Marketing Vs. Advertising: Making It Personal

Last year I wrote a lot about the erosion of the advertising bargain between advertisers and their audience. Without rehashing at length, let me summarize by simply stating that we no longer are as accepting of advertising because we now have a choice. One of those columns sparked a podcast on Beancast (the relevant discussion started off the podcast).

As the four panelists – all of whom are marketing/advertising professionals – started debating the topic, they got mired down in the question of what is advertising, and what is marketing. They’re not alone. It confuses me too.

I’ve spent all my life in marketing, but this was a tough column to write. I really had to think about what the essential differences of advertising and marketing were – casting aside the textbook definitions and getting to something that resonated at an intuitive level. I ran into the same conundrum as the panelists. The disruption that is washing over our industry is also washing away the traditional line drawn between the two. So I did what I usually do when I find something intellectually ambiguous and tried to simplify down to the most basic analogy I could think of. When it comes to me – as a person – what would  be equivalent to marketing, what would be advertising, and – just to muddy the waters a little more – what would be branding?  If we can reduce this to something we can gut check, maybe the answers will come more easily.

Let’s start with branding. Your Brand is what people think of you as a person. Are you a gentleman or an asshole? Smart, funny, pedantic, prickly, stunningly stupid? Fat and lazy or lean and athletic. Notice that I said your brand is what other people think of you, not what you think of yourself. How you conduct yourself as a person will influence the opinions of others, but ultimately your brand is arbitrated one person at a time, and you are not that person. Branding involves both parties, but not necessarily at the same time. It can be asynchronous. You live your life and by doing so, you create ripples in the world. People develop opinions of you.

To me, although it involves other people, marketing is somewhat faceless and less intimate. In a way, It’s more unilateral than advertising. Again, to take it back to our personal analogy, marketing is simply the social you – the public extension of who you are. One might say that your personal approach to marketing is you saying “this is me, take it or leave it!”

But advertising is different. It focuses on a specific recipient. It implies a bilateral agreement. Again, analogously speaking, it’s like asking another person for a favor. There is an implicit or explicit exchange of value. It involves an overt attempt to influence.

Let’s further refine this into a single example. You’re invited to a party at a friend’s house. When you walk in the door, everyone glances over to see who’s arrived. When they recognize you, each person immediately has their own idea of who you are and how they feel about you. That is your brand. It has already been formed by your marketing, how you have interacted with others your entire life. At that moment of recognition, your own brand is beyond your control.

But now, you have to mingle. You scan the room and see someone you know who is already talking to someone else. You walk over, hoping to work your way into their conversation. That, right there, is advertising. You’re asking for their attention. They have to decide whether to give it to you or not. How they decide will be dependent on how they feel about you, but it will also depend on what else they’re doing – ie –  how interesting the conversation they’re already engaged in is. Another variable is their expectation of what a conversation with you might hold – the anticipated utility of said conversation. Are you going to tell them some news that would be of great interest to them – ask for a favor – or just bore them to tears? So, the success of the advertising exchange in the eyes of the recipient can be defined by three variables: emotional investment in the advertiser (brand love), openness to interruption and expected utility if interrupted.

If this analogy approximates the truth of what is the essential nature of advertising.  Why do I feel Advertising is doomed? I don’t think it has anything to do with branding. I’ve gone full circle on this, but right now, I believe brands are more important than ever. No, the death of advertising will be attributable to the other two variables: do we want to be interrupted and; if the answer is yes, what do we expect to gain by allowing the interruptions?

First of all, let’s look at our openness to interruption. It may sound counter intuitive, but our obsession with multitasking actually makes us less open to interruption.

Think of how we’re normally exposed to advertising content. It’s typically on a screen of some type. We may be switching back and forth between multiple screens.  And it’s probably right when we’re juggling a full load of enticing cognitive invitations: checking our social media feeds, deciding which video to watch, tracking down a wanted website, trying to load an article that interests us. The expected utility of all these things is high. We have “Fear of Missing Out” – big time! This is just when advertising interrupts us, asking us to pay attention to their message.

