these apps.  An application, which is only useful 2, or 3 times a year when the user is at a large eclectic event is maybe too much solution for the problem.  At the same time, the applications Color, Yobongo etc. all require a abdication of the principle of privacy and relevance that operate in the regular world.  Showing you pictures to everyone, broadcasting your texts to anyone in the vicinity flys in the face of what we consider normal discourse here in the real world.  I propose that this might be a manifestation of a cyber “mob mentality”.  That is the phenomenon whereby people cast off their inhibitions and relax their moral principles in the context of a large crowd.  Perhaps this is why these apps don’t make much sense to me in my everyday life.

Contrast color to Pixamid, which instead of broadcasting picture to the most proximate users, focuses on delivering a timeline of your images to your friends on whatever photo service or social network they use.  Finding ubiquity in social networks and providing the tools to reach your friends on the channels that they prefer to communicate seems to me to be a more useful enabling technology than the unfettered broadcast to ad hoc communities that is the feature of Color.

Here at Bizily, we are in the introductions space. In this space, the same principle applies.  On the mob mentality end of the spectrum, are companies like Hashable. Hashable provides a way for you to broadcast your meetings using Twitter. Hash tags characterize the meeting and the application keeps a record of your tweets about your encounters.  Users can keep track of with whom they are meeting and let their friends know.   There is also an introduction feature where you can hook up two people that you think should know each other.  Although you don’t necessarily broadcast to the world, Hashable is like Color in that privacy or relevance are not considerations of the tweets and posts you create from these encounters.  And Hashable is designed for the real world without the benefit of a mega-festival milieu to justify the loss of privacy or the mob mentality effect to compel it.  For real life everyday use outside the unique conditions of the mega event, an approach to introductions that follows Pixamid’s angle is perhaps better. Make it easy to reach out to friends using all the networks, channels or devices that they prefer.  Users are on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Email.  They may be in your address book or your phone.  Facilitating easy introductions is more dependent on bringing all these profiles and contact information together than it is on the complete abdication of social norms about privacy and relevance.  That’s kind of where we are going at Bizily.