The Fickle Fate of Memes

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Attributed to Andy Warhol

If your name is Karen, I’m sorry. The internet has not been kind to you over the past 2 years. You’re probably to the point where you hesitate before you tell people your name. And it’s not your fault that your name has meme-famous for being synonymous with bitchy white privilege.

The odds are that you’re a nice person. I know several Karens and not one of them is a “Karen.” On the other hand, I do know a few “Karen”s (as my Facebook adventure from last week makes clear) and not one of them is named Karen.

But that’s the way memes roll. You’re not at the wheel. The trolling masses have claimed your fate and you just have to go along for the ride. That’s true for Karen, where there doesn’t seem to be an actual “Karen” to which the meme can be attributed. But it’s also true when the meme starts with an actual person – like Rebecca Black.

Remember Rebecca Black? No?  I’ll jog your memory –

Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
Today it is Friday, Friday (partyin’)
We-we-we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today

Rebecca Black

Yes, that Rebecca Black – star of “Friday”, which for many years was the most hated video in YouTube history (it still ranks at number 15 according to Wikipedia).

Admit it, when you remembered Rebecca Black, you did not do so fondly. But you know nothing about Rebecca Black. Memes seldom come bundled with a back story. So here are a few facts about Friday you didn’t know.

  • Black didn’t write the song. It was written by two LA music producers
  • Black was 13 at the time the video was shot
  • She had no input into the production or the heavy use of Autotune on her vocals
  • She didn’t see the video or hear the final version of the song before it was posted to YouTube

Although Black was put front and center into the onslaught of negativity the video produced, she had very little to do with the finished product. She was just a 13-year-old girl who was hoping to become a professional singer. And suddenly, she was one of the most hated and ridiculed people in the world. The trolls came out in force. And, unsurprisingly, they were merciless. But then mainstream media jumped on the bandwagon. Billboard and Time magazines, CNN, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and more all heaped ridicule on Black.

That’s a lot for any 13-year-old to handle.  To understand the impact a meme can have, take 11 minutes to watch the video above about Black from Vice. Black seems to have emerged from the experience as a pretty well-adjusted 22-year-old who is still hoping to turn the fame she got into a positive. She is – more than anything – just trying to regain control of her own story.

The fame Rebecca Black found may have turned out to be of the caustic kind when she found it, but at least she was looking for it. Ghyslain Raza never asked for it and never wanted it. He became a meme by accident.

Ghyslain who? Allow your memory to be jogged once again. You probably know Raza better as the Star Wars Kid.

In 2002, Ghyslain Raza was a shy 14-year-old from Quebec who liked to make videos. One of those videos was shot in the school AV room while Raza was “goofing around,” wielding a makeshift light saber he made from a golf ball retriever. That video fell into the hands of a classmate, who – with all the restraint middle schoolers are known for – promptly posted it online. Soon, a torrent of cyber bullying was unleashed on Raza as views climbed into the tens of millions.

The online comments were hurtful enough. More than a few commenters suggested that Raza commit suicide. Some offered to help. But it was no better for Razain in his real life. He had to change schools when what few friends he had evaporated. At the new school, it got worse, “In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me.”

Imagine for a moment yourself being 14 and dealing with this. Hell, imagine it at the age you are now. Life would be hell. It certainly was for Raza. In an interview with a Canadian news magazine, he said, “No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide, I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living.”

Both Black and Raza survived their ordeals. Aleksey Varner wasn’t so lucky. The over-the-top video resume he made in 2006, Impossible is Nothing, also became a meme when it was posted online without his permission. Actor Michael Cera was one of the many who did a parody. Like Black and Raza, Vayner battled to get his life back. He lost that battle in 2013. He died from a heart attack that a relative has said was brought on by an overdose of medication.

In our culture, online seems to equal open season. Everyone –  even celebrities that should know better – seem to think it’s okay to parody, ridicule, bully or even threaten death. What we conveniently forget is that there is a very real person with very real feelings on the other side of the meme. No one deserves that kind of fame.

Even if their name is Karen.

The Day My Facebook Bubble Popped

I learned this past week just how ideologically homogenous my Facebook bubble usually is. Politically, I lean left of center. Almost all the people in my bubble are the same.

Said bubble has been built from the people I have met in the past 40 years or so. Most of these people are in marketing, digital media or tech. I seldom see anything in my feed I don’t agree with — at least to some extent.

But before all that, I grew up in a small town in a very right-wing part of Alberta, Canada. Last summer, I went to my 40-year high-school reunion. Many of my fellow graduates stayed close to our hometown for those 40 years. Some are farmers. Many work in the oil and gas industry. Most of them would fall somewhere to the right of where I sit in my beliefs and political leanings.

At the reunion, we did what people do at such things — we reconnected. Which in today’s world meant we friended each other on Facebook. What I didn’t realize at the time is that I had started a sort of sociological experiment. I had poked a conservative pin into my liberal social media bubble.

Soon, I started to see posts that were definitely coming from outside my typical bubble. But most of them fell into the “we can agree to disagree” camp of political debate. My new Facebook friends and I might not see eye-to-eye on certain things, but hell — you are good people, I’m good people, we can all live together in this big ideological tent.

On May 1, 2020, things began to change. That was when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that 1,500 models of “assault-style” weapons would be classified as prohibited, effective immediately. This came after Gabriel Wortman killed 22 people in Nova Scotia, making it Canada’s deadliest shooting spree. Now, suddenly posts I didn’t politically agree with were hitting a very sensitive raw nerve. Still, I kept my mouth shut. I believed arguing on Facebook was pointless.

