Likes, Hearts, Claps: The Problem With Social Proof


There’s a multi-limbed, polydextrous being in Buddhism known as Kannon that’s one of the most widely worshipped divinities in Asia and Japan. It appears in many forms, male and female, and is often depicted with various quantities of heads and arms.

In one temple in Kyoto, Japan, there’s a particularly impressive figure of Kannon that features eleven heads stacked in one tall column and exactly one thousand arms forming an aureole around it.

The icon represents Kannon’s reverence as a benevolent being that hears, sees, knows, and touches all. But with everything from flowers, wands, and bells to trumpets, daggers and thunderbolts in over 100 of its hands, it also carries another message.

The polymerian Kannon shows us while each and every one of us is connected at the fundamental level, at the same time, we remain completely unique in our independent interpretation and experience. Like each of Cannon’s hands, we act autonomously and spontaneously and direct the course of own individual actions.

Every finger, tendril, person, or whatever it may be, contributes to the whole by being a complete expression of itself. And in this way, helps maintain harmony and ecological balance. If twenty of Kannon’s hands tried to do one thing and pick up the same ham sandwich, I don’t need to tell you the outcome. And so the same goes for if every man, woman and child in the world suddenly decided, for instance, to adopt the same ideology. A spoilt lunch indeed.

Despite how easy the hermaphrodite godhead makes the juggling act seem, there are many influences, both psychological and societal, that make it tricky for us mere humans to act individually and think for ourselves. Particularly when we’re constantly immersed in the marketplace — that’s constantly trying to sell us trinkets and trifles — they call social media.

Getting the Same Stuff Into the Many Hands of Kannon

Social media and their algorithm-driven news feeds work on the idea that the more clicks, Likes, Hearts, Claps, and/or comments an image or post gets, the more popular it is and therefore the more exposure it deserves.

You can already see the problem here. If more hands happen to be holding more thunderbolts than trumpets from the outset, you can guarantee more people are going to grab more thunderbolts.

But whereas Zuckerberg and Dorsey have had us believe that this process is simply an outcome of thunderbolts being better than trumpets, there’s way more going on beneath the surface:

Herd Behaviour: People are hardwired to follow and mimic the actions — whether rational or irrational — of a larger group, even when individually they wouldn’t necessarily make the same choice. This is herd behaviour or groupthink, a psychological phenomenon that’s driven by the need to conform and be accepted, along with the rationale that it’s unlikely that such a large group could be wrong. Ten hands already have bells, therefore I should have a bell too.

Social proof: Also known as informational social influence, social proof is a psychological and social phenomenon that could be said to be a symptom of groupthink. It occurs when people reflect the actions and words of others — whether it be from a Facebook post or TV ad — in attempt to conform to the correct mode of behaviour in any given circumstance. Twenty hands have daggers, only ten have flowers; therefore it must be appropriate for me to have a dagger too.

Both of these phenomena and more, such as the influence of social class, all contribute to the exponential cycle known as the Bandwagon effect. Simply stated, the bandwagon effect is the idea that the probability of individual adoption is increased with respect to the proportion who’ve already done so.

In a nutshell, more trumpets lead to more trumpets.

While the bandwagon effect brands social media as a catalyst to the rapid spreading of misinformation, a more worrying aspect of it is how it leads people to consider social proof or acceptance as an important marker of something’s worth.

Social acceptance has effectively become a universal metric for measuring quality and success and making decisions.

If a fake news article about the elections has 3,000 Likes, no matter its credibility, it becomes a valued part of the public conversation. If an outcry about gender pronouns garners a high level of engagement, positive or negative, it wins the right to be taken to court. If a couple’s Instagram account has 500,000 followers, no matter if they are miserable, they stay together because they feel externally validated.

There’s no independent direction and no holistic coordination, just a blind stampede that heads in a direction and, out of fear, takes the rest of the herd with it.

Thinking for yourself is no longer necessary. Why waste the time worrying about where to go, what to do, and what to think when you can just follow the proven thoughts, ideas, and beliefs of others?

And so is the world of social networks. It may connect the arms of millions of people around the world, but it does so only by the fingers and not the base. In this way, social media produces nothing more than an ugly homogenous mass of sameness, rather than a balanced and fruitful expression of individuality and diversity.

While algorithm-free social networks like Vero and plugins like Alice work to change this landscape, in the meantime, we can take it upon ourselves to steer clear of false metrics and return to supporting the things that are uniquely valuable and successful to us — no matter what the claps, Likes, hearts, or comments say.

Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, meditation, and everything in between.