Imagine a Pandemic without Technology

As the writer of a weekly post that tends to look at the intersection between human behavior and technology, the past 18 months have been interesting – and by interesting, I mean a twisted ride through gut-wrenching change unlike anything I have ever seen before.

I can’t even narrow it down to 18 months. Before that, there was plenty more that was “unprecedented” – to berrypick a word from my post from a few weeks back. I have now been writing for MediaPost in one place or another for 17 years. My very first post was on August 19, 2004. That was 829 posts ago. If you add the additional posts I’ve done for my own blog – outofmygord.com – I’ve just ticked over 1,100 on my odometer.  That’s a lot of soul searching about technology. And the last several months have still been in a class by themselves.

Now, part of this might be where my own head is at. Believe it or not, I do sometimes try to write something positive. But as soon as my fingers hit the keyboard, things seem to spiral downwards. Every path I take seems to take me somewhere dark. There has been precious little that has sparked optimism in my soul.

Today, for example, prior to writing this, I took three passes at writing something else. Each quickly took a swerve towards impending doom. I’m getting very tired of this. I can only imagine how you feel, reading it.

So I finally decided to try a thought experiment. “What if,” I wondered, “we had gone through the past 17 months without the technology we take for granted? What if there was no Internet, no computers, no mobile devices? What if we had lived through the Pandemic with only the technology we had – say – a hundred years ago, during the global pandemic of the Spanish Flu starting in 1918? Perhaps the best way to determine the sum total contribution of technology is to do it by process of elimination.”

The Cons

Let’s get the negatives out of the way. First, you might say that technology enabled the flood of misinformation and conspiracy theorizing that has been so top-of-mind for us. Well, yes – and no.

Distrust in authority is nothing new. It’s always been there, at one end of a bell curve that spans the attitudes of our society. And nothing brings the outliers of society into global focus faster than a crisis that affects all of us.

There was public pushback against the very first vaccine ever invented; the smallpox vaccine. Now granted, the early method was to rub puss from a cowpox blister into a cut in your skin and hope for the best. But it worked. Smallpox is now a thing of the past.

And, if we are talking about pushback against public health measures, that’s nothing new either. Exactly the same thing happened during the 1918-1919 Pandemic. Here’s one eerily familiar excerpt from a journal article looking at the issue, “Public-gathering bans also exposed tensions about what constituted essential vs. unessential activities. Those forced to close their facilities complained about those allowed to stay open. For example, in New Orleans, municipal public health authorities closed churches but not stores, prompting a protest from one of the city’s Roman Catholic priests.”

What is different, thanks to technology, is that public resistance is so much more apparent than it’s ever been before. And that resistance is coming with faces and names we know attached. People are posting opinions on social media that they would probably never say to you in a face-to-face setting, especially if they knew you disagreed with them. Our public and private discourse is now held at arms-length by technology. Gone are all the moderating effects that come with sharing the same physical space.

The Pros

Try as I might, I couldn’t think of another “con” that technology has brought to the past 17 months. The “pro” list, however, is far too long to cover in this post, so I’ll just mention a few that come immediately to mind.

Let’s begin with the counterpoint to the before-mentioned “Con” – the misinformation factor. While misinformation was definitely spread over the past year and a half, so was reliable, factual information. And for those willing to pay attention to it, it enabled us to find out what we needed to in order to practice public health measures at a speed previously unimagined. Without technology, we would have been slower to act and – perhaps – fewer of us would have acted at all. At worst, in this case technology probably nets out to zero.

But technology also enabled the world to keep functioning, even if it was in a different form. Working from home would have been impossible without it. Commercial engines kept chugging along. Business meetings switched to online platforms. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, as of the writing of this, is over 20% higher than it was before the pandemic. In contrast, if you look at stock market performance over the 1918 – 1919 pandemic, the stock market was almost 32% lower at the end of the third wave as it was at the start of the first. Of course, there are other factors to consider, but I suspect we can thank technology for at least some of that.

