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”.

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.

Adventures in Vlogging: Educating Rita

I directed Educating Rita, the first production in Ottawa Little Theatre’s 105th season. It opens September 20.

I made a number of short video updates (“vlogs”) during the rehearsal process. You can watch them right here:

In the coming weeks, I expect to do a few more vlogs about my experience directing the show. Please check back here or subscribe to my YouTube channel, if you want to watch them too.

If you are reading this post because you read my bio in the Educating Rita program, please let me know in the comments section below. I hope you enjoyed the show!

Choose My Adventure: A Straw Poll.

A little help, please!

Without thinking too much about it, please pick one of these options …

I ask this question because I’m wondering if I should be more focused in my writing. You know, pick a niche and own it.

I also ask because I’ll be setting up a Patreon campaign. I want to make sure I frame the pitch around the kind of writing that is most appealing.

I also ask because I have so many writing ideas right now that I need some help setting priorities.

I look forward to the results. Thanks!

A Short History of Social Media: Hope, Defeat, and the Faint Hope of Renewal.

Winter Tree 2Once upon a time, in March of 2009, when I started using Twitter to support my recently acquired blogging habit, social media’s potential seemed to me to be unlimited. Its early promise lay in its ability to create new and unexpected connections and, ultimately, community. 

For about a year or two, anything seemed possible. Eager and creative people were using social media to connect with like-minded people regardless of the geography involved. Together, they worked and played to expand the bounds of the possible. It seemed like social media might break – at long last – the cultural dominance of mass marketing and its omnipresent brands.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that the early promise of social media was somewhat ephemeral. It originated, on the one hand, in the reluctance of the giants of mass marketing to embrace social media and, on the other hand, by the specific intentions and efforts of many of those early users. Once the big brands got on board, more middle-of-the-road organisations and users followed suit, and the culture of social media began to shift. Some of the best people were hired into those organizations and had to make social media more palatable to them. Many others simply lost interest, as users began to use the tools differently.

Other forces were at work too. The market demanded that social media generate revenue and profits. The owners of social media responded by embracing the old and familiar habit of selling advertising. They tweaked the tools to favour those who could and would pay to play, and those who paid to play played differently. Meanwhile, the mainstream media finally took an interest, focusing on social media success stories that made sense from the perspective of their business model, which requires attracting masses of eyeballs for advertisers. Very quickly, the goal of social media shifted from “connecting” to “going viral” and, as new users adopted the tools, they also adopted the culture of mass marketing achievement that was peddled to them. Users now acted like brands rather than people because they were told that was the secret to success.

Fortunately, people acting like brands is very dull indeed. I say “fortunately” because the hope for social media’s renewal lies precisely in this rising tide of dull, mass-marketed homogeneity. Users will respond, I hope, by rejecting the mass marketing ideology and by focusing once more on the promise and power of connecting with other like-minded people and communities in order to expand the bounds of the possible. It will, nevertheless, be much harder to connect these days with so much more noise in the mix, but, as they so often say, where there’s a will there’s a way.

 

A Tulip By Any Other Name: Facebook’s Market Capitalization Is A Symptom of What Ails Us.

Grey and BrutalImagine, for a moment, if Facebook broke — not for a few minutes, but for good. Like, forever.

How hard would it be for you to survive in the wake of its demise?

Certainly, the first few days would be frustrating, but, after a few days or, perhaps, a few weeks, your life – all of our lives – would carry on without any serious consequences.

Imagine now, if our drinking water and sewage systems or the electrical grid collapsed. How long do you think you would survive?

A few days? Sure. A few weeks? Probably, with a bit of careful planning. A few months? I’d guess no, especially if you had to survive Canada’s winter.

Don’t believe me? Think about it.

How would you get and store fresh water? How would you cook? How would you store fresh food? How would you avoid the cold of winter? Where would you safely dispose of your “human waste”? How would you work to earn a paycheck? In other words, how would you live?

In short, before long, you wouldn’t.

Now for the compare and contrast: The current market capitalization (Dec 22, 2015) of Facebook is about $CDN 410 billion. According to some estimates, it will cost about $31 billion to update and repair Canada’s water and wastewater systems. To upgrade all of Canada’s electricity infrastructure, it will cost about $300 billion.

Let that sink in.

The so-called rational market thinks Facebook is worth more than the complete refurbishment of an entire nation’s water and electricity infrastructure.

Facebook’s market capitalization is absurd. It is also symptom of what ails us. One of the most influential measures of value in Western society is driven by considerations which are wholly irrelevant to the short and long term well-being of most people. 

A social mechanism that generates so much money for so few people is not a measure of value. It is a measure of class and privilege. 

Monetizing Social Media: What Won’t Work

PipesImagine if advertising had been used to monetize the telephone.

“Please listen to this short word from our sponsor before we complete your call.”

“We will reconnect your call after this short message from our sponsor.”

I doubt it would have worked.

My hunch is that the advertising approach to monetization won’t work for social media either. It won’t work for the same reason it wouldn’t work for the telephone. It fucks with the very reason we’re using the tool. If you fuck with that, we won’t use it.

I’m all for monetization. But, please don’t adopt an approach to monetization that ruins our reason for using social media.