Foraging for Social Facts: How humans forage for information like animals forage for food

Last week I spent some time chatting with marketing students at a university networking event. Watching the students slowly consume advice from marketing professionals was a lot like watching cattle graze in a pasture; when one student found a tasty source of information, others would follow and cluster around the source.

This observation reminded me of some great research on how human beings forage for facts. Consuming information online may seem 'socially revolutionary,' but the underlying human motivations are far more 'evolutionary.' In fact, according to research, we forage for digital information in much the same way that animals forage for food.

How People Forage for Social Facts

In 1999, the psychologist Peter Pirolli published a study that looked at the human motivations behind information consumption. The study titled 'Information Foraging,' established a theory that "modern-day information foraging mechanisms may [parallel] food foraging mechanisms that evolved in our ancestors." In summary, the research provided three key findings on how we consume information:

Human beings hunt for information patches. Just like animals seek out an ideal patch of food, humans seek out ideal patches of information. For example, we use Facebook, LinkedIn or Google, because they help us to aggregate information into a valuable patch.

Human beings follow information scents. Just like animals use scent to find ideal patches of food, humans use social clues to find ideal patches of information. For example, we use Tweets, Likes or Links, because they help to signal the potential value of information.

Human beings are on an information diet. Just like animals are driven to find the maximum amount of food with the minimal output of energy, humans are motivated to find information whilst conserving time. For example, we prefer concise information sources that provide quick facts and data.

Planting your Information Patch

So how can you use this research to help ensure that people cluster and consume your content? Well in the same way my recent networking experience created an information patch for students, you need to plant  an information patch for consumers. To help you get started, here are three things worth considering:

1. Plant your information in a patch. Good information grows together, so you need to plant your information in online groups and communities that share your content interest.

2. Create information scent. Valuable content has a social scent, by highlighting brand affiliations, social credentials and content links, you can build information credibility.

3. Provide information on a diet. Informavores are fast-fact-eaters, so provide content summaries, data points and information implications to keep them grazing.

Defining Community Trust at TEDx

Back in November 2011, I had the opportunity to present on the topic of community trust at TEDxSFU. Community is an abstract concept, and as an audience member I found it interesting to observe the way in which different speakers attempted to define it. 

The Definition of Community 

During the event, some speakers expressed a more traditional perspective on community; while others described community from a more progressive perspective. Some focused on the importance of control and structure in community; while others emphasized individuality and freedom. Below are a few quotes to help illustrate how different some of the community perspectives were: 

"Governments at all levels are now legislating consultation and need more accurate tools to validate their decision making... We've had some online consultation thus far, but it's met with varying degrees of success... because consultation has been largely anonymous and does not stand up to scrutiny." - Speaker 1 (Structure Oriented) 

"Social media is revolutionary in velocity and scale. It's being used as a tool for revolutions and the effect it's going to have on Government is going to be massive... Like we've seen in Egypt, in London and in Occupy, geeks are resourceful and they'll find ways to get information out." - Speaker 2 (Individuality Oriented) 

In my opinion, community isn't defined by any one of these perspectives - community is defined by all of them. Like any human concept, community is full of paradoxes and contradictions. Only by embracing these contradictions can you begin to understand what truly creates a community. 

The Topic of Community Trust 

For those of you that are interested, below is a video from my presentation at TEDxSFU. Like all research we conduct, it attempts to unify and explain contradictions in human motivation. In this case, it looks at the topic of community trust among leaders and public institutions.