Through everything that’s happened in the four months since (it seems like four decades), I have resisted commenting when I see posts I don’t agree with. I know how pointless it is. I realize that I am never going to change anyone’s mind through a comment on a Facebook post.

I understand this is just an expression of free speech, and we are all constitutionally entitled to exercise it. I stuck with the Facebook rule I imposed for myself — keep scrolling and bite your tongue. Don’t engage.

I broke that rule last week. One particular post did it. This post implied that with a COVID-19 survival rate of almost 100%, why did we need a vaccine? I knew better, but I couldn’t help it.

I engaged. It was limited engagement to begin with. I posted a quick comment suggesting that with 800,000 (and counting) already gone, saving hundreds of thousands of lives might be a pretty good reason. Right or left, I couldn’t fathom anyone arguing with that.

I was wrong. Oh my God, was I wrong. My little comment unleashed a social media shit storm. Anti-vaxxing screeds, mind-control plots via China, government conspiracies to artificially over-count the death toll and calling out the sheer stupidity of people wearing face masks proliferated in the comment string for the next five days. I watched the comment string grow in stunned disbelief. I had never seen this side of Facebook before.

Or had I? Perhaps the left-leaning posts I am used are just as conspiratorial, but I don’t realize it because I happen to agree with them. I hope not, but perspective does strange things to our grasp of the things we believe to be true. Are we all — right or left — just exercising our right to free speech through a new platform? And — if we are — who am I to object?

Free speech is held up by Mark Zuckerberg and others as hallowed ground in the social-media universe. In a speech last fall at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg said: “The ability to speak freely has been central in the fight for democracy worldwide.”

It’s hard to argue that. The ability to publicly disagree with the government or any other holder of power over you is much better than any alternative. And the drafters of the U.S. Bill of Rights agreed. Freedom of speech was enshrined in the First Amendment. But the authors of that amendment — perhaps presciently — never defined exactly what constituted free speech. Maybe they knew it would be a moving target.

Over the history of the First Amendment, it has been left to the courts to decide what the exceptions would be.

In general, it has tightened the definitions around one area — what types of expression constitute a “clear and present danger” to others.  Currently, unless you’re specifically asking someone to break the law in the very near future, you’re protected under the First Amendment.

But is there a bigger picture here —one very specific to social media? Yes, legally in the U.S. (or Canada), you can post almost anything on Facebook.

Certainly, taking a stand against face masks and vaccines would qualify as free speech. But it’s not only the law that keeps society functioning. Most of the credit for that falls to social norms.

Social norms are the unwritten laws that govern much of our behavior. They are the “soft guard rails” of society that nudge us back on track when we veer off-course. They rely on us conforming to behaviors accepted by the majority.

If you agree with social norms, there is little nudging required. But if you happen to disagree with them, your willingness to follow them depends on how many others also disagree with them.

Famed sociologist Mark Granovetter showed in his Threshold Models of Collective Behavior that there can be tipping points in groups. If there are enough people who disagree with a social norm, it will create a cascade that can lead to a revolt against the norm.

Prior to social media, the thresholds for this type of behavior were quite high. Even if some of us were quick to act anti-socially, we were generally acting alone.

Most of us felt we needed a substantial number of like-minded people before we were willing to upend a social norm. And when our groups were determined geographically and comprised of ideologically diverse members, this was generally sufficient to keep things on track.

But your social-media feed dramatically lowers this threshold.

Suddenly, all you see are supporting posts of like-minded people. It seems that everyone agrees with you. Emboldened, you are more likely to go against social norms.

The problem here is that social norms are generally there because they are in the best interests of the majority of the people in society. If you go against them, by refusing a vaccine or to wear a face mask,  thereby allowing a disease to spread, you endanger others. Perhaps it doesn’t meet the legal definition of “imminent lawlessness,” but it does present a “clear and present danger.”

That’s a long explanation of why I broke my rule about arguing on Facebook.

Did I change anyone’s mind? No. But I did notice that the person who made the original post has changed their settings, so I don’t see the political ones anymore. I just see posts about grandkids and puppies.

Maybe it’s better that way.

Playing Fast and Loose with the Truth

A few months ago, I was having a conversation with someone and they said something that I was pretty sure was not true. I don’t know if it was a deliberate lie. It may have just been that this particular person was uninformed. But they said it with the full confidence that what they said was true. I pushed back a little and they instantly defended their position.

My first instinct was just to let it go. I typically don’t go out of my way to cause friction in social settings. Besides, it was an inconsequential thing. I didn’t really care about it. But I was feeling a little pissy at the time, so I fact checked her by looking it up on my phone. And I was right. She had stated something that wasn’t true and then doubled down on it.

Like I said, it was inconsequential – a trivial conversation point. But what if it wasn’t? What if there was a lot riding on whether or not what they said was true? What if this person was in a position of power, like – oh, I don’t know – the President of the United States?

The role of truth in our social environment is currently a thing in flux. I cannot remember a time when we have been more suspicious of what we see, read and hear on a daily basis. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, less than 40% of us trust what we hear on the news. And when that news comes through our social media feed, the level of distrust jumps to a staggering 80%

Catching someone in a lie has significant social and cognitive implications. We humans like to start from a default position of trust. If we can do that, it eliminates a lot of social friction and cognitive effort. We only go to not trusting when we have to protect ourselves.

