Drifting Alone on the Social Network

This was not your ordinary Facebook post (if there is such a thing).

For one thing, it was long. Almost 1600 words long. That’s longer than this column. Secondly, it was raw. It was written by somebody in deep pain who laid their soul bare for their entire network to see. I barely knew this person and I was given a look into the deepest and darkest part of their lives. The post told the story of the break-up of a marriage and a struggle with depression. It was a disturbing blow – by – blow chronicle of someone hitting the bottom.

A strange thing happened while I was reading the post. At one level, I responded as I hope any decent human would. I felt the pain of this person – even though we were barely acquaintances – and wanted to help in some way. But – in a sort of meta-awareness – I monitored myself as a sample of one to see what the longer-term impact was. This plea through social media seemed extraordinary in a number of ways. What were the possible unintended consequences of this online confessional?

I should add an additional – traumatic – context to this story. This post was catalyzed by the recent suicide of a well-known member of the industry I used to work in. Again, I was made aware of the tragedy through several posts on Facebook. And again, I barely knew the person involved but somewhere along the line we had connected through Facebook. In the last two days of his life, he had updated his status. He was young. He had a family. He should have had everything to live for. But then again, I really didn’t know him or his circumstances. I certainly didn’t know his pain. Judging by the shock I was in the comments on Facebook, I don’t think any of us knew.

And that’s what prompted this post I’m writing about. Obviously, this person wanted us to know his pain. He was asking for help. But he was also offering it to anyone who needed it.  And he choose to do it through Facebook. This should be social media at its finest…a moving example of people connecting when it counts most. The post certainly touched those that read it. 80 comments – all supportive – followed the post. Many contained their own abbreviated confessions of going through similar pain. It seemed cathartic. I would even call it inspirational.

So why was I so troubled by this? Something seemed wrong.

Social Networks are Built on Weak Ties

Perhaps the problem is in the nature of our online social networks. In the 1990’s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested our brains had a cognitive limit on the number of stable social relationships we could maintain. The number was 150, which has since become known as Dunbar’s Number.

In follow up research, released in the last few years, Dunbar has found that within this circle of 150 acquaintances, there are smaller circles of increasingly more intimate friends. The next layer in is what we would probably call “friends” – people we chose to spend time with. That’s about 50 people.  Then we have “close friends” – people we tend to socialize with more frequently. On average, we would have 15 of these. And finally, we have our closest friends – those we are intimately connected to. Dunbar puts our cognitive limit at 5 for these most precious connections.

I have about 450 “Friends” on Facebook. If Dunbar’s Number is correct, this is three times the number of social connections I can mentally coordinate. By necessity, they’ll almost all what Mark Granovetter would refer to as “weak ties” – social connections that are not actively maintained. And my network is relatively small. Others in the online industry typically have social networks numbering well over a thousand connections. Yet, with all these thousands of connections, did they not have one of those very close friends they could reach out to in person? Perhaps they did, but the personal investment might have been too high.

The Psychology of the Online Confessional

We all need to be heard. And sometimes, it seems easier to confide in a stranger than a friend. We can talk without worrying about all the baggage we are carrying. Our closest friends know all about that baggage. The personal costs are much higher when we choose to go to a friend. I think- subconsciously – we sometimes tend to gravitate towards “weak ties” when things are at their worst. It’s the reason that psychotherapists and confessional booths exist.

Also, a confession is easier when it’s physically detached from the feedback. We can craft the language before we post. We are not sitting across from someone who might judge us. We are posting alone, and this can bring its own sense of comfort. But, unfortunately, that comfort can be short lived.

The Half Life of Online Empathy

Eventually, the empathy dies away and the social shaming begins. I wish this wasn’t’ the case – I wish humans were better than this – but we’re not. We’re just human.

If you’re not an absolute sociopath, you can’t help but be empathetic when someone lays their grieving soul bare for you. And the investment required to post a supportive comment is minimal. It is determined by the same cognitive algorithm I talked about last week regarding “slacktivism.” It’s a few seconds of our life and a handful of carefully selected words. At the time, we are probably sincere in our offer of help, but then we move on. This is a weak tie – a person we hardly know. We have no skin in the game.

If that seems callous and cruel on my part, there are previous examples to point to. Over and over again, we pour out our support when the pain is fresh, only to move on to the next thing more and more quickly. This is true when the tragedies are global in nature. I suspect the same is true when they’re more localized, with people we are passingly acquainted with. And these people have now gone public with their pain. It is now part of their digital footprint. Today, we may feel nothing but empathy. But how will we feel 6 weeks hence? Or 6 months? I would like to think we would remain noble, kind and gracious in our thoughts, but most of the evidence points to the contrary.

