Who died and made content king? Survival bias, confirmation bias, and a farcical aquatic ceremony.

When I first started using social media, thirty Helens agreed: “content is king!” 

And, at the time, it certainly felt that way. Perfectly crafted tweets seemed to be retweeted again and again; insightful blogs seemed to lead to comment after comment; great articles were always bookmarked. 

I suspect, however, that content looked kingly only because we content creators looked at tiny samples of high-performing content and jumped quickly to conclusions. Survival bias ran rampant, it was primarily the bias of content creators that was running, and content creators really really wanted to believe that expertly crafted content could compel others to action.     

Much later, in the early days of live streaming on Facebook, a video I shot and shared live went “viral”. It received something like half-a-million views in twelve hours or so. For a social media nerd like me, let me tell you, there is no greater thrill than hitting refresh every few seconds and seeing the number of views on your post jump by hundreds and, at times, thousands. Like slot machine enthusiasts everywhere, the bells and whistles are almost more important than the jackpot itself.

And, on the face of it, it seemed like the sort of video that should earn a lot of attention. My phone had captured a pretty special moment in a powerful story, even if the video quality was questionable and the audio mediocre. The story — we content enthusiasts had been telling ourselves for years — was much more important than the technical specifications of the media that shared it. And, this video was a perfect case in point! A live, raw and powerful moment was the stuff of social media glory! I had always known it, but now here was the proof! One more bias was joyfully confirmed.

Then, I watched that short video of a woman laughing in a Chewbacca mask. Do you even remember it? It was the video that blew up in those early days of live streaming on Facebook. Sure, it was vaguely amusing, but was it really that share worthy? Was it really earning all those views and engagements? Was this really the kingly content that the social media prophecy had foretold?  

Then, it occurred to me: Facebook had just launched its live stream functionality and they wanted it to make a splash. My phone had been rattling every two seconds to let me know whenever anyone streamed live for the first time. Moreover, because it was a new service, it had appeared on my phone using the default settings for notifications, which is something like “maximum racket.” In other words, Facebook was making every effort to put as many eyeballs as possible on any content that was shared live.  

Facebook’s effort to boost the visibility of its live stream service should come as no surprise. They wanted people to use the service right away and they wanted those people who used it right away to experience success right away. Easy success would hook users and those who were hooked would talk it up to others. The first hit is always free. 

I am reminded of all of this because of a recent article about TikTok and the author’s naive attempt to explain why some videos on this service have earned big numbers. To be blunt: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the people running TikTok are specifically manipulating things behind the scenes to generate big media-story-worthy numbers. You are the product, after all; they need you to be active; and, what’s a few inflated numbers between friends?  

However, even if the people running TikTok aren’t intentionally manipulating the numbers, there is a much more plausible explanation why some content is getting more attention than other content. Dumb chance. When enough content gets in front of enough people, some of that content will earn more attention and, from there, it can snowball. That’s it; that’s all. There is nothing in the content itself that will definitively explain its success. In the same way that we can’t know in advance which genetic adaptions will lead to an organism’s reproductive success, we can’t know in advance which features of our content will lead to its reproductive success.

Circling back to those early days of social media and the quest for the holy content grail, if there was any truth in our collective hope that content is king, I suspect it was this: the experience of kingly content is probably symptomatic of the fact that humans tend to socialize with people much like themselves and become more like the people with whom they socialize as they socialize with them. 

So, at the outset, specific social media channels were attractive to a particular community of users who were already pretty similar in terms of interests, values, and identity. There wasn’t a lot of content being created, so any content that was shared was bound to earn whatever attention was out there to earn. Because the people using the tools were already pretty similar, they came up with similar theories to explain the success of some content and those theories became self-reinforcing. As people shared content that fit their theories of success, the successful content was more likely to match the theories because there was more content out in the world that aligned with the theory. For example, if you claim that red aces are always drawn because they are special and you add more red aces to the deck every time one is drawn, your theory is bound to look true whether there is anything special about red aces or not. 

