Second Thoughts about the Social Dilemma

Watched “The Social Dilemma” yet? I did, a few months ago. The Netflix documentary sets off all kinds of alarms about social media and how it’s twisting the very fabric of our society. It’s a mix of standard documentary fodder — a lot of tell-all interviews with industry insiders and activists — with an (ill-advised, in my opinion) dramatization of the effects of social media addiction in one particular family.

The one most affected is a male teenager who is suddenly drawn, zombie-like,by his social media feed into an ultra-polarized political activist group. Behind the scenes, operating in a sort of evil-empire control room setting, there are literally puppet masters pulling his strings.

It’s scary as hell. But should we be scared? Or — at least — should we be that scared?

Many of us are sounding alarms about social media and how it nets out to be a bad thing. I’m one of the worst. I am very concerned about the impact of social media, and I’ve said so many, many times in this column. But I also admit that this is a social experiment playing out in real time, so it’s hard to predict what the outcome will be. We should keep our minds open to new evidence.

I’ve also said that younger generations seem to be handling this in stride. At least, they seem to be handling it better than those in my generation. They’re quicker to adapt and to use new technologies natively to function in their environments, rather than fumble as we do, searching for some corollary to the world we grew up in.

I’ve certainly had pushback on this observation. Maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe, like so many seemingly disastrous new technological trends before it, social media may turn out to be neither bad nor good. It may just be different.

That certainly seems to be the case if you read a new study from the Institute for Family Studies at Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution.  

One of the lead authors of the study, Jean Twenge, previously rang the alarm bells about how technology was short-circuiting the mental wiring of our youth. In a 2017 article in The Atlantic titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” she made this claim:

“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

The article describes a generation of zombies mentally hardwired to social media through their addiction to their iPhone. One of the more startling claims was this:

“Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan.”

Again, scary as hell, right? This sounds frighteningly familiar to the scenarios laid out in ““The Social Dilemma.”  

But what if you take this same group and this same author, fast-forward three years to the middle of the worst pandemic in our lifetimes, and check in with over 1,500 teens to see how they’re doing in a time where they have every right to be depressed? Not only are they locked inside, they’re also processing societal upheavals and existential threats like systemic racial inequality, alt-right political populism and climate change. If 2017-2018 was scary for them, 2020 is a dumpster fire.

Surprisingly, those same teens appear to be doing better than they were two years ago. The study had four measures of ill-being: loneliness, life dissatisfaction, unhappiness and depression.  The results were counterintuitive, to say the least. The number of teens indicating they were depressed actually dropped substantially, from 27% in 2018 to 17% who were quarantined during the school year in 2020. Fewer said they were lonely as well. 

The study indicated that the reasons for this could be because teens were getting more sleep and were spending more time with family.

But what about smartphones and social media? Wouldn’t a quarantined teen (a Quaran-teen?) be spending even more time on his or her phone and social media? 

Well, yes – and no. The study found screen time didn’t really go up, but the way that time was spent did shift. Surprising, time spent on social media went down, but time spent on video chats with friends or watching online streaming entertainment went up. 

As I shared in my column a few weeks ago, this again indicates that it’s not how much time we spend on social media that determines our mental state. It’s how we spend that time. If we spend it looking for connection, rather than obsessing over social status, it can be a good thing. 

Another study, from the University of Oxford, examined data on more than 300,000 adolescents and found that increased screen time has no more impact on teenager’s mental health than eating more potatoes. Or wearing glasses.

If you’re really worried about your teen’s mental health, make sure they have breakfast. Or get enough sleep. Or just spend more time with them. All those things are going to have a lot more impact than the time they spend on their phone.

To be clear, this is not me becoming a fan of Facebook or social media in general. There are still many things to be concerned about. But let’s also realize that technology — any technology– is a tool. It is not inherently good or evil. Those qualities can be found in how we choose to use technology. 

Have More People Become More Awful?

Is it just me, or do people seem a little more awful lately? There seems to be a little more ignorance in the world, a little less compassion, a little more bullying and a lot less courtesy.

Maybe it’s just me.