It’s easy to point to the negatives that technology brings, but if you consider it as a whole, technology is overwhelmingly a blessing.

What was interesting to me in this thought experiment was how apparent it was that technology keeps the cogs of our society functioning more effectively, but if there is a price to be paid, it typically comes at the cost of our social bonds.

Marketers and Funnel Vision

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

A couple of years ago, I saw an essay by Elijah Meeks, former Data Visualization Society executive director, about how “We Live in a World of Funnels.” It started out like this:

“You think you’re reading an essay. You’re not. You’re moving through a funnel. This shouldn’t surprise you. You’ve been moving through funnels all day.”

No, we haven’t.

Sorry, Elijah, but the world is not built of funnels. Funnels are arbitrary lenses, invented by marketers, that are applied after the fact. They have nothing to do with how we live our lives. They’re a fabrication — a tool designed to help simplify real-world data and visualize, one that’s been so compelling that we have focused on it to the exclusion of everything that lives outside of it.  

We don’t live in a world of funnels. We live in a world that’s a maze of diverse and complex potential paths. At each intersection we reach, we have to make choices. For a marketer, that seems like a daunting thing to analyze. The funnel model simplifies our job by relying on successful conversions as the gold standard and working backwards from there. By relying on a model of a funnel, we can only examine “the road taken” and try to optimize the hell out of it. We never consider the “road not taken.”

Indeed, Robert Frost’s poem, from which I borrowed a few lines to start this post, is the ultimate misunderstanding of funnels. It is, by most who have read it, considered the ultimate funnel analysis, a look back at what came from choosing the “road less traveled.” But as reviewer David Orr pointed out in this post, it’s at least as much about what might have happened outside of the “funnel” we all try to apply to the poem:

“Because the poem isn’t ‘The Road Less Traveled.’ It’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ And the road not taken, of course, is the road one didn’t take—which means that the title passes over the ‘less traveled’ road the speaker claims to have fol­lowed in order to foreground the road he never tried. The title isn’t about what he did; it’s about what he didn’t do. Or is it? 

The funnel model is inherently constraining in its perspective. You are forced to look backward through the tiny hole at the bottom and speculate on what prevented others from getting to that point.

Why do we do this? Because, initially anyway, it seems easier than other choices. It’s like the old joke about finding the inebriated man outside a bar looking for his car keys under the streetlight. When asked where exactly he lost them, he points behind him to a dark alley.

“Why are you looking for them here then?”

“The light’s better here.”

It certainly seems the light is better in a funnel. We can track activity within the funnel. But how do you track what happens outside of it?  It may seem like a hopeless task, but it doesn’t have to be. There are universals in human behavior that can be surprisingly predictive.

Take B2B buying, for example. When we did the research for the Buyersphere Project, our “a-ha” moment was realizing what a massive role risk had in the decision process.

Prior to this research, we — like every other marketer — relied on the funnel model. Our CRM software had funnel analysis built into it. So did our website traffic tracking tool. Funnels were indeed pervasive — but not in the real world, just in the world of marketing.

But we made a decision at the earliest stage of our research project. We tossed aside the funnel premise and started at the other end, understanding what happens when a potential buyer hits what Google calls the ZMOT: the Zero Moment of Truth. This is defined as “the moment in the buying process when the consumer researches a product prior to purchase.” When we started asking people about the Moment — or the moments before the ZMOT — we found that in B2B, risk-avoidance trumps all else. And it gave us an entirely different view of the buying journey we would never have seen from inside the funnel.

We also realized we were dealing with multiple definitions of risk, depending on whose risk it was. In the implementation of a new technology solution, the risk definition of the person who would be using the solution is completely different than that of the procurement officer who will be overseeing the purchase process.

All this led to a completely different interpretation of buying motivation — one driven by emotions. If you can understand those emotional factors, you can start to understand the choices made at each intersection. It lets us see things beyond the bounds of the “funnel.”