I didn’t want to be negative in the writing of this. I sincerely hope that such online pleas for help bring aid and comfort to the person in question. As I said, this was all sparked by someone who never got the help he needed at the right time. Perhaps a weak tie online is better than no tie at all.

But I will remain a strong believer in the power of a true person-to-person connection – with all its messiness and organic imperfection. We need more of that. And the more time we spend alone keying in our thoughts in front of the light blue glow of a monitor, the less likely that is to happen.

 

Why The Paradox of Choice Doesn’t Apply to Netflix

A recent article in Mediapost reported that Millennials – and Baby Boomers for that matter – prefer broad choice platforms like Netflix and YouTube to channels specifically targeted to their demo. A recent survey found that almost 40% of respondents aged 18 – 24 used Netflix most often to view video content.

Author Wayne Friedman mused on the possibility that targeted channels might be a thing of the past: “This isn’t the mid-1990s. Perhaps audience segmentation into different networks — or separately branded, over-the-top digital video platforms  — is an old thing.”

It is. It’s aimed at an old world that existed before search filters. It was a world where Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice was a thing. That’s not true in a world where we can quickly filter our choices.

Humans in almost every circumstance prefer the promise of abundance to scarcity. It’s how we’re hardwired. The variable here is our level of confidence in our ability to sort through the options available to us. If we feel confident that we can heuristically limit our choices to the most relevant ones, we will always forage in a richer environment.

In his book, Schwartz used the famous jam experiment of Sheena Iyengar to show how choice can paralyze us. Iyengar’s research team set up a booth with samples of jam in a gourmet food market. They alternated between a display of 6 jams and one of 24 options. They found that in terms of actually selling jams, the smaller display outperformed the larger one by a factor of 10 to 1. The study “raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory,” Dr. Iyengar later said, “but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”

Yes, and no. What isn’t commonly cited is that in the study 60% of shoppers were drawn to the larger display, while only 40% were hooked by the smaller one. Yes, fewer bought, but that probably came down to a question of being able to filter, not the attraction of the display itself. Also, other researchers (Scheibehenne, Griefeneder and Todd, 2010) have ran into problems trying to verify the findings of the original study. They found that “on the basis of the data, no sufficient conditions could be identified that would lead to a reliable occurrence of choice overload.”

We all have a subconscious “foraging algorithm” that we use to sort through the various options in our environment. One of the biggest factors in this algorithm is the “cost of searching” – how much effort do we need to expend to find the thing we’re looking for? In today’s world, that breaks down into two variables: “finding” and “filtering.” A platform that’s rich in choice – like Netflix – virtually eliminates the cost of “finding.” We are confident that a platform that offers a massive number of choices will have something we will find interesting. So now it comes to “filtering.” If we feel confident enough in the filtering tools available to us, we will go with the richest environment available to us.  The higher our degree of confidence in our ability to “filter”, the less we will want our options limited for us.

So, when does it make sense to limit the options available to an audience? There are some conditions identified by Scheibehenne at al where the Paradox of Choice is more likely to happen:

Unstructured Choices – The harder it is to categorize the choices available, the more likely it is that it will be more difficult to filter those options.

Choices that are Hard to Compare to Each Other – If you’re comparing apples and oranges, either figuratively or literally, the cognitive load required to compare choices increases the difficulty.

The Complexity of Choices – The more information we have to juggle when we’re making a choice, the greater the likelihood that our brains may become overtaxed in trying to make a choice.

Time Pressure when Making a Choice – If you hear the theme song of Jeopardy when you’re trying to make a choice you’re more likely to become frustrated when trying to sort through a plethora of options.

If you are in the business of presenting options to customers, remember that the Paradox of Choice is not a hard and fast rule. In fact, the opposite is probably true – the greater the perception of choice, the more attractive it will be to them. The secret is in providing your customers the ability to filter quickly and efficiently.

 

The Pros and Cons of Slacktivism

Lately, I’ve grown to hate my Facebook feed. But I’m also morbidly fascinated by it. It fuels the fires of my discontent with a steady stream of posts about bone-headedness and sheer WTF behavior.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Many of us are morally outraged by our social media feeds. But does all that righteous indignation lead to anything?

