Does Social Media Cause Groupthink?

I used to consider “groupthink” mostly as the enemy of new ideas. You know, where members of the team are more motivated to agree with one another and get along than to question the status quo or break new ground. Then there’s the too-homogeneous mindset that can result from an entrenched corporate culture. Tech blogger Steve Tobak wrote a great post about the potential perils of a “monoculture” in “When Groupthink Trumps Smarthink.”

But, lately I worry about a different kind of bandwagoning. One related to our increasingly selective and inch-deep consumption of media, and fostered by like-minded online friends and fans. It’s why I began to switch from my favorite news channels when following the midterm elections. (I knew what those who agreed with me thought; I wanted to find out what the other side was thinking.) It’s the reason I’ve resolved to question some of my assumptions about PR, ethics, and social media as 2011 looms. (Hence, the “boiling frog” analogy in a previous post.) And, it was my motivation for engaging a Tea Party member on the topic of healthcare reform at a recent business reception.

Okay, that last one was a bad idea, as it turned out. But I think the risk is there. When the Web first exploded, it seemed like the perfect antidote to any kind of homogeneity of thought or ideas – after all, there’s nothing you can’t find online. But, you do have to find it first. Today, the content we consume, and the social networks that we find it in, are increasingly curated, recycled, and aggregated. Newsfeeds, LinkedIn discussion groups, Twitter circles, Facebook clubs – it can contribute to a cloistered media diet and narrow point of view.

So, how to fight against the subtle pressure to think like the crowd?

Branch out. Try to read one blog post or column each day from a site or group you don’t agree with. I can’t bring myself to become fans or subscribers of these groups, but I think it’s enough to read and subscribe to different types of blogs and feeds, particularly around a hot-button political, social, or industry issue.

Similarly,it helps to add a few fresh friends/followers every day. Sure, it’s great to be focused, and it’s essential for most bloggers, but list functions and tagging make it easy to wander beyond your professional turf without losing that focus.

Avoid the rockstars. Some of the most popular social media figures are truly original, or at least, they started out that way. But, up-and-coming bloggers and columnists are nearly always more interesting, and they try harder.

Be critical of what you like. And “like.” As Robert Pagliarini points out, we’re unguarded among those we trust, but we should hold the familiar to a higher standard when it comes to spewing opinions or speculating about reasons for things. And there’s no safer place to disagree than among friends and peers.

Look for original content. We get enough recycled news every day. Seek out those resources with original content, where the author’s professional interests and biases are obvious.

Play devil’s advocate. With your own assumptions, that is. It’s a useful exercise in which you nearly always learn something.

Solicit other opinions. Especially from those who are silent. I like to do this in business meetings, because the quiet ones often have interesting opinions.

Look for diversity, even within a topic. This is why I find it useful to read posts and byliners about PR from those who head up mega-agencies as well as solo practitioners. Everyone has something specific to add to the conversation, so looking up and down the food chain keeps my mind open.

Question authority. It sounds like teenage rebellion, but it’s relevant to all of us. And it certainly applies to what we read and retweet from self-anointed experts every day. Having common opinions and experiences is a comfortable basis for an online relationship, but the average blogger or commentator will appreciate an alternative point of view, if well expressed, even more. The social Web should be about discussion, after all.