Our proclivity for trust is what has made a global commerce and human advancement possible. But, unfortunately, it does leave us vulnerable. Collectively, we usually play by the same playbook I was initially going to use in my opening example. It’s just easier to go along with what people say, even if we may doubt that it’s true. This is especially so if the untruth is delivered with confidence. We humans love confidence in others because it means we don’t have to work as hard. Confidence is a signal we use to decide to trust and trust is always easier than distrust. The more confident the delivery, the less likely we are to question it.

It’s this natural human tendency that put the “con” in “con artist.” “Con” is short for confidence, and it originates with an individual named William Thompson, who plied the streets of New York in the 1840’s. He would walk up to a total stranger who was obviously well off and greet them like a long-lost friend. After a few minutes of friendly conversation during which the target would be desperately trying to place this individual, Thompson would ask for the loan of something of value. He would then set his hook with this, “Do you have confidence in me to loan me this [item] til tomorrow?”  The success of this scam was totally dependent on an imbalance of confidence; extreme confidence on the part of the con artist and a lack of confidence on the part of the target.

It is ironic that in an era where it’s easier than ever to fact check, we are seeing increasing disregard for the truth. According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump passed a misinformation milestone on July 9, making 20,000 false or misleading claims since he became President. He surged past that particular post when he lied 62 times on that day alone. I don’t even think I talk 62 times per day.

This habit of playing fast and loose with the truth is not Trump’s alone. Unfortunately, egregious lying has been normalized in today’s world. We have now entered an era where full time fact checking is necessary. On July 7, NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman said we need a Biden-Trump debate, but only on two conditions: First, only if Trump releases his tax returns, and second, only if there is a non-partisan real-time fact-checking team keeping the debaters accountable.

We have accepted this as the new normal. But we shouldn’t. There is an unacceptable cost we’re paying by doing so. And that cost becomes apparent when we think about the consequence of lying on a personal basis.

If we catch an acquaintance in a deliberate lie, we put them in the untrustworthy column. We are forced into a default position of suspicion whenever we deal with them in the future. This puts a huge cognitive load on us. As I said before, it takes much more effort to not trust someone. It makes it exponentially harder to do business with them. It makes it more difficult to enjoy their company. It introduces friction into our relationship with them.

Even if the lie is not deliberate but stated with confidence, we label them as uninformed. Again, we trust them less.

Now multiply this effort by everyone. You quickly see where the model breaks down. Lying may give the liar a temporary advantage, but it’s akin to a self-limiting predator-prey model. If it went unchecked, soon the liars would only have other liars to deal with. It’s just not sustainable.

Truth exists for a reason. It’s the best social strategy for the long term. We should fight harder for it.

Are We Killing Politeness?

One of the many casualties of our changing culture seems to be politeness. When the President of the United States is the poster child for rude behavior, it’s tough for politeness to survive. This is especially true in the no-holds-barred, digitally distanced world of social media.

I consider myself to be reasonably polite. Being so, I also expect this in others. Mild rudeness makes me anxious. Excessive rudeness makes me angry. This being the case, I am troubled by the apparent decline of civility. So today I wanted to take a look at politeness and why it might be slipping away from us.

First of all, we have to understand the politeness is not universal. What is considered polite in one culture is not in another.

Secondly, being polite is not the same as being friendly. Or empathetic. Or being respectful of others. Or being compassionate, according to this post  from The Conversation. There is a question of degree and intent here. Being polite is a rather unique behavior that encompasses both desirable and less desirable qualities. And that begs the question: What is the purpose of politeness? Is a less-polite world a good or a bad thing?

First, let’s look at the origin of the world. It comes from the Latin “politus,” meaning “polished — made smooth.” Just in case you’re wondering, “politics” does not come from the same root. That comes from the Greek word for “citizen” — “polites.”

One last etymological nugget. The closest comparison to polite may be “nice,” which originates from the Latin “nescius,” meaning “ignorant”. Take that for what it’s worth.

This idea of politeness as a type of social “polish” really comes from Europe — and especially Britain. There, politeness was linked with class hierarchies. Being polite was a sign of good breeding — a dividing line between the high-born and the riffraff. This class-bound definition came along with the transference of the concept to North America.

Canada is typically considered one of the most polite nations in the world. As a Canadian who has traveled a fair amount, I would say that’s probably true.

But again, there are variations in the concept of politeness and how it applies to both Canadians and Americans.

When we consider the British definition of politeness, you begin to see how Americans and Canadians might respond differently to it. To understand that is to understand much of what makes up our respective characters.

As a Canadian doing much of my business in the U.S. for many years, I was always struck by the difference in approaches I found north and south of the 49th parallel. Canadians businesses we met with were unfailingly polite, but seldom bought anything. Negotiating the prospect path in Canada was a long and often frustrating journey.

American businesses were much more likely to sign a contract. On the whole, I would also say they were friendlier in a more open and less-guarded way. I have to admit that in a business setting, I preferred the American approach.

According to anthropologists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, who have extensively researched politeness, there is negative and positive politeness. Negative politeness is concern with adhering to social norms, often by deferring to someone or something else.

This is Canadian politeness personified. Our entire history is one of deference to greater powers, first to our colonial masters — the British and French — and, more recently, from our proximity to the cultural and economic master that is the U.S.