Last week, MediaPost reran a column talking about how good people can turn bad online by following the path of moral outrage to mob-based violence. Today I ask, is there a silver lining to this behavior? Can the digital tipping point become a force for good, pushing us to take action to right wrongs?

The Ever-Touchier Triggers of Moral Outrage

As I’ve written before, normal things don’t go viral. The more outrageous and morally reprehensible something is, the greater likelihood there is that it will be shared on social media. So the triggering forces of moral outrage are becoming more common and more exaggerated. A study found that in our typical lives, only about 5% of the things we experience are immoral in nature.

But our social media feeds are algorithmically loaded to ensure we are constantly ticked off. This isn’t normal. Nor is it healthy.

The Dropping Cost of Being Outraged

So what do we do when outraged? As it turns out, not much — at least, not when we’re on Facebook.

Yale neuroscientist Molly Crockett studies the emerging world on online morality. And she found that the personal costs associated with expressing moral outrage are dropping as we move our protests online:

“Offline, people can harm wrongdoers’ reputations through gossip, or directly confront them with verbal sanctions or physical aggression. The latter two methods require more effort and also carry potential physical risks for the punisher. In contrast, people can express outrage online with just a few keystrokes, from the comfort of their bedrooms…”

What Crockett is describing is called slacktivism.

You May Be a Slacktivist if…

A slacktivist, according to Urbandictionary.com, is “one who vigorously posts political propaganda and petitions in an effort to affect change in the world without leaving the comfort of the computer screen”

If your Facebook feed is at all like mine, it’s probably become choked with numerous examples of slacktivism. It seems like the world has become a more moral — albeit heavily biased — place. This should be a good thing, shouldn’t it?

Warning: Outrage Can be Addictive

The problem is that morality moves online, it loses a lot of the social clout it has historically had to modify behaviors. Crockett explains:

“When outrage expression moves online it becomes more readily available, requires less effort, and is reinforced on a schedule that maximizes the likelihood of future outrage expression in ways that might divorce the feeling of outrage from its behavioral expression…”

In other words, outrage can become addictive. It’s easier to become outraged if it has no consequences for us, is divorced by the normal societal checks and balances that govern our behavior and we can get a nice little ego boost when others “like” or “share” our indignant rants. The last point is particularly true given the “echo chamber” characteristics of our social-media bubbles. These are all the prerequisites required to foster habitual behavior.

Outrage Locked Inside its own Echo Chamber

Another thing we have to realize about showing our outrage online is that it’s largely a pointless exercise. We are simply preaching to the choir. As Crockett points out:

“Ideological segregation online prevents the targets of outrage from receiving messages that could induce them (and like-minded others) to change their behavior. For politicized issues, moral disapproval ricochets within echo chambers but only occasionally escapes.”

If we are hoping to change anyone’s behavior by publicly shaming them, we have to realize that Facebook’s algorithms make this highly unlikely.

Still, the question remains: Does all this online indignation serve a useful purpose? Does it push us to action?

The answer seems to be dependent on two factors, both imposing their own thresholds on our likelihood to act. One is if we’re truly outraged or not. Because showing outrage online is so easy, with few consequences and the potential social reward of a post going viral, it has all the earmarks of a habit-forming behavior. Are we posting because we’re truly mad, or just bored?

“Just as a habitual snacker eats without feeling hungry, a habitual online shamer might express outrage without actually feeling outraged,” writes Crockett.

Moving from online outrage to physical action — whether it’s changing our own behavior or acting to influence a change in someone else – requires a much bigger personal investment on almost every level. This brings us to the second threshold factor: our own personal experiences and situation. Millions of women upped the ante by actively supporting #Metoo because it was intensely personal for them. It’s one example of an online movement that became one of the most potent political forces in recent memory.

One thing does appear to be true. When it comes to social protest, there is definitely more noise out there. We just need a reliable way to convert that to action.

Why Do Good People Become Bad Online?

Here are some questions I have:

  • When do crowds turn ugly?
  • Why do people become Trolls online?
  • When do opinions suddenly become moralizing and what is the difference between the two?

Whether we like it or not, online connection engenders some decidedly bad behavior. It’s one of those unintended consequences that I like to talk about – a behavioral side effect that’s catalyzed by technology.  And, if this is the case, we should know a little more about the psychology behind this behavior.

Modified Mob Behavior

So, when does a group become a mob? And when does a mob turn ugly? There are some aspects of herd mentality that seem to be particularly conducive to online connections. A group turns into a mob when their behaviors become synced to a common purpose. A recent study from the University of Southern California found two predictive signals in social media behavior that indicate when a group protest may become a violent mob.

