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I saw Mark Earls talk at Planningness in Brooklyn: How to understand and create social influence, and since then I have found myself thinking a lot about the video of the dancing man at the Sasquatch Music Festival that he showed us.

Mark's talk was about Social Learning. The basic premise, people learn through observation - a phenomenon he was able to demonstrate with an eager audience. Mark has described this type of open social 'copying' at a group level as:

The engine by which stuff gets pulled through populations, from technology to health habits

And the point he makes about the Sasquatch dancing man is how it's NOT about the intervention of influencers, but rather it's about everyone reacting to the growing crowd in a kind of  cascade. The video made me think more about the way we should try and design social spaces to be more open - possibly open enough to allow people to lose themselves in the crowd. It seems to me that being able to lose even a little a bit of your 'self' within a semi-chaotic social experience is a type of primal joy that everyone - everyone except the lone nut - enjoys.

I use the phrase "lone nut" because it's the funniest bit of Derek Sivers' TED talk:

The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader

But I don't agree that the video demonstrates the different roles of the influential first followers. To be fair to Sivers, he's not quite saying that either (it's just a great line, and a source of hope...). Having watched this video about thirty times now and shown it to unsuspecting friends, colleagues and clients, what I see is the irresistible attraction of a bit of spontaneous thronging. We humans are just hard-wired to get off on being in a slightly giddy, out-of-control crowd. 

Now, as anyone who's spent time dancing around fields to amplified music will tell you, there's  clearly something else going on with the Sasquatch crowd. A bit of searching confirmed that the first guy/lone nut (and probably a good number of the crowd) was somewhat psychotropically enhanced. Dancing guy's name is Colin Wynter from Vancouver, and as he explains:

I wasn’t pissed drunk, nor did I eat a pound of mushrooms; just little nibbles here and there. It’s part of festivals for some people, and there is nothing wrong with using hallucinogenic and alcoholic substances if you do so properly.

Right... remember that kids. Nothing wrong as long as you do it "properly".

The drugs don't matter, they just remove inhibitions as 'self' drains away . The crowd in the video are enjoying a highly pleasurable moment of extasis, or loss of self. It's heightened and intensified but it's essentially the same thing as you get with Twitter when something hilarious happens at scale - as with, for example, this:

Anatomy of a hashtag #cashgordon

Image Non-Commercial-Share Alike License from Meg Pickard

Or this...

Image - some rights reserved by Tom Raftery

Or indeed this...

Facebook, and even more so Twitter, make it particularly easy for individuals both to see the crowd at scale and to join in. Crowds form quickly around a hashtag word game, or a live event like #cashgordon or the Nestle melt-down. When something starts trending it becomes irresistible, it's that moment in the Sasquatch video when enough people can no longer suppress their excitement to cause a cascade. People would climb over each other to join in, directed by an urgent silent command to be part of an event that's suddenly far bigger than themselves.

Derek Sivers puts it like this:

A movement must be public. It's important to show not just the leader, but the followers - because you'll find that new followers emulate other followers and not the leader.

Twitter in particular provides excellent sight-lines (that is, once you have followed a few people - before that you do feel like a bit of a lone nut barking into an empty well), and its public timeline is the supreme example of a text-based, utterly out-of-control crowd. Crucially, it's also hugely 'live' - with the craziness is happening from second to second. All of this conspires to make Twitter, especially when mixed with a live streaming client and alerts/notifications, feel kinda narcotic. We enter an oceanic state when we lose ourselves in the Twitter world, but we also gain a fulfilling sense of oneness with the wider group, a rare sense of unity through contact.

Whilst Twitter may be the best example of a slightly-out-of-control crowd experience there are other more basic tricks that designers use to create a sense of social space. In only a matter of months from today I guarantee that we will laugh at how clumsy our primitive attempts to design for crowds and visualise crowd craziness really were.

The next generation of 'live' and out-of-control crowd experiences are an exciting challenge. Given our unchanging human nature it is vital that we get better at designing for safe anarchy at increasingly massive scale.

Someone sent me this excellent blog post by Frog Design that talks about "designing for the loss of control", a phenomenon driven both by human behaviour and new technology.

You could argue that designers have been designing creation spaces, feedback mechanisms, and other participatory experiences for some time now. They certainly have, but perhaps without fully recognizing or deliberately orchestrating the amount of loss of control that their designs represented. It seems like the time is ripe to understand these efforts as part of a broader shift and consolidate them into a series of formats that, going forward, shall serve as blueprints for “design for the loss of control,” across different corporate functions and disciplines.

The Frog blog really is worth the time. One thing I've noticed in attempting to design social environments online is how tightly controlled one has to be to create what seems like an open experience. I suspect this is partly because software is a completely explicit set of rules. It doesn't know it must be open - it is programmed to be open, and is therefore highly structured. This has always seemed to me to be an interesting paradox and I think the Frog piece nails it:

...Total openness is the antidote to openness. When everything is open, nothing is open. In order to design openness, one of the first decisions designers have to make is therefore to determine what needs to remain closed. This is a strategic task: making negative choices for positive effects... To design for the loss of control, control the parameters that enable it.

It would be really interesting to hear of any examples, initiatives or ideas for designing more out-of-control batshit crowd experiences on digital platforms.

Tim Malbon

Tim Malbon Founding Partner

Tim founded influential digital product design company Made by Many in 2007. He’s a leading voice in the emerging practice area of product design and innovation, customer experience and business strategy. He’s the Webby Awards UK Ambassador and a member of the IADAS, and was recently named by Creative Review as one of the 50 Creative Leaders "driving change, not just within their organisation but in the world at large."