I’ll link to whoever he’s linking to
Since 95 percent of people are imitators and only five percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.
It’s amazing to me that in all the argy-bargy about men’s alleged reluctance to link to women bloggers and the connected issue of the WizBang award for Best Female Authored Blog no-one has ever mentioned Robert Cialdini’s concept of Social Proof.
I accept that male bloggers are less likely to link to female bloggers: whatever the topic being debated, technology-related or not. But I referred to “men’s alleged reluctance to link to women bloggers” because running through the entire discussion is the unstated assumption that, even though men might not be actively colluding to ignore women, the situation could be turned around if they were made aware of their “unfair” (albeit unconscious) behavior. Yet it is abundantly clear (to me, anyway) that linking practices have far less to do with gender than with deeply ingrained human behavior.
In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, identifies six principles of persuasion—reciprocity, commitment/consistency, social proof, liking, authority, scarcity—discussed by Cialdini in this interview and explained here in the context of cult recruitment.
Reciprocity: When we receive an unsolicited gift, we feel an obligation to give something in return.
Commitment and Consistency: Once we make a commitment, there is a natural tendency to “behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent” with our earlier decision, even if that decision turns out to be mistaken.
Social Proof: In a given situation, our view of whether a particular behavior is correct or not is directly proportional to the number of other people we see performing that behaviour.
Liking: We prefer to say yes to people we know and like—especially people who are physically attractive, who are similar to us, who praise us (subtly), whom we encounter regularly, and who are associated with individuals or events we admire.
Authority: Since we have been socialized to obey legitimate authorities, we tend to also obey individuals whom we perceive to possess “high levels of knowledge, wisdom, and power”.
Scarcity: We assign greater value to opportunities when they become less available and frequently assume that scarcity is an indicator of quality.
One only needs to have had a weblog for about five minutes to see the relevance to blogging of Cialdini’s ideas about how we are persuaded and how we reach decisions—particularly concerning whom one links to or adds to one’s blogroll. If you’re honest, you’ll recognize that at least some of Cialdini’s principles have determined your linking/blogrolling preferences:
- Reciprocity (If I put you on my blogroll, you’ll feel obliged to put me on yours.)
- Commitment/Consistency (Now that you’re on my blogroll I’m unlikely to remove you.)
- Social Proof (If all those other people have X on their blogrolls, then he definitely should be on my blogroll.)
- Liking (The people I link to and have on my blogroll are similar to me, have praised me, are associated with events or projects I’d like to be a part of… at the very least, since I’m never going to reach the A-list, I can bask in the A-lister’s reflected glory.)
- Authority (Anyone on the Technorati Top 100 must automatically be knowledgeable, wise, and powerful.)
- Scarcity (Since the A-list has so few members relative to the total blogging population, what A-listers write must necessarily be of high quality. Similarly, a link from an A-lister is enormously valuable—regardless of the quality of the item at the end of that link.)
Although each of these factors probably has some influence, I suggest that Social Proof is far and away the most important factor in the “female bloggers don’t get their fair share of links and therefore need their own blogging award” fracas.
Remember what Cavett Roberts (the founding president of the National Speakers Association) said: “Since 95 percent of people are imitators and only five percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.”
Social Proof ensures that those who either lack the time to thoughtfully investigate the alternatives or lack the capacity to think for themselves can make decisions quickly, easily, and—above all—correctly since, as Cialdini points out: “The greater the number of people who find an idea correct, the more the idea will be correct.”
One could hardly be surprised that decisions based on Social Proof will result in something like Clay Shirkey’s Power Law Distribution:
To see how freedom of choice could create such unequal distributions, consider a hypothetical population of a thousand people, each picking their 10 favorite blogs. One way to model such a system is simply to assume that each person has an equal chance of liking each blog. This distribution would be basically flat - most blogs will have the same number of people listing it as a favorite. A few blogs will be more popular than average and a few less, of course, but that will be statistical noise. The bulk of the blogs will be of average popularity, and the highs and lows will not be too far different from this average. In this model, neither the quality of the writing nor other people’s choices have any effect; there are no shared tastes, no preferred genres, no effects from marketing or recommendations from friends.
But people’s choices do affect one another. If we assume that any blog chosen by one user is more likely, by even a fractional amount, to be chosen by another user, the system changes dramatically. Alice, the first user, chooses her blogs unaffected by anyone else, but Bob has a slightly higher chance of liking Alice’s blogs than the others. When Bob is done, any blog that both he and Alice like has a higher chance of being picked by Carmen, and so on, with a small number of blogs becoming increasingly likely to be chosen in the future because they were chosen in the past.
Think of this positive feedback as a preference premium. The system assumes that later users come into an environment shaped by earlier users; the thousand-and-first user will not be selecting blogs at random, but will rather be affected, even if unconsciously, by the preference premiums built up in the system previously.