Tipping Over the Threshold from an Opinion to a Moral

One of the things they found is that when we go from talking about our opinions to preaching morality, things can take a nasty turn. Let’s imagine a spectrum from loosely held opinions on the left end – things you’re not that emotionally invested in – to beliefs and then on the morals at the right end. This progression also correlates to different ways the brain processes the respective thoughts. At the least intense left end of the spectrum – opinions – we can process them with relative detached rationality. But as we move to the right, different parts of the brain start kicking in and begin to raise the emotional stakes. When we believe we’re talking about morals, we suddenly have strongly held beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. Morals are defined as “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.”

This triggers our ancient and universal feelings about fairness, Harm, betrayal, subversion and degradation – the planks of moral foundation theory. The researchers in the USC study found that people are more likely to endorse violence when they moralize the issue. When there are clearly held beliefs about right and wrong, violence seems acceptable.

Violence Needs Company

This moralizing signal is not necessarily tied to being online. But the second predictive signal is. The researchers also found that if people believe others share their views, they are more likely to tip over the threshold from peaceful protest to violence. This is Mark Granovetter’s crowd threshold effect that I’ve talked about before. In social media, this effect is amplified by content filtering and the structure of your network. Like-minded people naturally link to each other and their posts make for remarkably efficient indicators of their beliefs. It’s very easy in a social network to feel that everybody you know feels the same way that you do. The degree of violent language can escalate quickly through online posts until the entire group is pushed over the threshold into a model of behavior that would be unthinkable as a disconnected individual.

Trolls, Trolls Everywhere

Another study, this time from Stanford, shows that any of us can become a troll. We would like to think that trolls are just a particularly ubiquitous small group of horrible people. But this research indicates that trollism is more situational than previously thought. In other words, if we’re in a bad mood, we’re more likely to become a troll.

But it’s not just our mood. Here again Granovetter’s threshold model plays a part. Negative comments beget more negative comments, starting a downward spiral of venom. The researchers did a behavioral test where participants had to do either an easy or a difficult task and then had to read an online article that had either three neutral comments or three negative, troll-like comments. The results were eye-opening. In the group that was assigned an easy task and read the article that had the neutral comments, about 35% posted a negative comment. Knowing that one in three of us seem to have a low threshold for becoming a troll is not exactly encouraging, but it gets worse. If participants either did the difficult test or read negative comments, the likelihood for posting a troll-like comment jumped to 50%. And if participants got both the difficult test and read negative comments, the number climbed to 68%! In the three-part study, another factor that could lead to becoming a troll included the time that posts were made. Late Sunday and Monday nights are the worst time of the week for negative posts and Twitter bullying hit its peak between 5 pm and 8 pm on Sunday. While we’re on the subject, Donald Trump tends to tweet early in the morning and his most inflammatory tweets come on Saturdays.

But when it comes to trolling, there’s something else at play here as well. Yet another study, this time from Mt. Helen University in Australia, found that our own brand of empathy can also predict whether we’re going to become a troll or not. There is cognitive and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy means you can understand other people’s emotions – you know what will make them happy or mad. But affective empathy means you can internalize and experience the emotions of another – if they’re happy, you’re happy. If they’re mad, you’re mad. Not surprisingly, Trolls tend to have high cognitive empathy but low affective empathy. Obviously, there were plenty of such people before the Internet, but they’ve now gained the perfect forum for their twisted form of empathy. They can incite negativity relatively free from social consequence and reprisal. Even if the comments made are not anonymous, the poster can hide behind a degree of detachment that would be impossible in a physical environment.

So, why should we care? Again, it comes back to this idea of the unintended social consequences of technology. Increasingly, our connections are digital in nature. And for reasons already stated, I worry that these types of connections may bring out the worst in us.

 

What the Hell is “Time Spent” with Advertising Anyway?

Over at MediaPost’s Research Intelligencer, Joe Mandese is running a series of columns that are digging into a couple of questions:

  • How much time are consumers spending with advertising; and,
  • How much is that time worth.

The quick answers are 1.84 hours daily and about $3.40 per hour.

Although Joe readily admits that these are ‘back of the envelope” calculations, regular Mediapost reader and commentator Ed Papazian points out a gaping hole in the logic of these questions: an hour of being exposed to ads does not equal an hour spent with those ads and it certainly doesn’t mean an hour being aware of the ads.