It’s been a while since I’ve checked in with eternal optimist Steven Pinker.  The Harvard psychologist is probably the best-known proponent of the argument that the world is consistently trending towards being a better place.  According to Pinker, we are less bigoted, less homophobic, less misogynist and less violent. At least, that’s what he felt pre-COVID lockdown. As I said, I haven’t checked in with him lately, but I suspect he would say the long-term trends haven’t appreciably changed. Maybe we’re just going through a blip.

Why, then, does the world seem to be going to hell in a hand cart?  Why do people — at least some people — seem so awful?

I think it’s important to remember that our brain likes to play tricks on us. It’s in a never-ending quest to connect cause and effect. Sometimes, to do so, the brain jumps to conclusions. Unfortunately, it is aided in this unfortunate tendency by a couple of accomplices — namely news reporting and social media. Even if the world isn’t getting shittier, it certainly seems to be. 

Let me give you one example. In my local town, an anti-masking rally was recently held at a nearby shopping mall. Local news outlets jumped on it, with pictures and video of non-masked, non-socially distanced protesters carrying signs and chanting about our decline into Communism and how their rights were being violated.

What a bunch of boneheads — right? That was certainly the consensus in my social media circle. How could people care so little about the health and safety of their community? Why are they so awful?

But when you take the time to unpack this a bit, you realize that everyone is probably overplaying their hands. I don’t have exact numbers, but I don’t think there were more than 30 or 40 protestors at the rally. The population of my city is about 150,000. These protestors represented .03% of the total population. 

Let’s say for every person at the rally, there were 10 that felt the same way but weren’t there. That’s still less than 1%. Even if you multiplied the number of protesters by 100, it would still be just 3% of my community. We’re still talking about a tiny fraction of all the people who live in my city. 

But both the news media and my social media feed have ensured that these people are highly visible. And because they are, our brain likes to use that small and very visible sample and extrapolate it to the world in general. It’s called availability bias, a cognitive shortcut where the brain uses whatever’s easy to grab to create our understanding of the world.

But availability bias is nothing new. Our brains have always done this. So, what’s different about now?

Here, we have to understand that the current reality may be leading us into another “mind-trap.” A 2018 study from Harvard introduced something called “prevalence-induced concept change,” which gives us a better understanding of how the brain focuses on signals in a field of noise. 

Basically, when signals of bad things become less common, the brain works harder to find them. We expand our definition of what is “bad” to include more examples so we can feel more successful in finding them.

I’m probably stretching beyond the limits of the original study here, but could this same thing be happening now? Are we all super-attuned to any hint of what we see as antisocial behavior so we can jump on it? 

If this is the case, again social media is largely to blame. It’s another example of our current toxic mix of dog whistlecancel culturevirtue signaling, pseudo-reality that is being driven by social media. 

That’s two possible things that are happening. But if we add one more, it becomes a perfect storm of perceived awfulness. 

In a normal world, we all have different definitions of the ethical signals we’re paying attention to. What you are focused on right now in your balancing of what is right and wrong is probably different from what I’m currently focused on. I may be thinking about gun control while you’re thinking about reducing your carbon footprint.

But now, we’re all thinking about the same thing: surviving a pandemic. And this isn’t just some theoretical mind exercise. This is something that surrounds us, affecting us every single day. When it comes to this topic, our nerves have been rubbed raw and our patience has run out. 

Worst of all, we feel helpless. There seems to be nothing we can do to edge the world toward being a less awful place. Behaviors that in another reality and on another topic would have never crossed our radar now have us enraged. And, when we’re enraged, we do the one thing we can do: We share our rage on social media. Unfortunately, by doing so, we’re not part of the solution. We are just pouring fuel on the fire.

Yes, some people probably are awful. But are they more awful than they were this time last year? I don’t think so. I also can’t believe that the essential moral balance of our society has collectively nosedived in the last several months. 

What I do believe is that we are living in a time where we’re facing new challenges in how we perceive the world. Now, more than ever before, we’re on the lookout for what we believe to be awful. And if we’re looking for it, we’re sure to find it.

