Don't read this article if you think it's about me. You
can find more about me here instead. For the rest of you, I want to talk about the herd mentality that I saw, and exploited, on slashdot. It's not limited to that site though.
This is an old problem, and one that I don't have a
solution for. The problem is that a lot of people,
even intelligent people, can be suckered by a
persuasive person to temporarily turn off their
critical thinking skills and become emotional about things.
Car salesmen, politicians, and managers all do this
to some extent. The good ones are amazingly successful.
Look at Steve Jobs, for example. The company he is charged
with is dwelling in relative obscurity, limited to 5% of
the market, and the company is laughed at by the industry.
Everyone wonders why Apple isn't dead yet.
I'll tell you why -- because Steve Jobs is a damn good
speaker. Go watch one of his videos sometime. He is
spectacularily good at getting the crowd excited. I have
to admit, when he was introducing MacOS X, (as a sidenote -- I could view the whole video, the audio got desynced halfway through, but I'm pretty sure it's the right one) and he
said ".. but we don't have a classroom full of macintoshes
to test this, now do we?" I had to wonder out loud
what the hell he was doing. 3 seconds later a huge rack
20 feet tall came out of the wall. There it was, 50
iMacs all rendering off that one machine. That was
very impressive. Microsoft could only wish they had
a hype department that good.
People are a lot like sheep. You give them a leader,
and they will follow. The vast majority of people
are subservient to authority. Witness the Stanford
Prison Experiment, which so vividly described this.
These people were made aware when they started they
could walk away.. yet these students -- well-educated
college students from one of the best colleges in
the country.. choose to live in squalor, be isolated.
Ultimately, one of them had a nervous breakdown.
And they knew going in this wasn't real!
It's the same thing with persuasive writing, although
far less severe -- if you sound good, people think
you are good. If you act like a leader, you'll become
a leader. We're taught in schools to have blind obedience.
Don't talk back, don't think, just shut up, do your work,
and we won't bother you.
This is the reason why group-think is so popular.
Many geeks have a shared heritage -- we tried to resist
more strongly than other people. Our school experiences
were pure hell -- the holocaust of the geek movement.
We didn't want to be part of the group-think and herd
mentality that everyone else had.. and they attacked
us for it. Viciously.
There are strong social incentives to "go with the
flow". This is why people who represent and set the tone
for what that flow is aquire so many blind followers.
People want to be recognized. They can do that by
emulating the behaviors of people who are. It's
another vicious circle. In order to be popular, you
have to espouse popular ideas. A simple equation,
but one we often forget about.
So this brings us back to moderation. How do you
promote critical thinking and discourse in large
groups? I don't know. I do know that you can become
very popular very quickly by going with the flow
and ardently guarding the prevailing contemporary
opinions. You can even call yourself controversial
if you step outside the bounds once or twice.
This is the problem behind moderation systems --
in any large group, the majority rules. It's
hardwired into us. Discourse, of course, will
be eliminated, leading to a very homogenious
set of opinions -- they won't vary much.
Popularity, it seems, does not mix well with
diversely opinionated people.