Friday, August 21, 2009

What I learned about Crowds from Sears and Reddit

Today, on the popular social news aggregator Reddit, a story about how to corrupt Sears.com URLs was removed by request/demand of the company. The result was a few outraged postings, then a flood, as idiots emulated "known successful strategies" and as a result washed out the news feed with multiple stories about hating Sears.

Sensible observers note a pattern here to human events: a few innovators create, and then a horde of people see the reward that was the effect of that creation, so they monkey-see/monkey-do and imitate the parts of the action they saw. The hard part they didn't see was figuring out Sears URLs and helping 4chan whip Reddit into conformity; the easy part that they did emulate was posting vociferous insults against Sears.

This pattern was most observable in hardcore punk music. Originally an art rock genre founded by a few innovators, it quickly became popular and then plummeted radically in quality as thousands of other people said, "Hey, I can do that," and proceded to imitate the form of the music without having the content or talent that made the original bands great.

In addition, the pattern can be seen in literature's continued emulation of James Joyce through "psychological novels" that while pretending to explore deep foundational experiences of their characters, are more accurately a forum for authors to pontificate in order to make a simple and cliche story appear "new and exciting."

Other examples abound, but for now, the warning in the form of Reddit, Sears and punk music will stand as an archetype of failure brought on by success -- as mediated through the imitation of others in order to achieve social reward.