An opinion on social proofing

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5 people lined up on their phones, one person is trying to start a conversation with another

When we want to buy, rent or use a service, we like to look at who’s already made that commitment. Star ratings, feedback and testimonials. we’re looking for proof. The democratisation of the digital space means social proofing is in the DNA of the internet.

What is “social proofing”?

Social Proof or ‘Norms’ is something I learnt a bit about months back when I took an Ogilvy Change course in Behavioural Economics. We’re social animals, so I can see why this phenomenon is powerful and instinctively hard-wired into us as humans.

In Ogilvy Changes’ ‘Little Book of Behavioral Economics’, they sum it up perfectly:

“We are herd animals, and make decisions based on what those around us are doing. We often justify our choices like this, validating them on the basis that others were following a similar course of action.”

But I wondered if there’s something else at play here?

A few years ago, I did a lecture at Bournemouth University about social media and why it was then and still is, ‘a thing’. For me, it is all about trust.

Social proofing before computers

As a man of a certain age, I can offer an opinion based on experience. So I’m going to do a bit of chin scratching here.

The oldest form of social proofing: a black and white image of a trustworthy British police constable directing young children where to go

Image courtesy of LT Museum Shop

Take a look at the picture above. The British Bobby, helping young kids. Charming isn’t it? Back when this picture was taken (much before I was born, thank you!), this familiar and reassuring scene was a parable for trust.

Trust in authority and the institutions that made up the fabric of society. The Law, the Church, the Army, Navy, RAF and the State. There was safety in the knowledge that the pecking order was in place – maintaining the status quo.

Trust it seems, was gifted to institutions without a second thought. Trust given on word, a nod or the wearing of a uniform.

People don’t trust institutions anymore

Since that photo was taken, a lot has changed. I’m not sure we gift trust that easily anymore. I wonder how cynically we would view that very picture if it were taken today?

I think my own overall trust of Institutions and corporations is as low as I can ever remember. I know that I’m more aware of things these days. More than I was when I was a boy. But I’m thinking about scandals that have rocked institutions in my own lifetime…

I only have to mention words like ‘Orgreave’, ‘Hillsborough’, ‘Savile’, ‘MPs expenses’, ‘Enron’, ‘Iraq’, ‘Credit Crunch’ or ‘Cambridge Analytica’. They themselves have become parables for mistrust.

We trust our herd

I think that’s why we like social proofing. We can trust people like us. We’ll believe feedback over the flakey emptiness of a marketing claim.

A herd of sheep

The transparent nature of the internet means that we may well uncover more scandals and controversies in the future. Perhaps this will just reinforce our need for more social proofing? It seems that the more we uncover truths and expose deceit, the more we retreat back to the safety of one another. It seems very cyclical.

What is ironic is that the very platforms where we seek social proof are themselves under scrutiny. At the time of writing, pressure is being put on the big social networks like Facebook to do more to prevent bullying, improve protection for the vulnerable as well as block radicalisation and fake news.

Going back to the old ways

Could that be why online platforms such as Eventbrite are a catalyst for activity offline? We get can still ‘get’ social proofing by going to events where we can ‘press the flesh’ and exchange views face-to-face with like-minded people.

Every year, Glastonbury Festival seems to get even bigger as folks descend on Somerset for a ‘shared experience’. Which if you’ve ever been part of, is incredibly powerful and engaging.

These offline experiences can also drive and thrive online. With one seemingly feeding the other. It’s interesting to see movements like Crowdfunding bounce between a website and actual events.

The separation of digital and physical

The battle in the retail sector between having a great store and online presence still rages. The so-called ‘bricks and clicks’ strategy seems to equal success for brands like John Lewis. And for newcomers like Amazon, who are flirting with the idea must mean that there’s ‘gold in them there hills’. I wonder if there is a little bit of social proofing going on here too?

All this makes me wonder if the Internet will cease to be the main place where we seek social proof? Will the integrity of the digital space become so undermined that trust in it becomes eroded just like the institutions we’ve talked about? As I said earlier, it all seems very cyclical.

What do you think?

I’d love to know how you feel about this. Why not get in touch with your thoughts?

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