Ignoring this fundamental glitch is symptomatic of the conceit of the advertising business in general. They believe there is a value exchange possible where paying consumers to watch advertising is related to the effectiveness of that advertising. The oversimplification required to rationalize this exchange is staggering. It essentially ignores the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. It assumes that audience attention is a simple door that can be opened if only the price is right.

It just isn’t that simple.

Let’s go back to the concept of time spent with media. There are many studies done that quantify this. But the simple truth is that media is too big a catchall category to make this quantification meaningful. We’re not even attempting to compare apples and oranges. We’re comparing an apple, a jigsaw and a meteor. The cognitive variations alone in how we consume media are immense.

And while I’m on a rant, let’s nuke the term “consumption” all together, shall we? It’s probably the most misleading word ever coined to define our relationship with media. We don’t consume media any more than we consume our physical environment. It is an informational context within which we function. We interact with aspects of it with varying degrees of intention. Trying to measure all these interactions with a single yardstick is the same as trying to measure our physical interactions with water, oxygen, gravity and an apple tree by the same criterion.

Even trying to dig into this question has a major methodological flaw – we almost never think about advertising. It is usually forced on our consciousness. So to use a research tools like a survey – requiring respondents to actively consider their response – to explore our subconscious relationship with advertising is like using a banana to drive a nail. It’s the wrong tool for the job. It’s the same as me asking you how much you would pay per hour to have access to gravity.

This current fervor all comes from a prediction from Publicis Groupe Chief Growth Officer Rishad Tobaccowala that the supply of consumer attention would erode by 20% to 30% in the next five years. Tobaccowala – by putting a number to attention – led to the mistaken belief that it’s something that could be managed by the industry. The attention of your audience isn’t slipping away because advertising and media buying was mismanaged. It’s slipping away because your audience now has choices, and some of those choices don’t include advertising. Let’s just admit the obvious. People don’t want advertising. We only put up with advertising when we have no choice.

“But wait,” the ad industry is quick to protest, “In surveys people say they are willing to have ads in return for free access to media. In fact, almost 80% of respondents in a recent survey said that they prefer the ad-supported model!”

Again, we have the methodological fly in the ointment. We’re asking people to stop and think about something they never stop and think about. You’re not going to get the right answer. A better answer would be to think about what happens when you get the pop up when you go to a news site with your ad-blocker on. “Hey,” it says, “We notice you’re using an ad-blocker.” If you have the option of turning the ad-blocker off to see the article or just clicking a link that let’s you see it anyway, which are you going to choose? That’s what I thought. And you’re probably in the ad business. It pays your mortgage.

Look, I get that the ad business is in crisis. And I also understand why the industry is motivated to find an answer. But the complexity of the issue in front of us is staggering and no one is served well by oversimplifying it down to putting a price tag on our attention. We have to understand that we’re in an industry where – given the choice – people would rather not have anything to do with us. Unless we do that, we’ll just be making the same mistakes over and over again.

 

 

The Rain in Spain

Olá! Greetings from the soggy Iberian Peninsula. I’ve been in Spain and Portugal for the last three weeks, which has included – count them – 21 days of rain and gale force winds. Weather aside, it’s been amazing. I have spent very little of that time thinking about online media. But, for what they’re worth, here are some random observations from the last three weeks:

The Importance of Familiarity

While here, I’ve been reading Derek Thompson’s book Hitmakers. One of the critical components of a hit is a foundation of familiarity. Once this is in place, a hit provides just enough novelty to tantalize us. It’s why Hollywood studios seem stuck on the superhero sequel cycle.

This was driven home to me as I travelled. I’m a do-it-yourself traveller. I avoid packaged vacations whenever and wherever possible. But there is a price to be paid for this. Every time we buy groceries, take a drive, catch a train, fill up with gas or drive through a tollbooth (especially in Portugal) there is a never-ending series of puzzles to be solved. The fact that I know no Portuguese and very little Spanish makes this even more challenging. I’m always up for a good challenge, but I have to tell you, at the end of three weeks, I’m mentally exhausted. I’ve had more than enough novelty and I’m craving some more familiarity.

This has made me rethink the entire concept of familiarity. Our grooves make us comfortable. They’re the foundations that make us secure enough to explore. It’s no coincidence that the words “family” and “familiar” come from the same etymological root.

The Opposite of Agile Development

seville-catheral-altarWhile in Seville, we visited the cathedral there. The main altarpiece, which is the largest and one of the finest in the world, was the life’s work of one man, Pierre Dancart. He worked on it for 44 years of his life and never saw the finished product. In total, it took over 80 years to complete.

