Over the years I've written a lot about online identity and influence but, for the average user coming to social media without an agenda, what does it actually mean?
Look at the term "social proof."
The definition of the term in psychology reads as follows:
Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation.
In other words, if you don't know how it is appropriate to act in a given situation you will observe what others are doing, assume it is correct, and act in the same way.
Conformity through uncertainty.
Contrast this with normative social influence which is the state of conformity in order to be accepted and liked by others.
In marketing, social proof works by using ratings and reviews to convince potential new customers that this is the product or service they should be buying. Businesses use queues (often artificially engineered) to create the impression of popularity while price and admission policies create the illusion of exclusivity.
On a social network such as Twitter we have none of this. All that we have available is what users can see on your profile which is why social media rapidly became a numbers game.
The number of followers and the number of tweets.
That's it. That's all we've got.
We hope that people will follow us because others already do - that potential new audience makes a decision based on numbers as to the worthiness of an account: are they popular and do they post regularly in sufficient volume to be interesting.
That's not enough. That's not social proof.
Some people will fall into the trap of normative social influence, liking the same accounts and sharing the same links as everyone else in order to be liked themselves, to get likes, and hopefully followers. They do what they think is expected of them rather than what they want to do.
And we fall into a vicious cycle where these accounts grow because they are seen to be popular but are only popular because they aim to share what is deemed popular rather than being the voice of an individual.
False and fake
The degree of falseness on social media is extraordinary and depressing.
Social proof also falls down when a large proportion of the numbers at play are false. When so many of the accounts on our networks are bots which like, retweet, reply and even follow purely based on keyword triggers.
We have recently seen how damaging and disruptive fake news can be but, stepping away from the more nefarious intentions of some, we can see a wider problem when we consider the "social proof loop".
Although fake news is a problem when used by certain parties as propaganda it is also becoming a spectator sport with individuals on the lookout for items to share for their entertainment value.
Unfortunately, this isn't always clear.
Sarcasm and satire get lost in translation thanks to those three little words: shared without comment.