“Paying attention” is exactly the right phrase to use. Attention is a finite resource that can be exhausted – and that’s exactly what multi-tasking does. It exhausts our cognitive resources. The brain – in defence – becomes more miserly with those resources. The threshold that must be met to allow the brain to allocate attention goes up. The way the brain does this is not simply to ignore anything not meeting the attention worthy threshold, but to actually mildly trigger a negative reaction, causing a feeling of irritation with whatever it is that is begging for our attention. This is a hardwired response that is meant to condition us for the future. The brain assumes that if we don’t want to be interrupted once, the same rule will hold true for the future. Making us irritated is a way to accomplish this. The reaction of the brain sets up a reinforcing cycle that build up an increasingly antagonistic attitude towards advertising.

Secondly, what is the expected utility of paying attention to advertising? This goes hand in hand with the previous thought – advertising was always type of a toll gate we had to pass through to access content, but now, we have choices. The expected utility of the advertising supported content has been largely removed from the equation, leaving us with just the expected utility of the advertisement itself. The brain is constantly running an algorithm that balances resource allocation against reward and in our new environment, the resource allocation threshold keeps getting higher as the reward keeps getting lower.

Dear Facebook. It’s Not Me, It’s You

So, let’s say, hypothetically, one wanted to get break up with Facebook? Just how would one do that?

I heard one person say that swearing off Facebook was a “position of privilege.” It was an odd way of putting it, until I thought about it a bit. This person was right. Much as I’d like to follow in retired tech journalist Walter Mossberg’s footsteps and quit Facebook cold turkey, I don’t think I can. I am not in that position. I am not so privileged.

This is no way condones Facebook and its actions. I’m still pretty pissed off about that. I suspect I might well be in an abusive relationship. I have this suspicion because I looked it up on Mentalhealth.net, a website offered by the American Addictions Centers. According to them, an abusive relationship is

where one thing mistreats or misuses another thing. The important words in this definition are “mistreat” and “misuse”; they imply that there is a standard that describes how things should be treated and used, and that an abuser has violated that standard.

For the most part, only human beings are capable of being abusive, because only human beings are capable of understanding how things should be treated in the first place and then violating that standard anyway.”

That sounds bang on when I think about how Facebook has treated its users and their personal data. And everyone will tell you that if you’re in an unhealthy relationship, you should get out. But it’s not that easy. And that’s because of Metcalfe’s Law. Originally applied to telecommunication networks, it also applies to digitally mediated social networks. Metcalfe’s Law states that states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.”

The example often used is a telephone. If you’re the only person with one, it’s useless. If everyone has one, it’s invaluable. Facebook has about 2.3 billion users worldwide. That’s one out of every three people on this planet. Do the math. That’s a ton of value. It makes Facebook what they call very “sticky” in Silicon Valley.

But it’s not just the number of users that makes Facebook valuable. It’s also the way they use it. Facebook has always intended to become the de facto platform for broad based social connection. As such, it is built of “weak ties” – those social bonds defined by Mark Granovetter almost 50 years ago which connect scattered nodes in a network. To go back to the afore-mentioned “position of privilege” comment, the privilege in this case is a lack of dependence on weak ties.

 

My kids could probably quite Facebook. At least, it would be easier for them then it would be for me. But they also are not in the stage of their life where weak ties are all that important. They use other platforms, like Snapchat, to communicate with their friends. It’s a channel built for strong ties. If they do need to bridge weak ties, they escalate their social postings, first to Instagram, then – finally – to their last resort: Facebook. It’s only through Facebook where they’ll reach parents, aunts, cousins and grandmas all at once.

It’s different for me. I have a lifetime of accumulated weak ties that I need to connect with all the time. And Facebook is the best way to do it. I connect with various groups, relatives, acquaintances and colleagues on an as needed basis.  I also need a Facebook presence for my business, because it’s expected by others that need to connect to me. I don’t have the privilege of severing those ties.