Marketing funnels are a model — not the real world. And as statistician George Box said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” I do believe the funnel can be useful, but we just have to understand that there’s so much you can’t see from inside the funnel.

The Crazy World of Our Media Obsessions

Are you watching the news less? Me too. Now that the grownups are back in charge, I’m spending much less time checking my news feed.

Whatever you might say about the last four years, it certainly was good for the news business. It was one long endless loop of driving past a horrific traffic accident. Try as we might, we just couldn’t avoid looking.

But according to Internet analysis tool Alexa.com, that may be over. I ran some traffic rank reports for major news portals and they all look the same: a ramp-up over the past 90 days to the beginning of February, and then a precipitous drop off a cliff.

While all the top portals have a similar pattern, it’s most obvious on Foxnews.com.

It was as if someone said, “Show’s over folks. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.” And after we all exhaled, we did!

Not surprisingly, we watch the news more when something terrible is happening. It’s an evolved hardwired response called negativity bias.

Good news is nice. But bad news can kill you. So it’s not surprising that bad news tends to catch our attention.

But this was more than that. We were fixated by Trump. If it were just our bias toward bad news, we would still eventually get tired of it.

That’s exactly what happened with the news on COVID-19. We worked through the initial uncertainty and fear, where we were looking for more information, and at some point moved on to the subsequent psychological stages of boredom and anger. As we did that, we threw up our hands and said, “Enough already!”

But when it comes to Donald Trump, there was something else happening.

It’s been said that Trump might have been the best instinctive communicator to ever take up residence in the White House. We might not agree with what he said, but we certainly were listening.

And while we — and by we, I mean me — think we would love to put him behind us, I believe it behooves us to take a peek under the hood of this particular obsession. Because if we fell for it once, we could do it again.

How the F*$k did this guy dominate our every waking, news-consuming moment for the past four years?

We may find a clue in Bob Woodward’s book on Trump, Rage. He explains that he was looking for a “reflector” — a person who knew Trump intimately and could provide some relatively objective insight into his character.

Woodward found a rather unlikely candidate for his reflector: Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

I know, I know — “Kushner?” Just bear with me.

In Woodward’s book, Kushner says there were four things you needed to read and “absorb” to understand how Trump’s mind works.

The first was an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan called “Over Trump, We’re as Divided as Ever.” It is not complimentary to Trump. But it does begin to provide a possible answer to our ongoing fixation. Noonan explains: “He’s crazy…and it’s kind of working.”

The second was the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Kushner paraphrased: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.” In other words, in Trump’s world, it’s not direction that matters, it’s velocity.

The third was Chris Whipple’s book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. The insight here is that no matter how clueless Trump was about how to do his job, he still felt he knew more than his chiefs of staff.

Finally, the fourth was Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter, by Scott Adams. That’s right — Scott Adams, the same guy who created the “Dilbert” comic strip. Adams calls Trump’s approach “Intentional Wrongness Persuasion.”

Remember, this is coming from Kushner, a guy who says he worships Trump. This is not apologetic. It’s explanatory — a manual on how to communicate in today’s world. Kushner is embracing Trump’s instinctive, scorched-earth approach to keeping our attention focused on him.

It’s — as Peggy Noonan realized — leaning into the “crazy.”  

Trump represented the ultimate political tribal badge. All you needed to do was read one story on Trump, and you knew exactly where you belonged. You knew it in your core, in your bones, without any shred of ambiguity or doubt. There were few things I was as sure of in this world as where I stood on Donald J. Trump.

And maybe that was somehow satisfying to me.

There was something about standing one side or the other of the divide created by Trump that was tribal in nature.

It was probably the clearest ideological signal about what was good and what was bad that we’ve seen for some time, perhaps since World War II or the ’60s — two events that happened before most of our lifetimes.

Trump’s genius was that he somehow made both halves of the world believe they were the good guys.