For Canadians, deferral is survival. As former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said about the U.S., “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Negative politeness is a way to smooth out social friction, but there is good and bad here. Ideally it should establish a baseline of trust, respect and social capital. But ultimately, politeness is a consensus of compromise.  And that’s why Canadians are so good at it.  Negative politeness wants everything to be fair.

But then there is positive politeness, which is more American in tone and nature. This is a desire to help others, making it more closely linked to compassion. But in this noble motive there is also a unilateral defining of what is right and wrong. Positive politeness tries to make everything right, based on the protagonist’s definition of what that is.

The two sides of politeness actually come from different parts of the brain. Negative politeness comes from the part of the brain that governs aggression. It is all about applying brakes to our natural instincts. But positive politeness comes from the part of the brain that regulates social bonding and affiliation.

When you understand this, you understand the difference between Canadians and Americans in what we consider polite. For the former, our definition comes handed down from the British class-linked origins, and has morphed into a culture of compromise and deferral.

The American definition comes from many generations of being the de facto moral leaders of the free world.

We (Canadians) want to be nice. You (Americans) want to be right. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not the same thing. Not by a long shot.

What Trump has done (with a certain kind of perverse genius) has played on this national baseline of compassion. He has wantonly discarded any vestiges of politeness and split the nation on what it means to be right.

But by eliminating politeness, you have also eliminated that governor of our behavior. Reactions about what is right and wrong are now immediate, rough and unfiltered.

The polish that politeness brings — that deferral of spoken judgement for even a brief moment in order to foster cooperation — is gone. We have no opportunity to consider other perspectives. We have no motive to cooperate. This is abundantly apparent on every social media platform.

In game theory, politeness is a highly successful strategy commonly called “tit for tat.” It starts from assuming a default position of fairness from the other party, continuing to cooperate if this proves to be true, and escalating to retaliation if it’s not. But this tactic evolved in a world of face-to-face encounters. Somehow, it seems less needed in a divided world where rudeness and immediate judgement are the norm.

Still, I will cling to my notions of politeness. Yes, sometimes it seems to get in the way of definitive action. But on the whole, I would rather live in a world that’s a little nicer and a little more polite, even if that seems foolish to some of you.

The Potential Woes of Working from Home

Many of you have now had a few months under your belt working virtually from home rather than going to the office. At least some of you are probably considering continuing to do so even after COVID recedes and the all clear is given to return to normal. A virtual workplace makes all kinds of rational sense – both for employees and employers. But there are irrational reasons why you might want to think twice before you fully embrace going virtual.

About a decade ago, my company also went with a hybrid virtual/physical workplace. As the CEO, there was a lot I liked about it. It was a lot more economical than leasing more office space. It gave us the flexibility to recruit top talent in areas where we had no physical presence. And it seemed that technology was up to the task of providing the communication and work-flow tools we needed to support our virtual members.

On the whole, our virtual employees also seemed to like it. It gave them more flexibility in their workday. It also made it less formal. If you wanted to work in pajamas and bunny slippers, so be it. And with a customer base spread across many time zones, it also made it easier to shift client calls to times that were mutually acceptable.

It seemed to be a win-win. For awhile. Then we noticed that all was not wonderful in work-from-home land.

I can’t say productivity declined. We were always a results-based workplace so as long as the work got done, we were happy. But we started to feel a shift in our previously strong corporate culture. We found team-member complaints about seemingly minor things skyrocket. We found less cohesion across teams. Finally – and most critically – it started to impact our relationships with our customers.

Right about the time all this was happening, we were acquired by a much bigger company. One of the dictates that was handed down from the new owners was that we establish physical offices and bring our virtual employees back to the mothership for the majority of their work-week. At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of the negative consequences of going virtual so I initially fought the decision. But to be honest, I was secretly happy. I knew something wasn’t quite right. I just wasn’t sure what it was. I suspected it might have been our new virtual team members.

The move back to a physical workplace was a tough one. Our virtual team members were very vocal about how this was a loss of their personal freedom. New HR fires were erupting daily and I spent much of my time fighting them. This, combined with the inevitable cultural consequences of being acquired, often made me shake my head in bewilderment. Life in our company was turning into a shit-show.

I wish I could say that after we all returned to the same workplace, we joined hands and sang a rousing chorus of Kumbaya. We didn’t. The damage had been done. Many of the disgruntled former virtual team members ended up moving on. The cultural core of the company remained with our original team members who had worked in the same office location for several years. I eventually completed my contract and went my own way.

I never fully determined what the culprit was. Was it our virtual team members? Or was it the fact that we embraced a virtual workplace without considering unintended consequences. I suspected it was a little of both.

Like I said, that was a decade ago. From a rational perspective, all the benefits of a virtual workplace seem even more enticing than they did then. But in the last 10 years, there has been research done on those irrational factors that can lead to the cracks in a corporate culture that we experienced.

Mahdi Roghanizad is an organizational behavior specialist from Ryerson University in Toronto. He has long looked at the limitations of computerized communication. And his research provides a little more clarity into our failed experiment with a virtual workplace.

Roghanizad has found that without real-life contact, the parts of our brain that provide us with the connections needed to build trust never turn on. In order to build a true relationship with another person, we need something called the Theory of Mind. According to Wikipedia, “Theory of mind is necessary to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.”