Friendship: Uncoupled

This probably won’t come as a shock to anyone reading this: A recent study says that it’s not if you use social media that determines your happiness, but how you use social media. 

Derrick Wirtz, an associate professor of teaching in psychology at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, took a close look at how people use three major social platforms—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—and if how you use it can make you happier or sadder.

As I said, most of you probably said to yourself, “Yeah, that checks out.” But this study does bring up an interesting nuance with some far-reaching implications. 

In today’s world, we’re increasingly using Facebook to maintain our social connections. And, according to Facebook’s mission statement, that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen: “People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.”

The interesting thing in this study is the divide between our social activities — those aimed at bonding versus those aimed at gaining status — and how that impacts our moods and behaviors. It’s difficult to untangle the effect of those two factors, because they are so intertwined in our psyches. But according to this study, Dr. Wirtz found that some of us are spending far more time on social media “status-checking” then actually tending to our friendships.

“Passive use, scrolling through others’ posts and updates, involves little person-to-person reciprocal interaction while providing ample opportunity for upward comparison,” says Wirtz. 

We can scroll our newsfeed without any actual form of engagement — but that’s not what we were designed to do. Our social skills evolved to develop essential mutually beneficial bonds in a small group setting.

Friendship is meant to be nurtured and tended to organically and intimately in a face-to-face environment.  But the distal nature of social media is changing the dynamics of how we maintain relationships in our network. 

Take how we first establish friendships, for instance. When you meet someone for the very first time, how do you decide whether you’re going to become friendly or not? The answer, not surprisingly, is complex and nuanced. Our brain works overtime to determine whether we should bond or not. But, also not surprisingly, almost none of that work is based on rational thought.

UCLA psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson teaches young adults with social challenges, such as those on the autism spectrum, how to take those very first steps toward friendship when meeting a stranger. If you can’t pick up the face-to-face nuances of body language and unspoken social cues intuitively, becoming friends can be incredibly difficult. Essentially, we are constantly scanning the other person for small signs of common interest from which we can start working toward building trust. 

Even if you clear this first hurdle, it’s not easy to build an actual friendship. It requires a massive investment of our time and energy. A recent study from the University of Kansas found it takes about 50 hours of socializing just to go from acquaintance to casual friend. 

Want to make a “real” friend? Tack another 40 hours onto that. And if you goal is to become a “close” friend, you’d better be prepared to invest at least a total of 200 hours. 

So that begs the question, why would we make this investment in the first place? Why do we need friends? And why do we need at least a handful of really close friends? The answer lies in the concept of reciprocity. 

From an evolutionary perspective, having friends made it easier to survive and reproduce. We didn’t have to go it alone. We could help each other past the rough spots, even if we weren’t related to each other. Having friends stacked the odds in our favor. 

This is when our investment in all those hours of building friendships paid off. Again, this takes us back to the intimate and organic roots of friendship. 

Our brains, in turn, reinforced this behavior by making sure that having friends made us happy. 

Of course, like most human behaviors, it’s not nearly that simple or benign. Our brains also entwine the benefits of friendship with the specter of social status, making everything much more complicated. 

Status also confers an evolutionary advantage. For many generations, we have trod this fine line between being a true friend and being obsessed with our own status in the groups where we hang out.

And then came social media.

As Wirtz’s study shows, we now have this dangerous uncoupling between these two sides of our nature. With social media, friendship is now many steps removed from its physical, intimate and organic roots. It is stripped of the context in which it evolved. And, it appears, the intertwined strands of friendship and social status are unraveling. When this happens, time on social media can reap the anxiety and jealousy of status-checking without any of the joy that comes from connecting with and helping a friend. 

On a person-to-person basis, this uncoupling can be disturbing and unfortunate. But consider what may happen when these same tendencies are amplified and magnified through a massive, culture-wide network.

Lockdown Advice For A Long Winter

No matter where you live in the world, it’s likely you’re going to be forced to spend a lot of time at home. And if that home includes others  — like your beloved life partner — living under the same roof, you may experience a little friction now and again. In anticipation of this, I thought I’d share a few insights on what might come.