In 2018, Peggy Noonan said that “Crazy won’t go the distance.” I’d like to believe that’s so, but I’m not so sure. There are certainly others that are borrowing a page from Trump’s playbook.  Right-wing Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are both doing “crazy” extraordinarily well. The fact that almost none of you had to Google them to know who they are proves this.

Whether we’re loving to love, or loving to hate, we are all fixated by crazy.

The problem here is that our media ecosystem has changed. “Crazy” used to be filtered out. But somewhere along the line, news outlets discovered that “crazy” is great for their bottom lines.

As former CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves said when Trump became the Republican Presidential forerunner back in 2016, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damned good for CBS.”

Crazy draws eyeballs like, well, like crazy. It certainly generates more user views then “normal” or “competent.”

In our current media environment  — densely intertwined with the wild world of social media — we have no crazy filters. All we have now are crazy amplifiers.

And the platforms that allow this all try to crowd on the same shaky piece of moral high ground.

According to them, it’s not their job to filter out crazy. It’s anti-free speech. It’s un-American. We should be smart enough to recognize crazy when we see it.

Hmmm. Well, we know that’s not working.

The Ebbs and Flows of Consumerism in a Post-Pandemic World

As MediaPost’s Joe Mandese reported last Friday, advertising was, quite literally, almost decimated worldwide in 2020. If you look at the forecasts of the top agency holding companies, ad spends were trimmed by an average of 6.1%. It’s not quite one dollar in 10, but it’s close.

These same companies are forecasting a relative bounceback in 2021, starting slow and accelerating quarter by quarter through the year — but that still leaves the 2021 spend forecast back at 2018 levels.

And as we know, everything about 2021 is still very much in flux. If the year 2021 was a pack of cards, almost every one of them would be wild.

This — according to physician, epidemiologist and sociologist Nicholas Christakis — is not surprising.

Christakis is one of my favorite observers of network effects in society. His background in epidemiological science gives him a unique lens to look at how things spread through the networks of our world, real and virtual. It also makes him the perfect person to comment on what we might expect as we stagger out of our current crisis.

In his latest book, “Apollo’s Arrow,” he looks back to look forward to what we might expect — because, as he points out, we’ve been here before.

While the scope and impact of this one is unusual, such health crises are nothing new. Dozens of epidemics and a few pandemics have happened in my lifetime alone, according to this Wikipedia chart.

This post goes live on Groundhog Day, perhaps the most appropriate of all days for it to run. Today, however, we already know what the outcome will be. The groundhog will see its shadow and there will be six more months (at least) of pandemic to deal with. And we will spend that time living and reliving the same day in the same way with the same routine.

Christakis expects this phase to last through the rest of this year, until the vaccines are widely distributed, and we start to reach herd immunity.

During this time, we will still have to psychologically “hunker down” like the aforementioned groundhog, something we have been struggling with. “As a society we have been very immature,” said Christakis. “Immature, and typical as well, we could have done better.”

This phase will be marked by a general conservatism that will go in lockstep with fear and anxiety, a reluctance to spend and a trend toward risk aversion and religion.

Add to this the fact that we will still be dealing with widespread denialism and anger, which will lead to a worsening vicious circle of loss and crisis. The ideological cracks in our society have gone from annoying to deadly.

Advertising will have to somehow negotiate these choppy waters of increased rage and reduced consumerism.

Then, predicts Christakis, starting some time in 2022, we will enter an adjustment period where we will test and rethink the fundamental aspects of our lives. We will be learning to live with COVID-19, which will be less lethal but still very much present.

We will likely still wear masks and practice social distancing. Many of us will continue to work from home. Local flare-ups will still necessitate intermittent school and business closures. We will be reluctant to be inside with more than 20 or 30 people at a time. It’s unlikely that most of us will feel comfortable getting on a plane or embarking on a cruise ship. This period, according to Christakis, will last for a couple years.

