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Idiots and Gossip (Plus Other Tales from the Sociometer)
on January 4, 2009
Idiots and gossip represent the biggest danger to idea markets and networked intelligence says MIT Media Lab Professor Alex Pentland in his findings, "Honest Signals." Of particular note is that in large groups behavioral dynamics can cause for less than stellar results via bad ideas introduced (idiots) and shared sources that repeat the same information over and over again (gossip). Anyone who has questioned the 2.0 echo chamber or wisdom of crowds can identify with these issues, yet Pentland demonstrates networked intelligence is superior to the individuals.
Honest Signals reveals findings from a new technology called the Sociometer that measure human behavior, including overwhelming proof that humans do not make rational, logical decisions, instead opting for a base networked form of primal signaling amongst ourselves. This empirical evidence proves collaborative use of body language and other signals are more important in communications and decision making than theories of messaging and big man management. Further the findings bulwark the collaborative trends we are seeing in the social web, which brings us back to idiots and gossip.
Anyone who has participated in Twitter or a highly engaged wiki environment can see this networked intelligence at work. And often the wisdom of the crowd can go astray in a bit of a frenzy or simply put, bad group-think. So the question becomes how to improve idea markets for better collaboration, performance and use, an activity the Media Lab, Intel and Hewlett-Packard are all actively trying to solve.
The idiot factor -- introduction of bad ideas -- can easily be weeded out by performance. Someone who cannot deliver good intellectual capital simply loses credibility (idiot image by Geoff Greene).
The gossip factor seems to be much tougher. While "me, too" may count as approval, the sociological problem lies in a variety of societal pressures (cliques, etc.) and subjective mental quirks. One idea spread across many is not many ideas, rather it's still only one alternative and its popularity may be temporal.
For those who lament the echo chamber, we have to be discerning in large distributed environments and community idea markets like the blogosphere and Twitter, respectively. It's important to source ideas and understand which ones come from independent sources and which ones are simply, "me, too" theories.
A couple of tips from Honest Thinking include 1) tight social groups rarely have multiple unique ideas and 2) make sure you use different sources of information than some other friends/acquaintances in the echo chamber. Number two is something I manage diligently in my Google Reader, quickly purging blogs which start miming other voices. You'd be surprised how many top bloggers actually present "unique" posts that in actuality seem to trailing other lesser known, more original thinkers.
Perhaps more relevant for the general communicator are the base sociometer findings, "that a great deal of human behavior is either automatic or determined by unconscious processes." Many, many people in sales and marketing subscribe (including me) to what can be called a emotional sentimentality to decision making. But there's never been a science to it, instead positioning, messaging theories, sales training or "positivity" memes.
Ever walk out of a meeting where you picked up on a piece of information conveyed to the group that was crucial for a decision, but that teammates missed? These "sales skills" or what others have even called voodoo actually demonstrate a sensitivity to the honest signals people are conveying, according to the sociometer's findings.
"If we think about expert poker players again, we see that they are good at recognizing what patterns of play are unfolding, as well as predicting how likely future draws of cards are favorable." - Alex Pentland.
These signals translate across one-on-one meetings, workgroups, and friend circles all the way to large enterprises. Consequentially, great decision making really represents an unconscious ability to digest and extrapolate the signals across diverse groups of people and situations. The "decision maker" is simply tapping the broader experience of the whole rather than sitting atop an ivory tower.
Honest signals also impact our use of communication toolsets and technologies. Pentland argues many of our tools have yet to be designed for the trues signaling we engage in as human beings, and that hopefully in the future, they will evolve to better harness our idea markets and networked intelligence.
This book is simply fascinating. I could (and may) blog quite a bit more on it. I highly suggest any business leader or communicator who wants bleeding edge intelligence read this book.