Eventually, these theories about what made content shareable, engaging or whatever were internalized as norms, values and aesthetic sensibilities. In this context, content starts to look kingly and almost magical because it’s attractiveness is rooted in a sense of “we”. We are the kind of people who think a tweet will be more engaging if the hashtag is at the end of the copy instead of beginning, so we see it as such and act accordingly. In other words, the apparent kingliness of content is an expression of a particular community’s sense of shared identity. If a particular community of we has power and influence, then, they will influence the tastes of other communities. And so on.

But here, I think, is the nub of the matter: this isn’t some kind of social media gaffe or millennial voodoo. It has always been like this for all content everywhere. The success of content is best explained by the communities that behold it, their sense of “we”, and their power and status. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, seem kingly to us only because an influential group of people took a liking to them at a time when there wasn’t much competition for people’s attention. When you are the only show in town, it is very easy to make the taste.  

If I am right about this (and I’d bet that I am not the first to claim it), I suspect a lot of content lovers and creators’ will react to my conclusion with nihilistic rage. “If there is nothing in the artefact of creation itself that guarantees success or could guarantee success, what is the point of creating at all? Why create if what is produced is of secondary importance or, dear god, not important at all? Oh woe is us!” However, I want to make the case that this frown can be turned upside down. 

On the one hand, if your aim is to create content and be recognized as a content creator, the path forward is pretty simple: do your best to ingratiate yourself to whatever community is the tastemaker community for the kind of content you want to create. Meet, greet and emulate. Play the game well enough and long enough, and you will probably get a shot at shifting the community’s taste. No magic or special natural gifts required. You don’t need to be the anointed one. Being pleasant and patient should do the trick.

Alternatively, if you enjoy creating content for its own sake and have no particular desire or need to be recognized as a content creator by the relevant tastemaker community, you are free to create in accord with whichever standard(s) you want. Who cares what the tastemakers think? They no longer control the means of creative production or distribution. Go forth and create! Celebrate the fact that you have enough time and the means to create, even if no one is looking. On the other hand, if it turns out that you don’t want to suck up to tastemakers to earn a living as a content creator and have better things to do with your time than create for the fun of it, so be it. The choice is yours and, to be frank (you be Jane), having that choice is pretty lucky too.

I can think of only two groups of people who will be in a jam: those people who desperately want to be recognized as a content creator but don’t want to suck up to the relevant tastemaker community or the people who are ignored by that community even when they do suck up. For them, only Nietzschean frustration awaits. 

If you are among this lot, I can offer only this advice: storm the taste making gates until you are accepted, ingratiate yourself to a marginalized or underserved community and hope their day is yet to come, or ride the early adopting wave of some new technology like the printing press or social media. However, whichever path you take, please remember: if you end up holding something that feels like a sword of divine right, the underlying mechanism that provided it to you remains the same, whether you were finally picked by the cool kids or the uncool kids somehow suddenly turned cool. The sword doesn’t make you or your content king; nor does the farcical aquatic ceremony that put it in your hand. Instead, it is the community who thinks of “you” as “we”.

My answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything: four four through it all

If the mystery of the human condition can be characterized as a kind of puzzle or riddle, the answer and/or punchline can be aphorized, I think, through four banal facts and four mollifying delusions.

I can’t say that anyone will necessarily gain anything by knowing and understanding these facts; nor can I say that they will gain anything by ridding themselves of the delusions.

If anything, I am pretty sure the delusions persist precisely because they are useful to most people most of the time. Whether or not they become more or less useful will be settled by evolution eventually — and not by you or I.

Four banal facts:

  1. Almost all human behaviour is perfectly predictable. Some human behaviour may be random or the result of chance.
  2. Human behaviour and all the products of human behaviour are expressions of the human disposition to allocate resources according to status.
  3. Human society and its organization requires the exercise of power. The risk of abuse is omnipresent. Some will guard against it; some won’t.
  4. We die and will be forgotten.

