How Social Computing Elected the US President

The last chapter in my new book is called “The Next Big Thing”, and it’s all about the fact that being human means being social. It is built into our brains and evolution to live together with others, and to be very influenced by our “pack” or group. History shows us that whatever technology there is, we will find a way to use it to communicate – to make it social.

Look at the history:

The printing press allowed people to communicate via the written word in a way that was much faster. Before the printing press each book had to be copied by hand, a task that sometimes took years. The printing press brought that time down to days, and in some instances, hours. That meant that books could be created by the thousands and more for people to read. But that wasn’t the main use of the printing press. Individuals and small groups used it to start to communicate quickly. Much of the early use of the printing press was not long books, but short pamphlets or even one page “bills” like bulletins. The printing press was truly a form of mass communication.

Same thing with telephones. When the first telephones were first being developed they were viewed as an updated version of the telegraph. There was no plan for people to have telephones in their homes. The assumption was that the telephones would be in the telegraph offices and be used to convey messages from telegraph office to telegraph office (and from there the message would be written out and delivered).

Same thing with cell phones. I was talking one day with a client at Motorola who told me that years and years ago his group at Motorola invented the cell phone, and then put it on the shelf where it sat for years. “Why?”, I asked. “Why didn’t you bring it to market right away?” He answered: “Well, we thought we’d only be making about ten of them. Not much of a market.” “Ten of them? Why did you think that?”, I asked. His reply was “We figured each head of state for major nations would have one. You know, the President of the United States, the head guy in Russia, and so on. We thought they’d use it to prevent a world war. I had no idea people would use it to call home before leaving work to see if they should pick up milk!”

And now it’s happened once again with Barack Obama’s election as US President. I participated in the campaign at my local level and was struck immediately by the campaign’s use of technology. Millions of people in the US were tracked in a data base that used buying patterns, magazine subscriptions, and whatever other data that can be purchased, to figure out whether they were likely to be an Obama supporter, a McCain supporter or undecided. Then legions of volunteers were sent out to knock on doors and conduct a short survey. The results of that survey were fed back in to the database. Algorithms were revised and new lists created that got tested again. This continued every week for weeks and weeks. The campaign used this data to decide where to target, who to call, which doors to knock on (focus on the undecided). At the same time the viral power of Facebook was put to work. Technology was used to socially collaborate and network. From campaign contribution, to volunteering, to creating a buzz, technology and social collaboration on the web had a major part in electing a President.

People will always push the envelope to bend the available technology to purposes that extend and improve communication and the opportunity to be social. It always leaves me wishing I could see ahead and predict the next social use of technology. Every time I find myself saying, “of course, why didn’t I see that coming!”

A Plot By Apple to Convert PC Users?

I write my blog on a MacBook Pro. In fact, I do almost everything on my MacBook Pro. That may not seem unusual, but I can assure you it is. For as long as there were PCs, I was a PC person, not a Mac person. I’ve been using computers since before there were screens. I’ve been using computers since before there was Apple or Microsoft. I used to run programs with a casette tape on a Radio Shack. Ok, I’m showing my age, aren’t I? The point is that I was NOT a mac type person until about 5 months ago. Now I am sitting here with my Mac, my iphone, and my iPod. What happened!!!

What happened was that I bought an iPod a few years ago. I told myself that it would be a great gizmo to have while exercising, but the real reason was that my kids had one and it looked like it would be cool and fun. But getting an iPod meant I had to buy an Apple product. I actually did feel a twinge of dissonance when I broke a little bit from my non-Apple, all-PC persona to buy an Apple product. But it was only a type of MP3 player really, right? So it was a small action away from my usual persona. Not too drastic.

But it was a crack in my PC Persona. The research on commitment shows that once someone commits to one small thing, it often creates those cracks in persona and makes it easier to make more decisions in line with the new view of the persona. I was now a PC person who used an Apple product. I loved my iPod. And over time my PC persona began to give way. I was becoming a person who believed in Apple products. This created a huge amount of dissonance, and when it came time to purchase a new laptop, I dissipated the dissonance by buying a Mac laptop. I had effortlessly erased years of a PC persona, because my persona had already been sliding that way, even though I was not conscious of the slide until it came time for the larger purchase.

So my question is, did Apple introduce the iPod on purpose? Knowing that it would create this avalanche later? Was the iPod a masterful lead-in to getting people to switch from PCs to Macs?

Undecided Voters? Not Really.

At dinner the other night my husband said, “How the heck could anyone be undecided two weeks before the election, when this campaign has been going on so long?”

