Twitter, Facebook, Google+ — everywhere we turn there’s a new platform encouraging us to share our lives and thoughts. Andy Warhol may have predicted that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame, but who knew so many of us would find it on YouTube.
Advocates, such as writer and new media consultant Clay Shirky, say this democratization of media will create a more open society and fuel innovation. They point to the use of social media during the Middle East revolutions as proof. But what if they’re wrong? Has this constant sharing of everything made us subject to the tyranny of group-think? And, if it has, what is this doing to our ability to innovate?
A friend of mine who spent several years as a technology reporter told me recently about an internet company she wanted to start. I asked her why it had to be an internet company, and she gave me a puzzled look. “You can start any kind of company,” I told her. “It doesn’t have to be on the Web. Just because you live in the tech community doesn’t mean that’s all there is.” My point might seem obvious to most people, since nearly every product we consume, including our homes, cars and food, is produced by “real world” businesses. But I watched my friend’s eyes light up with the revelation that she wasn’t bound by ideas that ended in “dot-com.” She had become so immersed in her own echo chamber that she failed to even consider other opportunities.
The level to which we are forced to censor ourselves is even more damaging than our social media-induced group-think. Most people are afraid to be completely honest with what we share, because of the capricious nature of the public. This makes us innocuous caricatures who live in fear of offending anyone. Social media sharing is a lot like a temperamental boss who tells you to speak freely. His words say one thing, but the reality is he might fire you if he doesn’t like what he hears. To protect yourself, you only tell him the good news and any negative feedback is conveniently omitted. Counter to James Surowieki who pointed out the wisdom of crowds, this combined group-think and fear of public judgment is the tyranny of crowds. And this tyranny clouds our thinking and stifles innovation.
In our effort to make everything public, I believe we’ve underestimated the role that privacy and exclusivity play in driving progress. Privacy allows for candor that would be unacceptable to the masses, while exclusivity creates intimacy and comfort. Both foster true in-depth discussions rather than sound bites meant to appease. While it may be unpopular to admit this, the value of private forums have long been recognized - from the Freemasons (who many say were integral to the formation of the United States) to Bohemian Grove where the Manhattan Project was initially planned. When I created 50Kings, I studied the dynamics of private groups. I found that the “small and exclusive” gatherings were far more productive than the “large and open” ones. It was also clear that the larger and more open a group was the more likely it was to fall apart. Larger groups increased the likelihood of ill-fitting deviants, which decreased trust and candor. Smaller groups effectively set people free — free to share, explore, and solicit intelligent feedback. The tyranny of the public actually stifled visionary thinking, while the comfort of exclusivity released people from their behavioral and intellectual inhibitions, allowing them to consider a wider range of possibilities.
But are the ideas of a select few really important when it comes to driving innovation? Contrary to the current zeitgeist, which dictates that the crowd is wise and innovation comes from listening to everyone’s feedback, I believe breakthrough innovations — the type that create new markets — are typically the result of a visionary (or visionaries) who ignored the fickle whims of public opinion. These visionaries need a sounding board of like-minded individuals who can grasp their ideas. They don’t need the feedback of the poorly-informed masses.
There is a moment in the film “Bruce Almighty” when Jim Carrey’s character, after being granted the powers of God, is nearly driven mad by the millions of voices asking him to grant their prayers. The tyranny of the crowd is much more demanding than the tyranny of one. If you listen to the noise, it will overwhelm you and make it impossible to think clearly. It may even be impossible to act. When this happens, all progress stops. Because of this, the freedom that comes with small, selective groups has greater potential to drive progress. By momentarily liberating us from the criticism of the public, it allows us to think, talk and act without worrying about appeasing the crowd. Innovation is fueled by freedom, and privacy — not publicity — is what truly sets us free.
Francisco Dao is the founder of 50Kings, which hosts invitation-only adventures for technology and media innovators. He served as founder and president of TheKillerPitch.com, and has been a columnist for Inc.com and writer for the Fast Company Buzz blog. He is author of the book “Killer Attitude: 53 Rules of Unstoppable Confidence.”