Tapping the Hive Mind: The Simplest Form of Feedback (Part I)
Posted by Rebecca Hardesty
Regardless of one’s political orientation, it is hard to deny that Barack Obama has dramatically changed what people think of political campaigns as well as the potential of virtual communities. Approximately 2 million core volunteers worked behind the scenes gathering data on potential voters, which influenced the topics and placement of advertisements, debates, fundraisers, and rallies. During both of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, these volunteers worked across the country, gathering and sharing information online on how to best convince people to vote for Obama. They engaged in grassroots fundraising both online and off and worked together remotely to encourage people to vote for their candidate. While the online network of volunteers may not be the sole factor that enabled Obama to win in both elections, it is a notable one that points to the power of Internet grassroots efforts.
Now that the elections are over, those involved with Obama’s campaign have created Organizing for Action in an effort to capitalize on the potential for online communities to develop and shape American politics and policy. According to this non-profit, its goal is to foster a progressive movement, which its supporters will dictate. This aim is much less straightforward than getting someone elected to office. The difficulty arises not in an inherent flaw in Obama’s Democrat constituents (indeed, Republicans would face the same challenges if they pursued a similar course of action), but in the shortcomings of online communication, both organizationally and socially. The question on which this article, and subsequent ones, will focus is, “How can virtual communities work together to discuss and create policy by using online communication without a unifying leader?”
Before attempting to answer this question, it is important to first identify ways in which people communicate online by looking at existing interfaces and mechanisms that provide organization. This article will look at the simplest ways in which people participate in online discussions and give feedback.
Although most online communication requires very little physical (or mental) effort, the ones that require the least amount are those that a person can accomplish through a single click. To give this type of communication a term, let us call it one-click feedback. So far, there are six kinds of one-click feedback.
1. Participatory. This is the type of one-click feedback with which people are most familiar thanks to Facebook. On Facebook, a person has several ways in which he or she can engage in participatory one-click feedback. If a user updates his or her Facebook status or uploads a photo, other people, as well as the user, have the option to click the “Like” button and indicate that they “like” the status or photo. Users also are able to like companies, products, and people by “liking” appropriate pages. This type of “liking” provides users with whatever announcements the administrators of those pages make.
The strange thing about “liking” something, whether on Facebook or another site that uses a similar feedback feature, is that users do not communicate anything substantive or definitive by clicking the “like” button. The fact that there is no “dislike” button or alternative, makes the meaning of “liking” something inherently ambiguous. The ambiguity is twofold.
First, since there is no option to dislike something with this type of feedback, the number of likes a given thing has might not adequately reflect whether something is generally liked. For example, Josef Stalin is widely considered one of the most despised people in human history; however, Facebook has numerous serious pages dedicated to him, some of which have thousands of “likes.” If there were a dislike button, these pages would probably receive significantly more “dislikes” than “likes.” This would appropriately reflect the world’s general opinion on him.
Second, because there is no ability to modulate the amount which one “likes” something, it is impossible to accurately reflect the depth of one’s “liking” of a page, status, or photo. This leads to strange situations such as over 1 million people “liking” pancakes and only approximately ten thousand people “liking” civil rights. To someone who has never encountered this type of one-click feedback, it might appear that people who use the Internet value a certain breakfast food more than basic human rights. An informed Internet user would recognize this inherent shortcoming of participatory one-click feedback and infer that people feel more strongly about the latter. However, for someone hoping to use “liking” as a way to gauge public interest and favor regarding certain issues or people, they would be unable to use this as an accurate measurement.
The reason that this type of one-click feedback is “participatory” in nature is that, due to the limitations of this form of communication, a user engaging in this form of feedback is not expressing something obviously identifiable. For instance, if a person viewed a stranger’s Facebook feed and saw other strangers “liking” statuses, pages, and photos, he or she could not say whether users were “liking” them out of genuine interest or approval, out of a desire for attention or to appear a certain way, or out of a sense of irony. Therefore, because of the ambiguous nature of this form of one-click feedback, the only thing one can conclude with certainty when seeing other engaging in it is that they are participating in some online communication.
2. Binary. Many websites use a binary form of one-click-feedback, i.e. a user is able to pick between two feedback choices, because it is more reflective of total consensus and it is less ambiguous than participatory feedback. For example, YouTube allows users to give videos and comments a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, which clearly indicates whether a person liked or did not like specific content. Reddit also uses a similar system with its “up votes” and “down votes.” Reddit is particularly noteworthy because it uses an algorithm to make highly ranked comment threads appear higher up on the website’s subcategories (or subreddits). This algorithm also keeps the top threads relevant by exponentially decreasing the quantitative popularity of threads as time elapses, causing them to drop lower down on the page, unless the threads receive a sufficient number of up-votes to counteract this depreciation. 
Although binary one-click feedback is more descriptive and more reflective of a community’s consensus on some form of media (video, audio file, image, etc.) or user-generated content (comment, forum or blog post), it is still a flawed mechanism. Even though it allows for users to say whether they do not like something, their “liking” or “disliking” is still ambiguous. This is because it requires a viewer to infer why someone would “like/dislike” or “up vote/down vote” an image or video. For example pictures and videos of cats are some of the most popular content on these websites; however, people like them for different reasons. One person may “up vote” a picture because it reminds the individual of his or her own cat; and another person may like it simply because it is cute. Although the difference between these motivations may seem trivial, the ambiguity has potentially serious consequences.
For example, as I discussed in “Attention! Facebook Users – Your First Amendment Rights Are on the Line,” people have lost their jobs as a result of “liking” the Facebook pages of their employer’s competitors. In these instances, it would be helpful to have evidence to point to the employees’ motivations for “liking” their employer’s competitor. For instance, one employee may have disliked his employer and wanted to work for the competitor. On the other hand, another employee may have wanted the convenience of automatically receiving updates about the competitor so as to keep track of his or her doings. Because courts, employers, and the public are giving one-click feedback, as well as online communication in general, more weight, it would be helpful to have less ambiguous mechanisms.
About Rebecca HardestyI am a graduate of Pitzer College at the Claremont Colleges. I recently completed my first year at UC Davis School of Law. I have an extensive research background with published work in Philosophy, Theatre, Taxation, Accounting, and E-commerce. I am a non-fiction and fantasy novel lover with a history of DnD, gaming and ceramics. I like taking walks in the farmland, preferably with a dog, and exploring cities.
Posted on March 4, 2013, in Big Ideas, News, Online Communication, The Internet and tagged Barack Obama, current-events, Facebook, Grassroots, Hive mind, Internet, Online Communication, Online community, Organizing for Action, politics, Reddit, Social Media, Technology, Twitter, Virtual community. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.