“It’s simple”, I responded. “They aren’t undecided at all.”
“Explain that one”, was his reply.
I’ve been recently reading research on unconscious mental processing (for the book I have just finished writing). In the case of the election, when people say they are undecided, I think they actually have decided who they want to vote for, but it’s not a conscious, rational, decision. I’ts an emotional, unconscious decision. The undecided voters haven’t found a rational reason to put on top of their unconscious decision. The decided voters made an unconscious emotional decision too, but they have figured out rational reasons to tell themselves and others about why they made the decision they made. (The reasons, by the way, are not really accurate – the research calls this “confabulation”, meaning people make up reasons which they believe are true, but actually aren’t. The real reasons are emotional and non-verbal).
This unconscious emotional decision with a rational reason on top is true, actually of all decisions we make. (See the blog before this one on choices).
When Colin Powell announced he was supporting Barack Obama, one person I know, that had been undecided, immediately said he was now decided. Why? He said that if Colin Powell likes Barack Obama that must mean that Obama will be good for the troops. And, he continued, caring about our troops was always very important to him. He had never said before that he was undecided because he didn’t know where the candidates stood on the troops. I think my friend had decided for quite some time that he wanted to vote for Obama, but that decision was unconscious, and he couldn’t figure out a reason that he could say to himself and others that was consistent with his self-image, his persona. “Good for the troops” was the rational, logical, reason he could put on top of the non-verbalized unconscious decision. And now he was suddenly “decided”.
We make the decision first, unconsciously, and then search for some kind of reason to stick on top that will sound logical and will fit with our persona.

How Do People Decide – The Order Effect

I like to think that when I decide to buy something it’s because I’ve thought it through and it’s the best purchase. Logically and rationally. But I’ve read too much research on the unconscious and on decision making. So I know that people, including me, make decisions based on unconscious processing and that I don’t use logic as much as I’d like to think I do.

There’s this great research study that proves two concepts: 1) We don’t pay attention to very many attributes about a product, 2) We tend to choose the first item that appears on a product page of a web site.

Here’s the research citation:
Felfernig, A., G. Friedrich, B. Gula, M. Hitz, T. Kruggel, G. Leitner, R. Melcher, D. Riepan, S. Strauss, E. Teppan, and O. Vitouch. 2007. Persuasive recommendation: Serial position effects in knowledge-based recommender systems. In Persuasive Technology, Second International Conference on Persuasive Technology. New York: Springer.

Felfernig set up a website with tents. He had visitors to the site fill out a questionnaire about the type of camping they planned to do. Then the site recommended four tents based on ten different attributes, such as waterproofing, weight, air ventilation, etc. Based on the questionnaire you filled out, two of the four tents are rated as “best buys” for the attributes that are important to you. Which tent will you buy? Tent 1, 2, 3, or 4?

Even though there were ten attributes that the tents were compared on, participants in the study paid attention to only 2 or 3 of the attributes. And when it came time to pick a tent, the participants in the study didn’t even consider the attributes. They picked the first tent more than 2.5 times than any other. They chose the first one 200 times versus 60 for all the other choices combined.

But, just like me, the participants explained their choice, based on the logical decision they thought they were making. They would explain the choice of tent #1 by saying, “This tent is the most waterproof”, for example. They thought they were weighing all the attributes of all the tents, but in reality they were only looking at a few attributes and even those didn’t matter… all that mattered was which tent showed up first.

I’m going to see if I can pay attention to this the next time I go to buy something at a website where there are several choices on the page at once. Maybe if I notice I’m doing it I won’t be so prone to doing it?


New York City Stabbing a Hoax?

I was just doing some research on a murder that happened in Queens NY in 1964. You may have heard of it. It’s the Kitty Genovese murder. It’s the crime that led to an entire branch of social psychology research.
Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death on the street while 38 witnesses watched and did nothing to help. Social scientists became fascinated by what they called the “Bystander Effect” and a whole series of research studies began to study why it is that people will take action to help when they are by themselves, but not if they are part of a group.
I’m writing about this in a book I’m working on (Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click, PeachPit, due out in Jan of 2009). I found online the original New York Times article about the murder, but then I found online another New York Times article written 40 years later in 2004 that casts doubt on some of the data and its interpretation of the original event. 
Apparently it’s now believed that several people probably heard something and maybe saw something, but they probably couldn’t have figured out what they were hearing or seeing (based on where the crime occurred and the lighting on the street etc), and it probably wasn’t 38 people either. So the truth is that a few people heard some noises and saw someone staggering down a street.
The question I have is: If it took me about 5 minutes to find this updated information on the internet, then why does the original version of events still show up? In research articles, in slide presentations, in books, people still talk about the Kitty Genovese event without mentioning the later update. 
Is it the sheer number of references to the earlier, incorrect version? Or is it that everyone is lazy and they take the first reference they come across?