So, I’ve decided that I can’t quit Facebook. At least, not yet. But I can use Facebook differently – more impersonally. I can use it as a connection platform rather than a channel for personal expression. I can make sure as little of my personal data falls into Facebook’s hands as possible. I don’t need to post what I like, how I’m feeling, what my beliefs are or what I do daily. I can close myself off to Facebook, turning this into a passionless relationship. From now on, I’ll consider it a tool –  not a friend, not a confidante, not something I can trust – just a way to connect when I need to. My personal life is none of Facebook’s business – literally.

For me, it’s the first step in preventing more abuse.

The Strange Polarity of Facebook’s Moral Compass

For Facebook, 2018 came in like a lion, and went out like a really pissed off  Godzilla with a savagely bad hangover after the Mother of all New Year’s Eve parties.  In other words, it was not a good year.

As Zuckerberg’s 2018 shuddered to its close, it was disclosed that Facebook and Friends had opened our personal data kimonos for any of their “premier” partners. This was in direct violation of their own data privacy policy, which makes it even more reprehensible than usual. This wasn’t a bone-headed fumbling of our personal information. This was a fully intentional plan to financially benefit from that data in a way we didn’t agree to, hide that fact from us and then deliberately lie about it on more than one occasion.

I was listening to a radio interview of this latest revelation and one of the analysts  – social media expert and author Alexandria Samuel – mused about when it was that Facebook lost its moral compass. She has been familiar with the company since its earliest days, having the opportunity to talk to Mark Zuckerberg personally. In her telling, Zuckerberg is an evangelist that had lost his way, drawn to the dark side by the corporate curse of profit and greed.

But Siva Vaidhyanathan – the Robertson Professor of Modern Media Studies at the University of Virgina –  tells a different story. And it’s one that seems much more plausible to me. Zuckerberg may indeed be an evangelist, although I suspect he’s more of a megalomaniac. Either way, he does have a mission. And that mission is not opposed to corporate skullduggery. It fully embraces it. Zuckerberg believes he’s out to change the world, while making a shitload of money along the way. And he’s fine with that.

That came as a revelation to me. I spent a good part of 2018 wondering how Facebook could have been so horrendously cavalier with our personal data. I put it down to corporate malfeasance. Public companies are not usually paragons of ethical efficacy. This is especially true when ethics and profitability are diametrically opposed to each other. This is the case with Facebook. In order for Facebook to maintain profitability with its current revenue model, it has to do things with our private data we’d rather not know about.

But even given the moral vacuum that can be found in most corporate boardrooms, Facebook’s brand of hubris in the face of increasingly disturbing revelations seems off-note – out of kilter with the normal damage control playbook. Vaidhyanathan’s analysis brings that cognitive dissonance into focus. And it’s a picture that is disturbing on many levels.

siva v photo

Siva Vaidhyanathan

According to Vaidhyanathan, “Zuckerberg has two core principles from which he has never wavered. They are the founding tenets of Facebook. First, the more people use Facebook for more reasons for more time of the day the better those people will be. …  Zuckerberg truly believes that Facebook benefits humanity and we should use it more, not less. What’s good for Facebook is good for the world and vice-versa.

Second, Zuckerberg deeply believes that the records of our interests, opinions, desires, and interactions with others should be shared as widely as possible so that companies like Facebook can make our lives better for us – even without our knowledge or permission.”

Mark Zuckerberg is not the first tech company founder to have a seemingly ruthless god complex and a “bigger than any one of us” mission. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Larry Ellison; I could go on. What is different this time is that Zuckerberg’s chosen revenue model runs completely counter to the idea of personal privacy. Yes, Google makes money from advertising, but the vast majority of that is delivered in response to a very intentional and conscious request on the part of the user. Facebook’s gaping vulnerability is that it can only be profitable by doing things of which we’re unaware. As Vaidhyanathan says, “violating our privacy is in Facebook’s DNA.”

Which all leads to the question, “Are we okay with that?” I’ve been thinking about that myself. Obviously, I’m not okay with it. I just spent 720 words telling you so. But will I strip my profile from the platform?

I’m not sure. Give me a week to think about it.

