Cartoon by Nina Paley
Everybody loves a good cult story. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a hearty group discussion about the Manson family and Jonestown?
Since many cults are religious or spiritual in nature, it occurred to me to find the social media angle there, and a lot of questions cropped up. How would the well-known cults of the past have progressed if they had social media at their disposal—if they could have tweeted their every thought? Also, is our severe dependence on social media today a cult-like behavior?
Today, “cult” behavior is quite normal on the Internet. Maybe I’m taking that a little to the extreme, but think about it. Jennifer is fiercely loyal to Fox News because she is convinced that everything else is a lie. Zach follows every blog, Tumblr and Pinterest board about cats, and Sarah religiously logs on to Facebook 10 times a day. It’s an obsession.
Let’s look at a little background information, shall we?
Researchers and clinicians have always been eager to pinpoint the psychology of the cult experience. While not all groups that are labeled as cults psychologically damage their members, the ability to incite such radical behavior and intense loyalty is intriguing at the very least.
According to Dr. Margaret Singer, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, there are an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 cults known cults in the United States alone and dozens of smaller ones that are harder to keep track of.
Not every cult is religious in nature and not every religious cult is harmful to its members. In fact, the psychology behind cult behavior and the psychology behind our need to use social networking sites are very similar.
Dr. Stanley Cath, a psychoanalyst and associate professor of psychiatry at the Tufts University School of Medicine, defines a cult as “a group of people joined together by a common ideological system fostered by a charismatic leader where the expectation is that they can transcend the imperfections and finitude of life.”
Our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves—whether it be a religious organization or a group on Facebook—is innate. Religion has served this need throughout history, giving people identity, community and interaction. Today, however, we can create our own identity, establish our own community and have as many interactions as we want—online.
And although it might be a little philosophical, many people use social media to escape their reality. Maybe on your Facebook profile where you can be 6 feet tall, weigh 120 pounds or an be an all-star at every sport helps you to “transcend the imperfections” of your life—and therein lies the link.
So, has social media allowed cults to go where they couldn’t before? Not exactly.
To put it simply, social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter have done what cults and clubs have to work so hard at—they make you want to belong to the network they have created. These sites have a specific purpose and allow users to express their ideologies and follow (quite literally) them habitually.
Facebook did cult behavior best in its beginning stages with exclusivity, when only college students could sign up. Making people feel left out of something so powerful as well as creating a community of similar users (or believers) is a formidable tool.
Historically, cults have been created around a common belief, but today they are created around a common medium. Some social networking groups today are far more radical than groups the government coined as cults in the past.
What may have been recognized as cult behavior in the past is seen today as the power to promote and gather followers. It is a tool that is essential to branding and encouraging consumers to endorse a product or service. The ability to garner followers to a brand and have them be devoted to it and renounce all others (Apple is a great example) is a lesson that any religious organization (not just a cult) could take to the (spiritual) bank.
With the power to say (almost) anything you want online, thousands of companies have acquired support for their brand. “Liked” Facebook pages and promoted hash tags have fostered an entire community of brand followers.
I’m not saying that if you use Twitter you are part of an all-powerful cult, just cult-ure. Just think about our devotion to social media. Our digital presence is an extension of ourselves, and this is a powerful tool that religious organizations (like businesses) would be wise to embrace.