Remember when you were a kid and you asked your dad to stay out late and he’d say no way? Then you’d say, “But everyone else is doing it.” And he’d say, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” You probably said no, but in your smart ass little mind you were thinking,”Yeah, I would.” Now that you’re older you’re still jumping off a bridge because everyone else is doing it. You’re hard wired for it. It’s called “social proof.”
It’s incredible just how much of your life is governed by the wisdom or madness of crowds. You probably don’t realize how much. It’s built in, primordial behavior and most people don’t examine their hard-wired behavior. Ever notice that when you have only a few Twitter followers nobody else wants to follow you? Then you somehow get past a certain number and a whole bunch of people suddenly follow you all at once? Social proof. You like Rotten Tomatoes? Maybe you never go to a movie anymore without checking that at least 70-80% of the reviewers on RT like it now? Social proof. How often do you go to a restaurant with less than 4 stars on Yelp anymore? Probably never, unless it’s McDonald’s and you already know you’re getting crap. Social proof.
Tech Crunch is running a great article on how social proof is the new marketing. If you don’t have a lot of people who like your product, then you can’t sell it anymore. How often do you buy anything on Amazon or New Egg unless it’s already got fantastic reviews? Probably never. It’s become so critical in today’s world that entire industries are spawning because of it. Slashdot just ran a story about companies out of China that hire thousands of people to create dozens of profiles all over the web and swamp new products with positive reviews. It’s so important that people need to game the system or go out of business.
I know the concept of social proof very well from my days in the pickup community. Maybe you’ve thought your whole life that if you’re with a woman, then your chances of meeting other women are nada? But you’d be wrong. In fact, women unconsciously look around the bar for men who already have women with them. The better looking the woman is, the better off the guy is, because women also unconsciously compare their looks to hers, even if they call a hot blonde in a short mini-skirt a bitch and a tramp to their friends. When women see guys with women laughing and having a great time, they don’t have to do any work. In the back of their minds they’re already sure that he’s a catch. The other girls have pre-qualified him.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to women. The wisdom applies to everyone, everywhere. Remember during the 2008 election when one of McCain’s advisers took a ton of shit because he said we’re all just in a “mental recession?” Talk of recession can create a self-fulfilling prophesy. Of course, real economic factors are at play but economics are just the study of supply and demand, aka human behavior or the behavior of crowds in relation to resources. In the past, economics studied scarcity. We ran low on a resource and prices jumped. We had too much of something and they fell. Today true shortages are rare. The shortage of harddrives from Thailand flooding looks real. But so many other shortages are just invented, virtual or in our heads. Diamonds are not rare or valuable, but we think they are, so they are. Oil is not in short supply. Maybe in a hundred years it will be, but not right now. Still you pay $4 bucks at the pump. Perception is reality.
Let’s get back to social proof here. What’s the most powerful feature on Twitter? Retweeting. Ever wonder why it seems like your favorite celebrity is just retweeting or replying to others all the time? They do it because in many ways, that’s their job. They may only know it unconsciously, but their job is being popular and acting as a megaphone about what everyone else should love or hate. By having 250,000 or a million followers, they have the social proof to act as a gatekeeper to what the world sees. They shape images by the mere fact that millions already want to know what they have to say.
@tinybuddha is one of the best examples of social proof on the web. Its’ founder, Lori Deschne, parlayed little Haiku for the modern age into a book deal and a whole new career. What was the source of her popularity, besides her insightful mini-satoris? Retweets. So many people followed her and retweeted her that it turned into a waterfall of new followers. The bell curve is exponential. Just look at her ratio. She has 250,00+ followers and guess how many people she follows? Nobody. Zero. Ziltch. Anyone who looks at that site will compulsively click follow, because in the back of their minds they think “if that many people follow her and she doesn’t follow anybody, then she must have something important to say.” She may or may not have anything interesting to say (FYI: I think she does), but it’s largely irrelevant, because much of her popularity is self-sustaining. It’s a chicken or the egg problem. You need followers to get more followers, but you can’t get followers without already having them.
I’ll leave you with a little story of just how powerfully social proof can affect your mind. Last night, I decided to go out for dinner in Chicago. I looked up some of the most popular restaurants, which is social proof already. I found one called the Girl and the Goat. I got there at 8:45 and the wait for the bar was more than 45 minutes. I stood there for 10 minutes before finally leaving, but other people were content to wait there all night, just because everyone else was waiting. I decided to try another place. I checked Yelp and found a place called Cafe Ciao. It had 45 reviews at four stars, but when I got there, nobody was in the place. It was empty. Despite the fact that 45 people had already called the place delicious, it took every ounce of mental discipline not to walk away from the little Italian joint just because it was empty. The thing is, I’m conscious of social proof and it still effects me. How bad do you think it affects you, if you’re not aware of it at all?