Avoiding the Truth: Dodging Reality through Social Media

“It’s very hard to imagine that the revival of Flat Earth theories could have happened without the internet.”

Keith Kahn-Harris – Sociologist and author of “Denial: The Unspeakable Truth” – in an interview on CBC Radio

On November 9, 2017, 400 people got together in Raleigh, North Carolina. They all believe the earth is flat. This November 15th and 16th, they will do it again in Denver, Colorado. If you are so inclined, you could even join other flat earthers for a cruise in 2019. The Flat Earth Society is a real thing. They have their own website. And – of course – they have their own Facebook page (actually, there seems to be a few pages. Apparently, there are Flat Earth Factions.)

Perhaps the most troubling thing is this: it isn’t a joke. These people really believe the earth is flat.

How can this happen in 2018? For the answer, we have to look inwards – and backwards – to discover a troubling fact about ourselves. We’re predisposed to believe stuff that isn’t true. And, as Mr. Kahn-Harris points out, this can become dangerous when we add an obsessively large dose of time spent online, particularly with social media.

It makes sense that there was an evolutionary advantage to a group of people who lived in the same area and dealt with the same environmental challenges to have the same basic understanding about things. These commonly held beliefs allowed group learnings to be passed down to the individual: eating those red berries would make you sick, wandering alone in the savannah was not a good idea, coveting thy neighbor’s wife might get you stabbed in the middle of the night. Our beliefs often saved our ass.

Because of this, it was in our interest to protect our beliefs. They formed part of our “fast” reasoning loop, not requiring our brain to kick in to do any processing. Cognitive scientists refer to this as “fluency”.  Our brains have evolved to be lazy. If they don’t have to work, they don’t. And in the adaptive environment we evolved in – for reasons already stated – this cognitive short cut generally worked to our benefit. Ask anyone who has had to surrender a long-held belief. It’s tough to do. Overturning a belief requires a lot of cognitive horsepower. It’s far easier to protect them with a scaffolding of supporting “facts” – no matter how shaky it may be.

Enter the Internet. And the usual suspect? Social media.

As I said last week, the truth is often hard to handle – especially if it runs head long into our beliefs. I don’t want to believe in climate change because the consequences of that truth are mind-numbingly frightening. But I find I’m forced to. I also don’t believe the earth is flat. For me, in both cases, the evidence is undeniable. That’s me, however. There are plenty of people who don’t believe climate change is real and – according to the Facebook Official Flat Earth Discussion group – there are at least 107,372 people that believe the earth is flat. The same evidence is also available to them. Why are we different?

When it comes to our belief structure, we all have different mindsets, plotted on a spectrum of credulity. I’m what you may call a scientific skeptic. I tend not to believe something is true unless I see empirical evidence supporting it. There are others who tend to believe in things at a much lower threshold. And this tendency is often found across multiple domains. The mindset that embraces creationism, for example, has been shown to also embrace conspiracy theories.

In the pre-digital world, our beliefs were a feature, not a bug. When we shared a physical space with others, we also relied on a shared “mind-space” that served us well. Common beliefs created a more cohesive social herd and were typically proven out over time against the reality of our environment. Beneficial beliefs were passed along and would become more popular, while non-beneficial beliefs were culled from the pack. It was the cognitive equivalent of Adam Smith’s “Invisible hand.” We created a belief marketplace.

Beliefs are moderated socially. The more unpopular our own personal beliefs, the more pressure there is to abandon them. There is a tipping point mechanism at work here. Again, in a physically defined social group, those whose mindsets tend to look for objective proof will be the first to abandon a belief that is obviously untrue. From this point forward, social contagion can be more effective factor in helping the new perspective spread through a population than the actual evidence. “What is true?” is not as important as “what does my neighbor believe to be true?”

This is where social media comes in. On Facebook, a community is defined in the mind, not in any particular physical space. Proximity becomes irrelevant. Online, we can always find others that believe in the same things we do. A Flat Earther can find comfort by going on a cruise with hundreds of other Flat Earthers and saying that a 107,372 people can’t be wrong. They can even point to “scientific” evidence proving their case. For example, if the earth wasn’t flat, a jetliner would have to continually point its nose down to keep from flying off into space (granted, this argument conveniently ignores gravity and all types of other physics, but why quibble).