Four mollifying delusions:

  1. Humans have free will and are masters of their own destiny.
  2. The truth will set you free.
  3. Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
  4. Immortality is possible.

That’s it; that’s all. If you like my solution or enjoy talking about the puzzle, let’s start a club. You bring the (alcoholic) punch. I will bring the (vegan) pie.

The spade has turned: from weltschmerz to mono no aware and back again.

mono no aware After many years of digging, I am pretty sure I have hit bedrock.

The spade has turned.

Human behaviour and all the products of human behaviour are best understood as expressions of the human tendency to allocate resources according to status.

Practically-speaking, a person’s survival depends on their membership in a group and their status in it. Additionally, success — however it is defined over and beyond survival and reproduction — also depends on and is defined by an individual’s membership in a group and their status in it.

There is nothing — absolutely nothing — that trumps, circumvents or transcends the ceaseless churn of seeking, gaining, maintaining and losing the approval of others.

And so it goes. Fine weather, isn’t it?

Unreal city: a black hole of dazzling light

A picture of the unreal city at night.

I remember the moment, but I can’t place it in time.

We were returning to Waterloo from Toronto. It was night. The stream of lights heading east on the 401 was an endless milky way.

It struck me: behind each set of quivering headlights, there was at least one person. It struck me: on one side of this narrow strip of highway, heading east towards a moderately-sized metropolitan city, there was a galaxy of human experience, unique distinct breathing and, like me, living at the centre of its own universe. It struck me.

At high school in Ottawa, I remember it often felt like I was surrounded on all sides by unknown, colourless, cardboard people, who reappeared over and over again like the recycled backgrounds of a low-budget cartoon. Many years later and long after the moment of dread on the highway heading west from Toronto to Waterloo, it struck me: I was as colourless and unreal to the unknown others as they were to me.

I now live in Toronto, a city as unreal as Eliot’s. From my window, I see towers and towers of existences. When I walk to and from work, there is always a hornet’s nest of activity. When I shop within minutes of my home, I see faces that I know I will never see again. Like a shovel of dirt from a wild and healthy field, these few blocks of my existence are teeming with life.

If I reflect for too long on the scale of life in this city and on this planet, it obviates me. If I focus instead on the energy, colours and details of this urban microcosm, I am dazzled by it all, and happy to play the role of cardboard cutout to the unknown universes of life booming and buzzing around me.

Oh, unreal city, at the centre of a black hole where all light is trapped, could it be as dazzling as this?

My own private iconoclasm: making the word flesh once and for all

After many many years of reading, writing and thinking, I have arrived at the rather unremarkable conclusion that reading, writing and thinking are neither important nor unimportant in and of themselves.

They are human activities like any other and, as such, their value is ultimately determined by other humans. They can influence others — if they influence at all — only because of the values and valuings of families, peers, and communities. They can’t convince, compel, or convert on their own. They do not have quasi-divine and human-independent power to influence humans and their affairs.

I mention this only because I suspect that I may have implicitly believed all these years that reading, writing and thinking did have quasi-divine powers, even I can’t recall ever explicitly thinking to myself, “if I read, write and think just so, people will have no choice but to understand and agree.” Why else would I spend so much time reading and rereading, writing and rewriting, thinking and rethinking? Of course, I enjoyed it, but there are many other enjoyable activities I might have pursued instead. The intensity of my dedication seems to imply that I was hoping for something more.

School, university and academia probably helped to engender this implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking. From the earliest days of school until the very end of academia, I was taught that the correct reading, writing and thinking would produce and, perhaps, even compel the appropriate mark, degree, or publication. It was as if there was a kind of magic at work — a magic that inevitably produced success when it was invoked correctly.

The implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking was also stoked in the early days of social media. Time-and-again, it was (and is) claimed that there is a uniquely correct way to succeed at social media. Do it correctly, we were (are) told, and the followers, likes, pageviews and advertising dollars will inevitably flow. In the end, we have learned that there isn’t anything entirely unique about social media. Like any other human activity, there are many familiar but not entirely certain paths to success and failure.