Although he doesn’t mention Robert Cialdini in his Power Law essay, Shirky is describing a perfect example of Social Proof in action. Cialdini elaborates:
First, we seem to assume that if a lot of people are doing the same thing, they must know something we don’t. Especially when we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd. Second, quite frequently the crowd is mistaken because they are not acting on the basis of any superior information but are reacting, themselves, to the principle of social proof.
This neatly describes what occurs when a new blogger arrives on the scene wondering who to put on his or her blogroll or, alternatively, a more experienced blogger needs to quickly publish a post or two. In either case, the easiest course of action is to place one’s trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd. In other words, “I’ll link to whoever he’s linking to.”
So when Burningbird wrote:
To be honest, if the Wizbang awards person had taken the nominations, went out to Technorati and found the least linked of them and put only them into the award lists, I would have promoted the hell out of it. I wouldn’t have been on that list, but I still would have promoted the hell out of it.
she was expecting the Wizbang awards person—and many of those who took part in the nominations—to do something that is almost totally counter-intuitive. Unless you’re among the five percent initiators, like Burningbird.
In the same post, titled Blogger Strike, Burningbird listed her reasons for focusing on this issue:
I do have a fairly good rating in Technorati, and people must wonder why I write so much on this — what do I have to bitch about: the A-Lists, the hunt for links, and women’s writing. I have people coming by, writing comments, linking to me, and I’m a woman. What do I have to complain about?
True. All true. That’s why I felt more obligated to write what I do, because I remember all too well coming close to quitting two years ago this Christmas, when I was alone in San Francisco and felt even more alone online because no one was around, or commented, or seemed to see me.
I’ve never forgotten this and hoped to make a difference, but I’m fighting against human nature. I wasn’t helping, and once you get to the point of having to explain your motivation, you’ve already lost the battle.
Interesting that Burningbird sees it in terms of “fighting against human nature”, since it is possible to frame my argument about the influence of Social Proof in a way that suggests there’s little point in attempting to argue with the numbers, given that they are a direct reflection of “human nature”. Yet Cialdini’s insights can be employed in the service of diametrically opposed aims: to manipulate others so that their behavior conforms to our wishes or to defend ourselves against such manipulation.
It’s instructive that one A-list blogger has analyzed link dynamics from an engineer’s perspective and figured out—as far as it is possible for an individual to do so—a way to subvert the effects of Social Proof. Steven Den Beste has a long-standing, carefully-articulated policy of replacing the names on his USS Clueless sidebar every four months or so. He wrote about it at length in an earlier post ( Inverse Network Effect) and a few days ago when he turned over the list again (Best Original Content). But this paragraph, from a post written last July (Rototilling the Sidebar) neatly summarizes his policy:
The basic idea is to try to give several months of concentrated exposure to a small number of blogs which I think deserve far more attention than they get. With any luck, during that time they’ll build up a large enough regular readership that their traffic can continue to grow on its own thereafter. So periodically I replace the list with another group to try to do the same for them.
Why do I do this? Mostly because it’s what I wish someone had done for me, back when I first started out.
It’s entirely in character that, in a post referring to his 2003 Warblogger Award for Best Original Content, Den Beste wrote at length about why another blogger, who didn’t even rate a place in the category, deserved the award more.
As important as it is to draw our attention to “injustice”, as Burningbird has done, it’s far more useful to transform theory into practice, as Steven Den Beste has done. Given the differential value of links, I doubt that—without the support of a majority of A-listers—it would be possible to cause even a crack in the citadel based upon Social Proof and the Power Law Distribution.
And I’m sufficiently pessimistic about “human nature” to doubt that this could result in such a radical transformation of the A-list that the current members will find themselves back in line outside the club whilst some of the formerly tired and huddled masses suddenly find themselves whooping it up in the VIP lounge. But who knows? If enough of us followed Den Beste’s example, it might prompt a shift in the way people think about blogrolls and links.
Nor do I think there’s anything to be gained by attacking awards, no matter how predictable or ill-considered the basis upon which they are bestowed. Better to do what Burningbird, after reflecting on the problem, suggested:
Disregard my earlier rants about the Wizbang awards. Instead, go out there and look at the lists. From each, find the sites with the fewest links in Technorati, visit them. For those you like, leave a comment or two, and then vote for them.
Notice that following Burningbird’s suggestion will require time and effort—and it’s exactly our reluctance to thoughtfully consider the alternatives and think for ourselves that Social Proof depends on and therefore that created the current situation. (You might also want to be careful—in choosing the weblogs “you like”—to recall Cialdini’s principle of Liking and resist the temptation to select those who are similar to you, have praised you, or are associated with events or projects you’d like to be a part of.)
Even so, I am convinced that, although it is unlikely to overcome the hegemony of the Power Law, the widespread adoption of Steven Den Beste’s rotating blogroll idea would have a greater impact than any weblog award by creating a healthier array of niche communities and, simultaneously, providing a kind of principled resistance to the tyranny of Social Proof.
Perhaps bloggers would start to believe that if enough people (us) are doing the same thing (basing blogrolls and links on the quality and originality of the ideas and writing) then we must know something they don’t (that excellence rather than reputation deserves to be celebrated).