If you want the tl;dr response, stop here: social media is a pretty effective mechanism for peer pressure. If you disagree, please consider how many temporary profile pictures have been updated on Facebook to red, white, and blue in the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris (including perhaps your own). We know that online peer pressure is powerful. But what we don't know is whether that pressure is driving real change. 

Sharing your opinions and thoughts online is as simple as clicking a button. But you might want to hold off on clicking that button if your opinion or thinking differs from the at-the-moment sentiment sweeping through your social network. To do otherwise, might bring the ire of your connections, and with it ostracism from the group. While it has never been easier to share online, it's also never been harder to share things that differ from public sentiment or to not offer an opinion in the wake of emotionally charged events. Peer pressure, which was once categorically regarded as a negative driver of drugs and deviant behavior, has morphed to a broader expression of social pressure in online spaces and is more aligned with maintaining group norms.

Why is this an issue? There is a difference between norms that arise as a result of social consideration and norms that are driven by social momentum. The former are designed to improve a group's cohesiveness by establishing degrees of sameness through agreement; they can be challenged and debated, and there is room for them to change to meet the needs of the widest possible group set. The latter, however, are driven by emotional responses. They become established quickly and decisively, spreading like wildfire, and bear a violence toward those who disagree. This has rightly been described as mob mentality because there is little discussion or debate; and while some people are relieved to have their beliefs finally expressed publicly, others follow because they are swept along by the expressions of the group or because they are afraid to stand apart from the group. In the online world, this has recently been helpful in highlighting cases of harassment but caution is warranted. There is a speed-to-action online that is troubling in that in quickly establishes a stigma tied to behavior or thinking that differs and forces people to act in less than meaningful ways.

In recent years, both of these circumstances have played out on Facebook. In 2012, Facebook allowed users to indicate their organ donor status. Later that year, Facebook asked users to pledge to vote in the presidential election. Both actions were marked by a sharable status that a user could use to broadcast action/intent to his or her network. The organ donor initiative was meant to help reduce the misconceptions that plague the donor community and prevent donor sign-ups. It drew criticism because it highlighted a personal choice as something a person could not be judged on, calling out a status that may differ between people and matter more than if you both liked the television show Friends. Similarly, "I Voted" was meant to mobilize people based on peer pressure. The idea being that if the majority of your friends had voted, you might want to as well. While most people will agree that becoming an organ donor or casting a vote is not a bad thing, the pressure to indicate that you're in sync with your community might result in a false reporting of your status. There was no means of verifying that you were an organ donor or that you voted. What mattered, however, was the show of solidarity, which was driven by emotional wave of activism and change, respectively.

Behaviors and thoughts spread much in the same way that viruses do: they're most powerful, and contagious, when passed between people who have close contact with each other. Within social networks--both online and offline--there is evidence to suggest that in groups where there is a great deal of overlap between members in terms of shared connections and interests, there are higher rates of adoption of behaviors and thinking because members are receiving reinforced signals about certain patterns. In these types of clustered networks, behavior and thought exist as complex contagions, requiring multiple points of contact before "infection" is established. 

Researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler gave us a good example of the power of clustered networks by tracing obesity, smoking cessation, and happiness through the Framingham network. This network was revealed following a medical study that collected information on personal contacts, which allowed the participants' social networks to be mapped years later, and for researchers to trace the spread of certain behaviors. Christakis and Fowler found that:

  • If a person became obese, the likelihood his friend would also become obese was 171%.
  • When smokers quit, their friends are 36% more likely to also quit. (Although this effect diminishes as the separation between contacts grow, and loses its efficacy at four degrees of separation.)
  • Happy friends increased the likelihood of an individual being happy by 8%.

The Framingham data illustrated a potential impact of the connections within a network. Our networks help us establish a sense of what's acceptable--right down to expanding waistlines. The more social reinforcement we receive that certain actions are appropriate, the more likely we are to adopt those actions ourselves.

The catch here is that the Framingham data represents an offline dataset. So in the case of the smokers who quit and influenced their friends to follow, this happened without a temporary profile picture or an "I quit smoking" Facebook status. This behavior played out offline where it was vetted and assessed before it was adopted. That kind of critical thinking is often missing from the online pressure to conform. What does it mean if your profile picture was not updated? Maybe you're not active on Facebook often, in which case, you'd probably get a pass. But if you are active, does it mean you condone the attacks? What do we really accomplish with these kinds of acts of solidarity? Ultimately, it sends a message about who we are as people; it serves to distinguish us from an other--it says we aren't like them, we aren't bad people. But does it stop there?

Beyond our responses to acts of terrorism, we are establishing new data points upon which we can be judged. In the Framingham study, smokers mingled freely with nonsmokers in 1971 and they were distributed evenly throughout the network. However, by 2001 as groups of smokers quit, those who persisted were socially isolated. What if we required people to list their status as smokers or non-smokers--how would our networks shift as a result of this information? The temporary profile picture is a great way to get people to initially think about what is happening around them. But what does it mean beyond that? How does it drive change in a meaningful way? Right now, it may be a conversation point, but it may also provide an easy way out of having to take action in the real world. There are presently voices online highlighting ways that people can help--but will people feel that need to once they've updated their profile picture?

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