But unless we’re physically face-to-face with another person, our brain doesn’t engage in this critical activity. “Eye contact is required to activate that theory of mind and when the eye contact is not there, the whole other signal information is not processed by our brain,” said Roghanizad. Even wearing a pair of sunglasses is enough to short circuit the process. Relegating contact to a periodic Zoom call guarantees that this empathetic part of our brains will never kick in.

But it’s not just being eye-ball to eye-ball. There are other non-verbal cues we rely on to connect with other people and create a Theory of Mind. Other research has shown the importance of pheromones and physical gestures like crossing your arms and leaning forward or back. This is why we subconsciously start to physically imitate people we’re talking to. The stronger the connection with someone, the more we imitate them.

This all comes back to the importance of bandwidth in the real world. A digital connection cannot possibly incorporate all the nuance of a face-to-face connection. And whether we realize it or not, we rely on that bandwidth to understand other people. From that understanding comes the foundations of trusted relationships. And trusted relationships are the difference between a high-functioning work team and a dysfunctional one.

I wish I knew that ten years ago.

A World Flattened by Social Media

“Life is What Happens to You While You’re Busy Making Other Plans”

John Lennon

The magic of our lives is in the nuance, the unexpected and – sometimes – the mundane. It depends on bandwidth – a full spectrum of experience and stimuli that extends beyond the best attempts of our imagination to put boundaries around it. As Mr. Lennon knew, life is lived in a continual parade of moments that keeps marching past us, whether we’ve planned them or not.

Of course, our current ability to make life plans is not what it once was. In fact, most aspects of our former lives have gone into a forced hibernation. Suddenly, our calendars are completely clear and we have a lot of unexpected time on our hands. So many of us have been spending more of that time on social media. I don’t know about you, but I’m finding that a poor substitute for the real world.

I’ve noticed a few of my friends have recently posted that they’re taking a break from Facebook. That’s not unprecedented. But I think this time might be different. Speaking for myself, I have recently been experiencing a strange combination of anxiety and ennui when I spend any time on Facebook.

First, there are the various posts of political and moral outrage. I agree with almost all of them, in direction if not necessarily in degree.

And then there are the various posts of inspirational quotes and assorted pictures of loaves of bread, pets, gardens, favorite albums, our latest hobby, walks in the woods and kids doing adorable things. It is the assorted bric-a-brac of our new normal under COVID.

I like and/or agree with almost all these things. Facebook’s targeting algorithm has me pretty much pegged. But if the sum total of my Facebook feed defined the actual world I had to live in, I would get pretty bored with it in the first 15 minutes.

It would be like seeing the world only in blue and orange. I like blue. I’m okay with orange. But I don’t want to see the world in only those two colours. And that’s what Facebook does.

This is not a slight against Facebook. None of us (with the possible exception of Mark Zuckerberg) should expect it to be a substitute for the real world. But now that a lot of us have been restricted from experiencing big chunks of the real world and have substituted time with social media for it, we should realize the limitations of what it can provide.

Facebook and other social media platforms give us a world without nuance, without bandwidth, without serendipity and without context. Further, it is a world that has been algorithmically altered and filtered specifically for a data defined avatar of who we really are. We’re not even getting the full bandwidth of what is on the platform. We’re getting what happens to squeeze past the content filters that act as our own personalized gatekeepers.

What the past 3 months has taught me is that when we rely on social media for experience, information or perspective, we have to take it for what it is. As a source of information, it is at best highly restricted and biased. As a source of social connection and experience, it is mercilessly flattened and stripped of all nuance. As a substitute for the real world, it comes up woefully short.

Perhaps the biggest restriction with social media is that everything we see is planned and premeditated, either by humans or an algorithm. The content that is posted is done so with clear intent. And the content we actually see has been targeted to fit within some data driven pigeonhole that an algorithm has decided represents us. What we’re missing is exactly what John Lennon was referring to when he talked about what life is: the unplanned, the unexpected, the unintended.

We’re missing an entire spectrum of color beyond blue and orange.

How Social Media is Rewiring our Morality

Just a few short months ago, I never dreamed that one of the many fault lines in our society would be who wore a face mask and who didn’t. But on one day last week, most of the stories on CNN.com were about just that topic.

For reasons I’ll explain at the end of this post, the debate has some interesting moral and sociological implications. But before we get to that, let’s address this question: What is morality anyway?

Who’s On First?

In the simplest form possible, there is one foundational evolutionary spectrum to what we consider our own morality, which is: Are we more inclined to worry about ourselves or worry about others? Each of us plots our own morals somewhere on this spectrum.

At one end we have the individualist, the one who continually puts “me first.” Typically, the morals of those focused only on themselves concern individual rights, freedoms and beliefs specific to them. This concern for these rights does not extend to anyone considered outside their own “in” group.

As we move across the spectrum, we next find the familial moralist: Those who worry first about their own kin. Morality is always based on “family first.”

Next comes those who are more altruistic, as long as that altruism is directed at those who share common ground with themselves.  You could call this the “we first” group.

Finally, we have the true altruist, who believes in a type of universal altruism and that a rising tide truly lifts all boats.  

This concept of altruism has always been a bit of a puzzle for early evolutionists. In sociological parlance, it’s called proactive prosociality — doing something nice for someone who is not closely related to you without being asked. It seems at odds with the concept of the Selfish Gene, first introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book of the same name in 1976.

But as Dawkins has clarified over and over again since the publication of the book, selfish genes and prosociality are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, symbiotic.