Again, advertising will have to try to thread this psychological needle between fear and hope. It will be a fractured landscape on which to build a marketing strategy. Any pretense of marketing to the masses, a concept long in decline, will now be truly gone. The market will be rife with confusing signals and mixed motivations. It will be incumbent on advertisers to become very, very good at “reading the room.”

Finally, starting in 2024, we will have finally put the pandemic behind us. Now, says Christakis, four years of pent-up demand will suddenly burst through the dam of our delayed self-gratification. We will likely follow the same path taken a century ago, when we were coming out of a war and another pandemic, in the period we call the “Roaring Twenties.”

Christakis explained: “What typically happens is people get less religious. They will relentlessly seek out social interactions in nightclubs and restaurants and sporting events and political rallies. There’ll be some sexual licentiousness. People will start spending their money after having saved it. They’ll be joie de vivre and a kind of risk-taking, a kind of efflorescence of the arts, I think.”

Of course, this burst of buying will be built on the foundation of what came before. The world will likely be very different from its pre-pandemic version. It will be hard for marketers to project demand in a straight line from what they know, because the experiences they’ve been using as their baseline are no longer valid. Some things may remain the same, but some will be changed forever.

COVID-19 will have pried many of the gaps in our society further apart — most notably those of income inequality and ideological difference. A lingering sense of nationalism and protectionism born from dealing with a global emergency could still be in place.

Advertising has always played an interesting role in our lives. It both motivates and mirrors us.

But the reflection it shows is like a funhouse mirror: It distorts some aspects of our culture and ignores others. It creates demand and hides inconvenient truths. It professes to be noble, while it stokes the embers of our ignobility. It amplifies the duality of our human nature.

Interesting times lie ahead. It remains to be seen how that is reflected in the advertising we create and consume.

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.

Our Brain And Its Junk News Habit

Today, I’m going to return to the Reuter’s Digital News Report and look at the relationship between us, news and social media. But what I’m going to talk about is probably not what you think I’m going to talk about.

Forget all the many, many problems that come with relying on social media to be informed. Forget about filter bubbles and echo chambers. Forget about misleading or outright false stories. Forget about algorithmic targeting. Forget about the gaping vulnerabilities that leave social media open to nefarious manipulation. Forget all that (but just for the moment, because those are all horrible and very real problems that we need to focus on).

Today, I want to talk about one specific problem that comes when we get our news through social media. When we do that, our brains don’t work the way they should if we want to be well informed.

First, let’s talk about the scope of the issue here. According to the Reuter’s study, in the U.S. more people — 72% — turn online for news than any other source. Television comes in second at 59%. If we single out social media, it comes in third at 48%. Trailing the pack is print media at just 20%.

Reuters Digital News Study 2020 – Sources of News in US

If we plot this on a chart over the last seven years, print and social media basically swapped spots, with their respective lines crossing each other in 2014; one trending up and one trending down. In 2013, 47% of us turned to print as a primary news source and just 27% of us went to social media.

If we further look at those under 35, accessing news through social media jumps to the number-one spot by a fairly wide margin. And because they’re young, we’re not talking Facebook here. Those aged 18 to 24 are getting their news through Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.

The point, if it’s not clear by now, is that many of us get our news through a social media channel — and the younger we are, the more that’s true. The paradox is that the vast majority of us — over 70% — don’t trust the news we see on our social media feeds. If we were to pick an information source we trusted, we would never go to social media.

This brings up an interesting juxtaposition in how we’re being informed about the world: almost all of us are getting our news through social media, but almost none of us are looking for it when we do.

According to the Reuter’s Report, 72% of us (all ages, all markets) get our news through the “side door.” This means we are delivered news — primarily through social media and search — without us intentionally going directly to the source of the information. For those aged 18 to 24, “side door” access jumps to 84% and, of that, access through social media jumps to 38%.