Social media provides a progressive banquet of options for dealing with unpleasant truths. Probably the most benign of these is something I wrote about a few weeks back – slacktivism. At least slacktivisits acknowledge the truth. From there, you can progress to a filtering of facts (only acknowledging the truths you can handle), wilful ignorance (purposely avoiding the truth), denialism (rejecting the truth) and full out fantasizing (manufacturing an alternate set of facts). Examples of all these abound on social media.

In fact, the only thing that seems hard to find on Facebook is the bare, unfiltered, unaltered truth. And that’s probably because we’re not looking for it.

 

Why We No Longer Want to Know What’s True

“Truth isn’t truth” – Rudy Giuliani – August 19, 2018

Even without Giuliani’s bizarre statement, we’re developing a weird relationship with the truth. It’s becoming even more inconvenient. It’s certainly becoming more worrisome. I was chatting with a psychiatrist the other day who counsels seniors. I asked him if he was noticing more general anxiety in that generation – a feeling of helplessness with how the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket. I asked him that because I am less optimistic about the future than I ever have been in my life. I wanted to know if that was unusual. He said it wasn’t – I had plenty of company.

You can pick the truth that is most unsettling. Personally, I lose sleep over climate change, the rise of populist politics and the resurgence of xenophobia. I have to limit the amount of news I consume in any day, because it sends me into a depressive state. I feel helpless. And as much as I’m limiting my intake because of my own mental health, I can’t help thinking that this is a dangerous path I’m heading down.

After doing a little research, I have found that things like PTSD (President Trump Stress Disorder) or TAD (Trump Anxiety Disorder) are real things. They’re recognized by the American Psychological Association. After a ten-year decline, anxiety levels in the US spiked dramatically after November, 2016.  Clinical psychologist Jennifer Panning, who coined TAD, says “the symptoms include feeling a loss of control and helplessness, and fretting about what’s happening in the country and spending excessive time on social media.”

But it’s not just the current political climate that’s causing anxiety. It’s also the climate itself. Enter “ecoanxiety.” Again…the APA in a recent paper nails a remarkably accurate diagnosis of how I’m feeling: “Gradual, long-term changes in climate can also surface a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion.”

“You can’t handle the truth” – Colonel Nathan R. Jessep (from the movie “A Few Good Men”)

So – when the truth scares the hell out of you – what do you do?  We can find a few clues in the quotes above. One is this idea of a loss of control. The other is spending excessive time on social media. My belief is that the later exacerbates the former.

In a sense, Rudy Giuliani is right. Truth isn’t truth, at least, not on the receiving end. We all interpret truth within the context of our own perceived reality. This in no way condones the manipulation of truth upstream from when it reaches us. We need to trust that our information sources are providing us the closest thing possible to a verifiable and objective view of truth.  But we have to accept the fact that for each of us, truth will ultimately be filtered through our own beliefs and understanding of what is real. Part of our own perceived reality is how in control we feel of the current situation. And this is where we begin to see the creeping levels of anxiety.

In 1954, psychologist Julian Rotter introduced the idea of a “locus of control” –the degree of control we believe we have over our own lives. For some of us, our locus is tipped to the internal side. We believe we are firmly at the wheel of our own lives. Others have an external locus, believing that life is left to forces beyond our control. But like most concepts in psychology, the locus of control is not a matter of black and white. It is a spectrum of varying shades of gray. And anxiety can arise when our view of reality seems to be beyond our own locus of control.

The word locus itself comes from the Latin for “place” or “location.” Typically, our control is exercised over those things that are physically close to us. And up until a 150 years ago, that worked well. We had little awareness of things beyond our own little world so we didn’t need to worry about them. But electronic media changed that. Suddenly, we were aware of wars, pestilence, poverty, famines and natural disasters from around the world. This made us part of Marshall McLuhan’s “Global Village.” The circle of our “locus of awareness” suddenly had to accommodate the entire world but our “locus of control” just couldn’t keep pace.