Moral Collaboration

We have spent about 95% or our entire time as a species as hunter-gatherers. If we have evolved a mechanism of morality,  it would make sense to be most functional in that type of environment.

Hunter-gatherer societies need to collaborate. This is where the seeds of reciprocal altruism can be found. A group of people who work together to ensure continued food supplies will outlive and out-reproduce a group of people who don’t.  From a selfish gene perspective, collaboration will beat stubborn individualism.

But this type of collaboration comes with an important caveat: It only applies to individuals that live together in the same communal group.

Social conformity acts as a manual override on our own moral beliefs. Even in situations where we may initially have a belief of what is right and wrong, most of us will end up going with what the crowd is doing.

It’s an evolutionary version of the wisdom of crowds. But our evolved social conformity safety net comes with an important caveat: it assumes that everyone in the group is  in the same physical location and dealing with the same challenge.  

There is also a threshold effect there that determines how likely we are to conform. How we will act in any given situation will depend on a number of factors: how strong our existing beliefs are, the situation we’re in, and how the crowd is acting. This makes sense. Our conformity is inversely related to our level of perceived knowledge. The more we think we know, the less likely it is that we’ll conform to what the crowd is doing.

We should expect that a reasonably “rugged” evolutionary environment where survival is a continual struggle would tend to produce an optimal moral framework somewhere in the middle of familial and community altruism, where the group benefits from collaboration but does not let its guard down against outside threats.

But something interesting happens when the element of chronic struggle is removed, as it is in our culture. It appears that our morality tends to polarize to opposite ends of the spectrum.

Morality Rewired

What happens when our morality becomes our personal brand, part of who we believe we are? When that happens, our sense of morality migrates from the evolutionary core of our limbic brain to our cortex, the home of our personal brand. And our morals morph into a sort of tribal identity badge.

In this case, social media can short-circuit the evolutionary mechanisms of morality.

For example, there has been a proven correlation  between prosociality and the concept of “watching eye.” We are more likely to be good people when we have an audience.

But social media twists the concept of audience and can nudge our behavior from the prosocial to the more insular and individualistic end of the spectrum.

The successfulness of social conformity and the wisdom of crowds depends on a certain heterogeneity in the ideological makeup of the crowd. The filter bubble of social media strips this from our perceived audience, as I have written. It reinforces our moral beliefs by surrounding us with an audience that also shares those beliefs. The confidence that comes from this tends to push us away from the middle ground of conformed morality toward outlier territory. Perhaps this is why we’re seeing the polarization of morality all too evident today.

As I mentioned at the beginning, there may never have been  a more observable indicator of our own brand of morality than the current face-mask debate.

In an article on Businessinsider.com, Daniel Ackerman compared it to the crusade against seat belts in the 1970’s. Certainly when it comes to our perceived individual rights and not wanting to be told what to do, there are similarities. But there is one crucial difference. You wear seat belts to save your own life. You wear a face mask to save other lives.

We’ve been told repeatedly that the main purpose of face masks is to stop you spreading the virus to others, not the other way around. That makes the decision of whether you wear a face mask or not the ultimate indicator of your openness to reciprocal altruism.

The cultural crucible in which our morality is formed has changed. Our own belief structure of right and wrong is becoming more inflexible. And I have to believe that social media may be the culprit.

Our Complicated Relationship with Heroes

It’s not really surprising that we think more about heroes in times of adversity. Many of our most famous superheroes were born in the crucible of crisis: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America were all created during the Great Depression or the early years of World War II.

Today, we are again craving heroes. They are fabricated out of less fantastic stuff: taxi drivers who give free rides to the airport for patients, nurses who staff the front lines of our hospitals, chefs who provide free food to essential workers and a centenarian (as of tomorrow) who is raising millions for his national health care system by walking around his garden every day.

These are ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things. They are being raised to the rank of hero thanks to the surging tides of social media.

Again, this isn’t surprising. We are still in the early stages of what, for most of us, will likely be the defining crisis of our lifetimes. We desperately need some good news.

In fact, everybody’s favorite paper salesman/CIA operative/husband of Mary Poppins — John Krasinski — has curated a weekly webcast collection of feel-good salutes to local heroes called “Some Good News.” As of the writing of this post, it had collectively racked up close to 50 million views.

Krasinski has himself become a hero by doing things like throwing a surprise virtual prom for all the grads who were derived of theirs by the pandemic, or letting a group of ER nurses take the field at an eerily empty Fenway Park.

Having heroes should be a good thing. They should inspire us to be better people  — to become heroes ourselves. Right?

Well…

It’s complicated.

On the surface of it, hero worship is probably a good thing, especially if our heroes are doing things we all could do, if we were so inclined.  “If a 99.9-year-old man can raise millions for a national health service, there must be something I can do.”

On that very theme, the Heroic Imagination Project was formed to help us all be heroes. Headed up by famed psychologist Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, HIP came out of his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. “If,” reasoned Zimbardo, “we all have the capacity to be evil, given the right circumstances, we should also all have the capacity to be heroes, again under the right circumstances.”

But there are a few hurdles between us and heroism. One of them, ironically, comes part and parcel with the very idea of hero worship.

