[FOUNTAIN]‘Social proofs’ on the WebOne day, a man looked up at the sky in the middle of a street in New York City. Most people just passed him by, but about 4 percent of passersby also looked up to see what was going on. As the number of people looking up increased, more people noticed them and followed. When five people looked up, 8 percent of the passersby followed, and when 15 people gazed at the heavens, 40 percent of the people walking down the street stopped and looked up to see what they were staring at.
That was a famous experiment on the phenomenon of social proof. People tend to think that by imitating a social proof, or behavior of the majority, they can reduce mistakes. Therefore, they follow what others do.
The laugh tracks inserted into a comedy on television and the advertisements emphasizing that a book is a bestseller are exploiting the phenomenon of social proof. Even though the fake laughs sound artificial and silly, the viewers laugh more frequently and find the program more entertaining if they hear other people laughing. At a charity event, a list of donors is often made public and an offering box is passed around at a church, exploiting people’s behavior.
But social proofs are not always the truth. In fact, they often go against the truth. In modern days, the grounds to manipulate public opinion by the media or advertisements are the effect of social proofs.
Social proofs can be found at Internet portal sites. Popular search keywords, which greatly influence the setting of social agendas and forming public opinion, are one of the examples of social proofs on the Web. Popular search keywords are positioned to stand out, and the list changes in real time, adding a sense of urgency and drama. While many of the keywords are inaccurate and lead to bad information or provocative subjects, they have a strong impact as a social proof the minute they show up on the popularity list.
When a strange name or a word is on the list, people become curious about why it became popular and click on it. Although it is not my concern, it is what other people, or society, are interested in. Then the ranking of the word rises. It does not matter whether it has a valuable piece of information or not. Moreover, it is not important whether many people were actually curious about it or not.
“A celebrity is a person who is known for being well-known,” said Daniel Doorstin. Keywords are the same, but the social proof involved is troubling.
That is why portal sites are not free from the charge that they are manipulating public opinion.
by Yang Sung-hee
The writer is a culture and sports desk writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.