I suppose William Carlos Williams also contributed to my implicit hope. As a young man, I was entranced by the idea that he remained a doctor, lived in Paterson, New Jersey, and, nevertheless, became a towering literary figure. According to the official hagiography, he opted out of the lifestyle of a poet but, nevertheless, became one of the greatest. I assumed, at the time, that it was the power of his words and talent that helped him overcome the geography of his choices. I see now that I overlooked the true power of the relationships he maintained.

I am tempted to be troubled by the non-divine nature of reading, writing and thinking, to characterize it as a problem, and to draw some profound conclusion, but I’ve been down that path too many times before to make the same mistake again. The absence of God only seems troubling if you characterize it as an absence, but to do so is a mistake. That which never existed can’t be absent because it was never present to begin with, no matter how it might have otherwise felt.   

The only real consequence of this realization is that I must give up on an ancient and essentially childish dream. Neither the bug-eating mystic in the desert, nor the stone-throwing philosopher on the mountain, nor the house-call-making poet in New Jersey can, by the shear force of reading, writing and thinking, legislate on behalf of the world. Read, write, and think if you enjoy it, but don’t expect or pretend that it will have any more influence on humans and their affairs than counting blades of grass, memorizing all the digits of pi, or surfing off the coast of Maui. To influence human affairs, one must be a part of them. There is no escaping that fact of human existence.

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

The rise and fall of social media: a swift and familiar tale

The rise and fall of social media has been so swift and so familiar that the story of its rise and fall probably says more about us than it does about the tools themselves.

In the early days, social media seemed revolutionary and, at times, it was. Unfortunately, like all revolutionaries who win, social media has come to mirror the status quo it had initially challenged.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube (et al) now look, feel and act very much like the traditional media many of us were avoiding when we first joined these digital networks.

Advertising, of course, was a key player in the counterrevolution, but social media turned to advertising only because a profit had to be turned and it had to be turned quickly. Old and familiar habits die hard when they boost revenues and profits easily.

Meanwhile, as the masters of the social media universe learned to dance to the tune called by the advertisers, the users themselves (myself included) set about trying to monetize their activities on social media. Socializing for its own sake quickly (d)evolved into network marketing. Eventually, those of us who did not become viral millionaires parlayed our social media cred into paid positions. Others simply walked away from the tools. We all returned to our familiar folds, even as we shook our fists at the masters of the social media universe for doing the same.

The pure-of-heart revolutionary will likely sneer at the bourgeois sell-outs, but they can do so with a clear conscious only if they are not at all concerned about hypocrisy. The revolutionary is a network marketer with a different call-to-action.

Indeed, the revolutionary, the marketer, and the poet are of imagination all compact. Whenever they see a crowd, they imagine an army they can rally to their own cause — a cause that not-coincidentally puts bread on their table too. It’s what we humans seem to do whenever we are given half-a-chance. We always seem to want to turn the lead of our relationships into the gold of wealth and power. Perhaps, it is the natural inverse of the fact that our relationships have always been the surest path to survival, power and wealth.

Social media, it now seems to me, was one more stage upon which we could strut and fret our way through this familiar tale. From time-to-time in human history, the status quo is upset by some unexpected and novel circumstance like social media. In these times of uncertainty, some outsiders move in, some insiders are forced out, and, eventually, the new and novel is normalized, contained, and pacified. As the dust settles, a new status quo consolidates and the longing for the next revolution begins.

With the benefit of hindsight, I suppose, the only remarkable thing is that I (and, perhaps, others) are surprised by this inevitable outcome. Like Charlie Brown, lying flat on his back staring at the sky, we are dumbfounded that we are on our backs again and, at the same time, incredulous that we fooled ourselves once more into believing for one glorious moment that it might end differently this time.