In an extensive analysis of how superheroes reflect the American mythology of their own times, Dublin writer Sally Rooney shows how a country uses its heroes to reassure itself of its own goodness: The superhero makes sense in times of crisis. Reducing the vast complex of nationhood into the body of an individual means periods of geopolitical turmoil can be repackaged as moments of psychological stress. In the mirror of the superhero, America is reassured of its good qualities. Physical strength is good, as is the ability to make wisecracks under pressure. Masculinity is good, and women are okay as long as they can do very high kicks while making wisecracks. Once America is on the scene, order can be restored.”

So, we use heroes as a moral baseline to make us feel better about collective selves. They can help us reaffirm our faith in our national ideologies. A picture of a nurse in scrubs silently staring down a protester demanding a haircut makes us feel that things are still OK  in the heartland of the nation. It’s a reverse adaptation of the Lake Wobegone effect: “If this person represents the best of what we (as Americans) are, then the average can’t be all that bad.”

Unfortunately, this leads right into the second hurdle, the Bystander Effect: “If something happens that demands heroic action and there are a lot of people around, surely there’s a hero in the crowd that will step forward before I have to.” Being a hero demands a certain amount of sacrifice. As long as someone else is willing to make that sacrifice, we don’t have to — but we can still feel good about ourselves by giving it a like,  or, if we’re truly motivated, sharing it on our feed.

As the greatest real-time sociological experiment in our lifetime continues to play out, we might have yet another example of an unintended consequence brought on by social media. Based on our Facebook feeds, it appears that we have more heroes than ever. That’s great, but will it encourage us or keep us from stepping up and becoming heroes ourselves?

A New Definition of Social

I am an introvert. My wife is an extrovert. Both of us have been self-isolating for about 5 weeks now.  I don’t know if our experiences are representative of introverts and extroverts as a group, but my sample size has – by necessity – been reduced to a “n” of 2. Our respective concepts of what it means to be social have been disruptively redefined, but in very different ways.

The Extro-Version

You’ve probably heard of Dunbar’s Number. It was proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar. It’s the “suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” The number, according to Dunbar, is about 150. But that number is not an absolute. it’s a theoretical limit. Some of us can juggle way more social connections than others.

My wife’s EQ (emotional quotient) is off the charts. She has a need to stay emotionally connected to a staggering number of people. Even in normal times, she probably “checks in” with dozens of people every week. Before COVID-19, this was done face-to-face whenever possible.

Now, her empathetic heart feels an even greater need to make sure everyone is doing okay. But she has to do it through socially distanced channels. She uses text messaging a lot. But she also makes at least a few phone calls every day for those in her network who are not part of the SMS or social media universe.

She has begun using Zoom to coordinate virtual get-togethers of a number of her friends. Many in this circle are also extroverts. A fair number of them are – like my wife – Italian. You can hear them recharging their social batteries as the energy and volume escalates. It’s not cappuccino and biscotti but they are making do with what they’ve got.

Whatever the channel, it has been essential for my wife to maintain this continuum of connection.

The Intro-Version

There are memes circulating that paint the false picture that the time has finally come for us introverts. “I’ve been practicing for this my entire life,” says one. They consistently say that life in lockdown is much harder for extroverts than introverts. They even hint that we should be in introvert’s heaven. They are wrong. I am not having the time of my life.

I’m not alone. Other introverts are having trouble adjusting to a social agenda being forced upon them by their self-isolated extrovert friends and colleagues. We introverts seldom get to write the rules of social acceptability, even in a global pandemic.

If you type “Are introverts more likely” into Google, it will suggest the following ways to complete that sentence: “to be depressed”, “to be single”, “to have anxiety”, “to be alcoholic”, and “to be psychopaths”. The world is not built for introverts.

Understanding introversion vs extroversion is to understand social energy. Unlike my wife for whom social interactions act as a source of renewal, for me they are a depletion of energy. If I’m going to make the effort, it better be worth my while. A non-introvert can’t understand that. It’s often interpreted as aloofness, boredom or just being rude. It’s none of these. It’s just our batteries being run down.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think most introverts are antisocial. We’re just “differently” social. We need connections the same as extroverts. But those connections are of a certain kind. It’s true that introverts are not good at small talk. But under the right circumstances, we do love to talk. Those circumstances are just more challenging in the current situation.

Take Zoom for instance. My wife, the extrovert, and myself, the introvert, have done some Zoom meetings side by side. I have noticed a distinct difference in how we Zoom. But before I talk about that, let me set a comparative to a more typical example of an introvert’s version of hell: the dreaded neighborhood house party.

As an introvert in this scenario, I would be constantly reading body language and non-verbal cues to see if there was an opportunity to reluctantly crowbar my way into a conversation. I would only do so if the topic interested me. Even then, I would be subconsciously monitoring my audience to see if they looked bored. On the slightest sign of disinterest, I would awkwardly wind down the conversation and retreat to my corner.

It’s not that I don’t like to talk. But I much prefer sidebar one-on-one conversations. I don’t do well in environments where there is too much going on. In those scenarios, introverts tend to clam up and just listen.

Now, consider a Zoom “Happy Hour” with a number of other people. All of that non-verbal bandwidth we Introverts rely on to pick and choose where we expend our limited social energy is gone.   Although Zoom adds a video feed, it’s a very low fidelity substitute for an in-the-flesh interaction.

With all this mental picking and choosing happening in the background, you can understand why introverts are slow to jump into the conversational queue and, when we finally do, we find that someone else (probably an extrovert) has started talking first. I’m constantly being asked, “Did you say something Gord?”, at which point everyone stops talking and looks at my little Zoom cubicle, waiting for me to talk. That, my friends, is an introvert’s nightmare.