Think about that for a moment. This man worked on this one piece of art for his entire life. There was no morning where he woke up and wondered, “Hmm, what am I going to do today?” This was it, from the time he was barely more than a teenager until he was an old man. And he still never got to see the completed work. That span of time is amazing to me. If built and finished today, it would have been started in 1936.

The Ubiquitous Screen

I love my smartphone. It has saved my ass more than once on this trip. But I was saddened to see that our preoccupation with being connected has spread into every nook and cranny of European culture. Last night, we went for dinner at a lovely little tapas bar in Lisbon. It was achingly romantic. There was a young German couple next to us who may or may not have been in love. It was difficult to tell, because they spent most of the evening staring at their phones rather than at each other.

I have realized that the word “screen” has many meanings, one of which is a “barrier meant to hide things or divide us.”

El Gordo

Finally, after giving my name in a few places and getting mysterious grins in return, I have realized that “gordo” means “fat” in Spanish and Portuguese.

Make of that what you will.

Why Do Cities Work?

It always amazes me how cities just seem to work. Take New York – for example. How the hell does everything a city of nine million needs to continue to exist happen? Cities are perhaps the best example I can think of how complex adaptive systems can work in the real world. They may be the answer to our future as the world becomes a more complex and connected place.

It’s not due to any centralized sense of communal collaboration. If anything, cities make us more individualistic. Small towns are much more collaborative. I feel more anonymous and autonomous in a big city than I ever do in a small town. It’s something else, more akin to Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand – but different. Millions of individual agents can all do their own thing based on their own requirements, but it works out okay for all involved.

Actually, according to Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, cities are more than just okay. He calls them mankind’s greatest invention. “So much of what humankind has achieved over the past three millennia has come out of the remarkable collaborative creations that come out of cities. We are a social species. We come out of the womb with the ability to sop up information from people around us. It’s almost our defining characteristic as creatures. And cities play to that strength. Cities enable us to learn from other people.”

Somehow, cities manage to harness the collective potential of their population without dipping into chaos. This is all the more amazing when you consider that cities aren’t natural for humans – at least – not in evolutionary terms. If you considered just that, we should all live in clusters of 150 people – otherwise known as Dunbar’s number. That’s the brain’s cognitive limit for keeping track of our own immediate social networks. It we’re looking for a magic number in terms of maximizing human cooperation and collaboration that would be it. But somehow cities allow us to far surpass that number and still deliver exponential returns.

Most of our natural defense mechanisms are based on familiarity. Trust, in it’s most basic sense, is Pavlovian. We trust strangers who happen to resemble people we know and trust. We are wary of strangers that remind us of people who have taken advantage of us. We are primed to trust or distrust in a few milliseconds, far under the time threshold of rational thought. Humans evolved to live in communities where we keep seeing the same faces over and over – yet cities are the antithesis of this.

Cities work because it’s in everyone’s best interest to make cities work. In a city, people may not trust each other, but they do trust the system. And it’s that system – or rather – thousands of complementary systems, that makes cities work. We contribute to these systems because we have a stake in them. The majority of us avoid the Tragedy of the Commons because we understand that if we screw the system, the system becomes unsustainable and we all lose. There is an “invisible network of trust” that makes cities work.

The psychology of this trust is interesting. As I mentioned before, in evolutionary terms, the mechanisms that trigger trust are fairly rudimentary: Familiarity = Trust. But system trust is a different beast. It relies on social norms and morals – on our inherent need to conform to the will of the herd. In this case, there is at least one degree of separation between trust and the instincts that govern our behaviors. Think of it as a type of “meta-trust.” We are morally obligated to contribute to the system as long as we believe the system will increase our own personal well-being.

This moral obligation requires feedback. There needs to be some type of loop that shows our that our moral behaviors are paying off for us. As long as that loop is working, it creates a virtuous cycle. Moral behaviors need to lead to easily recognized rewards, both individually and collectively. As long as we have this loop, we will continue to be governed by social norms that maintain the systems of a city.

When we look to cities to provide us clues on how to maintain stability in a more connected world, we need to understand this concept of feedback. Cities provide feedback through physical proximity. When cities start to break down, the results become obvious to all who live there. But when it’s digital bonds rather than physical ones that link our networks, feedback becomes trickier. We need to ponder other ways of connecting cause, effect and consequences. As we move from physical communities to ideological ones, we have to overcome the numbing effects of distance.