Our loyalty to the brand and quality of an information provider is slipping between our fingers and we don’t seem to care. We say we want objective, non-biased, quality news sources, but in practice we lap up whatever dubious crap is spoon-fed to us by Facebook or Instagram. It’s the difference between telling our doctor what we intend to eat and what we actually eat when we get home to the leftover pizza and the pint of Häagen-Dazs in our fridge.

The difference between looking for and passively receiving information is key to understanding how our brain works. Let’s talk a little bit about “top-down” and “bottom-up” activation and the “priming” of our brain.

When our brain has a goal — like looking for COVID-19 information — it behaves significantly differently than when it is just bored and wanting to be entertained.

The goal sets a “top down” intent. It’s like an executive order to the various bits and pieces of our brain to get their shit together and start working as a team. Suddenly the entire brain focuses on the task at hand and things like reliability of information become much more important to us. If we’re going to go directly to a information source we trust, this is going to be when we do it.

If the brain isn’t actively engaged in a goal, then information has to initiate a “bottom-up” activation. And that is an entirely different animal.

We never go to social media looking for a specific piece of news. That’s not how social media works. We go to our preferred social channels either out of sheer boredom or a need for social affirmation. We hope there’s something in the highly addictive endlessly scrolling format that will catch our attention.

For a news piece to do that, it has to somehow find a “hook” in our brain.  Often, that “hook” is an existing belief. The parts of our brain that act as gatekeepers against unreliable information are bypassed because no one bothered to wake them up.

There is a further brain-related problem with relying on social media, and that’s the “priming” issue. This is where one stimulus sets a subconscious “lens” that will impact subsequent stimuli. Priming sets the brain on a track we’re not aware of, which makes it difficult to control.

Social media is the perfect priming platform. One post sets the stage for the next, even if they’re completely unrelated.

These are just two factors that make social media an inherently dangerous platform to rely on for being informed.

The third is that social media makes information digestion much too easy. Our brain barely needs to work at all. And if it does need to work, we quickly click back and scroll down to the next post. Because we’re looking to be entertained, not informed, the brain is reluctant to do any unnecessary heavy lifting.   

This is a big reason why we may know the news we get through social media channels is probably not good for us, but we gulp it down anyway, destroying our appetite for more trustworthy information sources.

These three things create a perfect cognitive storm for huge portions of the population to be continually and willingly misinformed. That’s not even factoring in all the other problems with social media that I mentioned at the outset of this column. We need to rethink this — soon!

How We Forage for the News We Want

Reuters Institute out of the UK just released a comprehensive study looking at how people around the world are finding their news. There is a lot here, so I’ll break it into pieces over a few columns and look at the most interesting aspects. Today, I’ll look at the 50,000-foot view, which can best be summarized as a dysfunctional relationship between our news sources and ourselves. And like most dysfunctional relationships, the culprit here is a lack of trust.

Before we dive in, we should spend some time looking at how the way we access news has changed over the last several years.

Over my lifetime, we have trended in two general directions – less cognitively demanding news channels and less destination specific news sources. The most obvious shift has been away from print. According to Journalism.org and the Pew Research Center, circulation of U.S. Daily newspapers peaked around 1990, at about 62 and a half million. That’s one subscription for every 4 people in the country at that time.

In 2018, it was projected that circulation had dropped more than 50%, to less than 30 million. That would have been one subscription for every 10 people. We were no longer reading our news in a non-digital format. And that may have significant impact on our understanding of the news. I’ll return to this in another column, but for now, let’s just understand that our brain operates in a significantly different way when it’s reading rather than watching or listening.

Up the end of the last century, we generally trusted news destinations. Whether it be a daily newspaper like the New York Times, a news magazine like Time or a nightly newscast such as any of the network news shows, each was a destination that offered one thing above all others – the news. And whether you agreed with them or not, each had an editorial process that governed what news was shared. We had a loyalty to our chosen news destinations that was built on trust.

