Social media has introduced a new and profound layer of complication to how we listen to the voice of the masses. The technology has replaced the reductionism of the old world with a bafflingly dense ecosystem of echo and amplification. While this seems to cut out the middleman, the surging complexity of the system results in an unpredictable stew of dynamics that can create false impressions, such as that the rising terrorist threat in Iraq and Syria presents an existential threat to the world—despite the fact that ISIS, the terrorist group in question, possesses only tens of thousands of fighters and little popular support—or that that the perceived color of a dress is more important still, if only for a day.
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Highly interconnected systems like social-media networks display a phenomenon known as emergence, which can be boiled down to the idea that a system is more than the sum of its parts, especially when the parts become numerous. And a system built from many smaller systems, each of which is itself complex, will exhibit behaviors that could not have been predicted. Weather is an emergent property, which is why weather forecasts can never be perfect. No matter how many factors you consider—from the action of the Gulf Stream to areas of low atmospheric pressure—the weather forecast for any specific day in the future will always contain a degree of uncertainty.
Stock prices are an emergent property of the market. They may track generally with a company’s health, but stocks reflect the subjective views of investors, which can include factors such as a company’s failure to meet an expectation for earnings, or aggregated jobs reports that have no particular bearing on any given company’s performance.
On social networks, emergent behavior can be found in spades, and we have words to describe some of its manifestations. For example, a “viral” sensation, such as that darn dress, creates an explosion of interest from users that can be as inexplicable as it is hard to ignore. The word “viral” is used to refer to content that becomes wildly popular online seemingly of its own accord, but it applies more broadly to a host of networked phenomena in which a small current of activity explodes into a tidal wave, whether it’s a trending hashtag, a sleeper hit at the movies, a massive stock market swing, or an outbreak of mass hysteria.
A multitude of sites now actively try to make their material go “viral,” but most such attempts fail precisely because emergence makes it impossible to predict how any given thing will play on social media. Most of this activity is harmless, even if it disappoints our hopes that humanity is evolving toward a higher dialogue.
But sometimes, these waves of social-media focus are pernicious, as in the case of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. And while true virality can’t be engineered, it is possible to stack the deck. ISIS has done so expertly. The number of accounts tweeting in support of ISIS numbers, at most, in the low tens of thousands—about one or two-hundredths of 1 percent of the total active Twitter accounts in any given month—but ISIS’s strategic and industrious activity commands a disproportionate amount of media and policy attention, even inspiring talk of prosecution or legislation to help counter the problem.