Finally, I Get the Last Word

Interestingly, neither my wife nor I are using Facebook much for connection. She has joined a few Facebook groups, one of which is a fan club for our provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. Dr. Henry has become the most beloved person in B.C.

And I’m doing what I always tell everyone else not to do; follow my Facebook newsfeed and go into self-isolated paroxysms of rage about the Pan-dumb-ic and the battle between science and stupidity.

There is one social sacrifice that both my wife and I agree on. The thing we miss most is the ability to hug those we love.

Whipped Into a Frenzy

Once again, we’re in unprecedented territory. According to the CDC – COVID-19 is the first global pandemic since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. While Facebook was around in 2009, it certainly wasn’t as pervasive or impactful as it is today. Neither – for that matter – was H1N1 when compared to COVID-19. That would make COVID-19 the first true pandemic in the age of social media.

While we’re tallying the rapidly mounting human and economic costs of the pandemic on a day-by-day basis, there is a third type of damage to consider. There will be a cognitive cost to this as well.

So let’s begin by unpacking the psychology of a pandemic. Then we’ll add the social media lens to that.

Emotional Contagion aka “The Toilet Paper Syndrome”

Do you have toilet paper at your local store? Me neither. Why?

The short answer is that there is no rational answer. There is no disruption in the supply chain of toilet paper. If you were inclined to stock up on something to battle COVID-19, hand sanitizer would be a much better choice.  Search as you might, there is no logical reason why people should be pulling toilet paper by the pallet full out of their local Costco.

There is really only one explanation; panic is contagious. It’s called emotional contagion. And there is an evolutionary explanation for it. We evolved as herd animals and when our threats came from the environment around us, it made sense to panic when you saw your neighbor panicking. Those that were on the flanks of the herd acted as an early warning system for the rest. When you saw panic close to you, the odds were very good that you were about to be eaten, trampled or buried under a rockslide. We’re hardwired to live by the principle of “Monkey see, monkey do.”

Here’s the other thing about emotional contagion. It doesn’t work very well if you have to take time to think about it. Panicked responses to threats from your environment will only save your life if they happen instantly. Natural selection has ensured they bypass the slower and more rational processing loops of our brain.

But now let’s apply the social media lens to this. Before modern communication tools were invented, emotional contagion was limited by the constraints of physical proximity. It was the original application of social distancing. Emotions could spread to a social node linked by physical proximity, but it would seldom jump across ties to another node that was separated by distance.

Then came Facebook, a platform perfectly suited to emotional contagion. Through it, emotionally charged messages can spread like wildfire regardless of where the recipients might be – creating cascades of panic across all nodes in a social network.

Now we have cascades of panic causing – by definition – irrational responses. And that’s dangerous. As Wharton Management professor Sigal Barsade said in a recent podcast, “I would argue that emotional contagion, unless we get a hold on it, is going to greatly amplify the damage caused by COVID-19”

Why We Need to Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On – the famous slogan from World War II Britain – is more than just a platitude that looks good on a t-shirt. It’s a sound psychological strategy for survival, especially when faced with threats in a complex environment. We need to think with our whole brain and we can only do that when we’re not panicking.

Again, Dr. Barsade cautions us “One of the things we also know from the research literature is that negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, cause us to become very rigid in our decision-making. We’re not creative. We’re not as analytical, so we actually make worse decisions.”

Let’s again consider the Facebook Factor (in this case, Facebook being my proxy for all social media). Negative emotional messages driven by fear gets clicked and shared a lot on social media. Unfortunately, much of that messaging is – at best – factually incomplete or – at worst – a complete fabrication. A 2018 study from MIT showed that false news spreads six times faster on social media than factual information.

It gets worse. According to Pew Research, one in five Americans said that social media is their preferred source for news, surpassing newspapers. In those 18 -to 29, it was the number one source. When you consider the inherent flaws in the methodology of a voluntary questionnaire, you can bet the actual number is a lot higher.

Who Can You Trust?

Let’s assume we can stay calm. Let’s further assume we can remain rational. In order to make rational decisions, you need factual information.

Before 2016, you could generally rely on government sources to provide trustworthy information. But that was then. Now, we live in the reality distortion field that daily spews forth fabricated fiction from the Twitter account of Donald. J. Trump, aka the President of the United States.

The intentional manipulation of the truth by those we should trust has a crippling effect on our ability to respond as a cohesive and committed community. As recently as just a week and a half ago, a poll found that Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say that COVID-19 posed an imminent threat to the U.S. By logical extension, that means that Republicans were half as likely to do something to stop the spread of the disease.

My Plan for the Pandemic

Obviously, we live in a world of social media. COVID-19 or not, there is no going back. And while I have no idea what will happen regarding the pandemic, I do have a pretty good guess how this will play out on social media. Our behaviours will be amplified through social media and there will be a bell curve of those behaviors stretching from assholes to angels. We will see the best of ourselves – and the worst – magnified through the social media lens.

Given that, here’s what I’m planning to do. One I already mentioned. I’m going to keep calm. I’m going to do my damnedest to make calm, rational decisions based on trusted information (i.e. not from social media or the President of the United States) to protect myself, my loved ones and anyone else I can.

The other plan? I’m going to reread everything from Nassam Nicholas Taleb. This is a good time for all of us to brush up on our understanding of robustness and antifragility.