There is No Gender Equality with COVID

recent study by Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich Universities found that women’s sense of mental well being took a more significant drop then men due to COVID. The researchers speculated on a number of reasons for this, but were unable to narrow it down to any identifiable factor. Perhaps, they reasoned,  it had something to do with women losing jobs at a greater rate than men, taking on a greater share of the burden of home schooling — or the fact that even when both men and women were home all the time, women still did more than their fair share of domestic chores. But no, even when controlling for these factors, it didn’t explain why women were becoming more distressed than men. 

Maybe it was something else.

Warriors and Worriers: Two Approaches to Survival

In 2014, psychologist Joyce Benenson published her book “Warriors and Worries: The Survival of the Sexes.”  As an evolutionary biologist, she has spent years studying children and primates, looking for innate rather than socialized differences between the sexes. 

Her findings turned conventional wisdom on its head. Women may not be more sociable than men, and men may not be more competitive than women. It’s just that they define those things differently. 

Men are quite comfortable forming packs of convenience to solve a particular problem, whether it is defending against an enemy or winning a pick-up basketball game. This could explain why team sports entertainment always seems to have a male bias.

Women, on the other hand, have fewer but much more complex relationships that they deem essential to their survival as the primary caregiver for their family. The following is from the abstract of a 1990 study by Berenson: “Although males and females did not differ in the number of best friends they reported, males were found to have larger social networks than females. Further, for males, position in a social network was more highly linked with acceptance by the peer group. Finally, males were concerned with attributes that could be construed as important for status in the peer group, and females were concerned with attributes that appeared essential to relationships with a few friends.”

If we apply this to the current COVID situation, we begin to see why women might be struggling more with lockdown then men. A male’s idea of socializing might be more easily met with a Zoom call or another type of digital connection, such as online gaming. But connecting in these way lacks the bandwidth necessary to properly convey the complexity of a female relationship. 

Introverts and Extroverts Revisited

Of course, gender isn’t the only variable at play here. I’ve written before about what happens when an extrovert and introvert are locked down in the same house together (those being my wife and myself). One of the things I’ve noticed is a different level of comfort we have at being left alone with our thoughts. 

Because I have always been a writer of one kind or another, I require time to ruminate on a fairly frequent basis. I am a little (lot?) dictatorial in my requirements for this: my environment needs to be silent and free from interruption. When the weather is good outside, this is fairly easy. I can grab my laptop and go outside. But in the winter, it’s a different story. My wife is subjected to forced silence so I can have my quiet time.

My wife functions best when there is some type of sensory stimuli, especially the sound of voices. She doesn’t have the same need to sit in silence and be alone with her thoughts. 

And she’s not unique in that. A 2014 study found that most of us fall into the same category. In fact, the researchers found that, “many of the people studied, particularly the men, chose to give themselves a mild electric shock rather than be deprived of external sensory stimuli.”

A Difference in Distraction

When we do look for distraction, we can also have different needs and approaches. Another area I’ve touched on in a past post is how our entertainment delivery platforms have now become entangled with multitasking. 

I like an immersive, interruption-free entertainment experience. The bigger the screen and the louder the sound, the better. I suspect this may be another “male” thing.  Again, this preference tends to cast a dictatorial tone on our household, so I generally retreat to my media cave in the basement. I also tuck my phone away while I’m watching. 

My wife prefers to multiscreen when watching TV and to do so in the highest traffic area of our house. For her, staying connected is more important than being immersed in whatever she might be watching. 

These differences in our entertainment preferences often means we’re not together when we seek distraction. 

I don’t think this is a bad thing. In a normal world filled with normal activities, this balancing of personal preference is probably accommodated by our normal routines. But in a decidedly abnormal world where we spend every minute together in the same house, these differences become more noticeable.

Try a Little Friluftsliv

In the end, winter is going to be long, lonely and cold for many of us. So we may just want to borrow a strategy from Norwegians: friluftsliv. Basically, it means “open-air living.” Most winters, my main activity is complaining. But this year, I’m going to get away from the screens and social media, strap on a pair of snowshoes and embrace winter.

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.