Even with this expansion of awareness, one could still say that truth remained relatively true. There was an editorial check and balance process that checked the veracity of the information we were presented. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but we could place some confidence in the truth of what we read, saw and heard.

And then came social media. Social media creates a nasty feedback loop when it comes to the truth. Once again, Dr. Panning typified these new anxieties as, “fretting about what’s happening in the country and spending excessive time on social media.” The algorithmic targeting of social media platforms means that you’re getting a filtered version of the truth. Facebook knows exactly what you’re most anxious about and feeds you a steady diet of content tailored specifically to those anxieties. We have the comfort of seeing posts from members of our network that seem to fear the same things we do and share the same beliefs. But the more time we spend seeking this comfort, the more we’re exposed to the anxiety inducing triggers and the further and further we drift from the truth. It creates a downward spiral that leads to these new types of environmental anxiety we are seeing. And to deal with those anxieties we’re developing new strategies for handling the truth – or, at least – our version of the truth. That’s where I’ll pick up next week.

 

Rethinking Media

I was going to write about the Facebook/Google duopoly, but I got sidetracked by this question, “If Google and Facebook are a duopoly, what is the market they are controlling?” The market, in this case, is online marketing, of which they carve out a whopping 61% of all revenue. That’s advertising revenue. And yet, we have Mark Zuckerberg testifying this spring in front of Congress that he is not a media company…

“I consider us to be a technology company because the primary thing that we do is have engineers who write code and build product and services for other people”

That may be an interesting position to take, but his adoption of a media-based revenue model doesn’t pass the smell test. Facebook makes revenue from advertising and you can only sell advertising if you are a medium. The definition of media literally means an intervening agency that provides a means of communication. The trade-off for providing that means is that you get to monetize it by allowing advertisers to piggyback on that communication flow. There is nothing in the definition of “media” about content creation.

Google has also used this defense. The common thread seems to be that they are exempt from the legal checks and balances normally associated with media because they don’t produce content. But they do accept content, they do have an audience and they do profit from connecting these two through advertising. It is disingenuous to try to split legal hairs in order to avoid the responsibility that comes from their position as a mediator.

But this all brings up the question:  what is “media”? We use the term a lot. It’s in the masthead of this website. It’s on the title slug of this daily column. We have extended our working definition of media, which was formed in an entirely different world, as a guide to what it might be in the future. It’s not working. We should stop.

First of all, definitions depend on stability, and the worlds of media and advertising are definitely not stable. We are in the middle of a massive upheaval. Secondly, definitions are mental labels. Labels are short cuts we use so we don’t have to think about what something really is. And I’m arguing that we should be thinking long and hard about what media is now and what it might become in the future.

I can accept that technology companies want to disintermediate, democratize and eliminate transactional friction. That’s what technology companies do. They embrace elegance –  in the scientific sense – as the simplest possible solution to something. What Facebook and Google have done is simplified the concept of media back to its original definition: the plural of medium, which is something that sits in the middle. In fact – by this definition – Google and Facebook are truer media than CNN, the New York Times or Breitbart. They sit in between content creators and content consumers. They have disintermediated the distribution of content. They are trying to reap all the benefits of a stripped down and more profitable working model of media while trying to downplay the responsibility that comes with the position they now hold. In Facebook’s case, this is particularly worrisome because they are also aggregating and distributing that content in a way that leads to false assumptions and dangerous network effects.

Media as we used to know it gradually evolved a check and balance process of editorial oversight and journalistic integrity that sat between the content they created and the audience that would consume it. Facebook and Google consider those things transactional friction. They were part of an inelegant system. These “technology companies” did their best to eliminate those human dependent checks and balances while retaining the revenue models that used to subsidize them.

We are still going to need media in a technological future. Whether they be platforms or publishers, we are going to depend on and trust certain destinations for our information. We will become their audience and in exchange they will have the opportunity to monetize this audience. All this should not come cheaply. If they are to be our chosen mediators, they have to live up to their end of the bargain.

 

 

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.