And it is true, if we look only at the abstract narrative arc: we are trapped, like Charlie Brown, Sisyphus, and the pendulum, in a seemingly futile inevitability. The devil and salvation, however, are in the details. With each push of the rock, every missed football, and each swing of the pendulum, we change and, if we are lucky, we learn. Progress, like science, begins and ends with failure. We push, we race, and we swing not to win but to experience. The reward comes when we return to the rock, race once more towards the football, and swing again into the void hoping against hope — believing — that this time it will end differently, even when we know that it won’t. It is in that moment of hope that we seem to escape the inevitable physics of our humanity. Then, the weight of the rock turns against us, the football is missed, and the pendulum begins it inescapable return. Arc after arc, life after life, generation after generation until, if we are lucky, our descendants live and are different enough from us to look back on our efforts to tell a story of progress. We are trapped but it is not necessarily futile. The trap itself begets the idea of escape and with that hope anything is possible.

Avoid stony indifference: prime your audiences directly

When it comes to communications planning, organizations of every ilk seem to spend a lot of time fussing about messages, tactics and products.

Communication, however — the very thing we are hoping to facilitate with this planning — only happens between people who are already connected and attending to each other — giving and sharing their attention.

In other words, a well-crafted message is only a message if people are ready to receive it and understand it. Otherwise, it is one more tree falling noiselessly in a forest.

The need to prime an audience for a message or story is the central insight of effective media relations. The very best people working in media relations build and nurture relationships with reporters and editors, to ensure they are ready to hear a pitch when it is made. The relationship — not the press release, key message or holding line — usually makes and shapes the story.

However, the story, much like the well-crafted key message, is only a story if people are ready to receive and understand it.  

Today, all of your audiences are very much like reporters and editors. Thousands of people are clamouring for their attention every minute of every day. Thanks to social media, they also have the means to reach thousands of people any minute of any day.

However, the influencer’s social media post, like the reporter’s front page story and your well-crafted message, is meaningful only if people are ready to receive and understand it.  

Thinking again of the example of effective media relations, we know the relationship is the most important consideration when it comes to priming an audience for a message. Relationships, we also know, happen between people. They can, in some cases, be nurtured digitally but nothing will ever surpass the effectiveness of regular and face-to-face interactions.  

This means, I think, that the people in an organization who most often directly interact with the organization’s primary target audience must be empowered to nurture the kind of relationship that will prime the audience to receive and understand the organization’s message. If it works for the media, it should work for other audiences too.

The challenge, of course, will be to nurture as many individual relationships as possible and to do it as efficiently as possible.

This goal has always been the siren song of media relations and, more recently, of social media influencers. A well-placed story or Instagram post, it is assumed, reaches a larger audience much more efficiently.

While this might have been true once upon a time, we now know that the chance of reaching a target audience through these means is much more of a gamble and not a sure thing. It is also much more difficult to control the message that is delivered. An organization’s own employees, I think, are in a much better position to prime its audiences effectively.

The other important consideration is operational.

Who in an organization is ultimately accountable for ensuring that all employees who engage with the organization’s audiences are empowered to prime them for its message?

Because this outcome involves communication, many different parts of an organization could share the responsibility. Crucially, however, if no one part of it is definitively accountable, the organization’s approach will be neither uniform nor coherent and ultimately piecemeal.

If your audience is hearing multiple messages from different parts of the organization, it won’t hear any of them or only those it wants to hear.   

Ultimately, there are many paths to your target audience, but, if your audience is not ready to receive and understand your message, it will not be communicated. The path taken will matter little.

If it makes good sense to prime journalists and editors and social media influencers to hear your message, it makes good sense to prime your target audience directly, relying on the employees who most often interact with it.

If no part of your organization is specifically accountable for ensuring that all relevant employees are empowered to prime your audience, it is likely that no one is doing it or, at best, it being done piecemeal or as an afterthought.

If that is true, your organization is overlooking the most important piece of the communication puzzle. Without the charitable attention of your audiences, your messages, tactics and products will encounter only stony indifference.