There are many benefits to participating in online social networks. The ability to build a large network without geographical constraints gives access to support, insight, feedback and promotion opportunities in an immediate, easy and powerful fashion. There seems to be no downside apart from the time needed to engage with your online tribe, but there is an interesting problem lurking within the groups we create.
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, director of the Information + Innovation Policy Research Center at the National University of Singapore, has put forward the idea that our online networks may be harming our capacity for innovation. He may well have a strong point that needs consideration for anyone getting deeply involved in online networking.
In an article in the journal Science Mayer-Schönberger examines the impact of extended online networking on software engineers and concludes that this is, in part, responsible for the incremental pace of innovation in the open-source community. Innovation still happens but the curse of groupthink keeps the pace of change slow.
I think that the problem stems from the nature of the networks we build. There is little persistent dissent in most social networks. If you don’t get on with someone you can unfollow or block them either explicitly or by creating a mental filter, “that’s just Maggie mouthing off again”. It is easy to create an environment that feels very positive and affirming but this creates a strong averaging force that pulls us towards conformity. Innovation often comes from the resolution of thesis and antithesis, but if our network provides only thesis and affirmation there is no need to stretch ourselves and find the innovative solution that may be just around the bend.
For group wisdom to have a beneficial effect we need diversity of opinion. Online networks can apear diverse but there are usually threads linking the network. My networks include a lot of people working in webdesign as part of influential small companies. They come from all over the world and have many differences but there is a kernel of common ground that can be powerful. You wouldn’t find many advocates for the wonders of Internet Explorer 6, everyone has an understanding of the importance of semantic markup and coffee heals all ills (or at least used to and is missed).
Independence of opinion is also important in crowd wisdom. The diversity of opinion needs to be capable of withstanding opposition to get through. This is rare in online communities. It is much easier to say nothing than to disagree. This avoids being unfollowed for disrupting the harmonious state of the group. Online networks are much more fragile as there is little depth of relationship to fall back on. The pull to score ourselves based on followers is powerful too, rocking the boat could have negative consequences so on the whole we don’t do it. In offline communities dissent can be difficult too but it is easier to tackle communicating in person and if the contact is one to one rather than one to many saying nothing is not such an easy option.
The persistence of our contact with our online groups retards the ability for diverging opinions to develop. With periodic notifications of group activity through applications, browser feeds and smartphones our online groups are never far away. This denies us the mental space to nurture dissent. Our online networks often overlap too, many people are friends on several services, so spending time in FriendFeed as opposed to Twitter gives little difference in experience.
It is through homogeneity that Metcalfe’s law (the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of members) becomes subverted. We can have a network of hundreds or thousands of members but if the number of discernable points of view is less than the number of network members the utility of the network will be less than Metcalfe’s law would predict.
Online networks have great value but their effects on how we work and think will only become apparent over time. Innovation is a rare thing and probably not a useful aim much of the time. There is great value in sticking to the predominant view and executing brilliantly but if innovation is your aim it is useful to be aware of the influence your online networks may have on you.