Over the past two decades, this trust has broken down due to one primary factor – our continuing use of social media. And that has dramatically shifted how we get our news.

In the US, three out of every four people use online sources to get their news. One in two use social media.  Those aged 18 to 24 are more than twice as likely to rely on social media. In the UK, under-35s get more of their news from Social Media than any other source.

Also, influencers have become a source of news, particularly amongst young people. In the US, a quarter of those 18 to 24 used Instagram as a source of news about COVID.

This means that most times, we’re getting our news through a social media lens. Let’s set aside for a moment the filtering and information veracity problems that introduces. Let’s just talk about intent for a moment.

I have talked extensively in the past about information foraging when it comes to search. When information is “patchy” and spread diversely, the brain has to make a quickly calculated guess about which patch it’s most likely to find the information in it’s looking for. With Information Foraging, the intent we have frames everything that comes after.

In today’s digital world, information sources have disaggregated into profoundly patchy environments. We still go to news-first destinations like CNN or Fox News but we also get much of our information about the world through our social media feeds. What was interesting about the Reuters report was that it was started before the COVID pandemic, but the second part of the study was conducted during COVID. And it highlights a fascinating truth about our relationship with the news when it comes to trust.

The study shows that the majority of us don’t trust the news we get through social media but most times, we’re okay with that. Less than 40% of people trust the news in general, and even when we pick a source, less than half of us trust that particular channel. Only 22% indicated they trust the news they see in social media. Yet half of us admit we use social media to get our news. The younger we are, the more reliant we are on social media for news. The fastest growing sources for news amongst all age groups – but especially those under 30 – are Instagram, SnapChat and WhatsApp.

Here’s another troubling fact that fell out of the study. Social platforms, especially Instagram and SnapChat, are dominated by influencers. That means that much of our news comes to us by way of a celebrity influencer reposting it on their feed. This is a far cry from the editorial review process that used to act as a gate keeper on our trusted news sources.

So why do we continue to use news sources we admit we don’t trust? I suspect it may have to do with something called the Meaning Maintenance Model. Proposed in 2006 by Heine, Proulx and Vohs, the model speculates that a primary driver for us is to maintain our beliefs in how the world works. This is related to the sense making loop (Klein, Moon and Hoffman) I’ve also talked about in the past. We make sense of the world by first starting with the existing frame of what we believe to be true. If what we’re experiencing is significantly different from what we believe, we will update our frame to align with the new evidence.

What the Meaning Maintenance Model suggests is that we will go to great lengths to avoid updating our frame. It’s much easier just to find supposed evidence that supports our current beliefs. So, if our intent is to get news that supports our existing world view, social media is the perfect source. It’s algorithmically filtered to match our current frame. Even if we believe the information is suspect, it still comforts us to have our beliefs confirmed. This works well for news about politics, societal concerns and other ideologically polarized topics.

We don’t like to admit this is the case. According to the Reuter’s study, 60% of us indicate we want news sources that are objective and not biased to any particular point of view. But this doesn’t jive with reality at all. As I wrote about in a previous column, almost all mainstream news sources in the US appear to have a significant bias to the right or left. If we’re talking about news that comes through social media channels, that bias is doubled down on. In practice, we are quite happy foraging from news sources that are biased, as long as that bias matches our own.

But then something like COVID comes along. Suddenly, we all have skin in the game in a very real and immediate way. Our information foraging intent changes and our minimum threshold for the reliability of our news sources goes way up. The Reuters study found that when it comes to sourcing COVID information, the most trusted sources are official sites of health and scientific organizations. The least trusted sources are random strangers, social media and messaging apps.

It requires some reading between the lines, but the Reuters study paints a troubling picture of the state of journalism and our relationship with it. Where we get our information directly impacts what we believe. And what we believe determines what we do.

These are high stakes in an all-in game of survival.

Just in Time for Christmas: More Search Eye-Tracking

The good folks over at the Nielsen Norman Group have released a new search eye tracking report. The findings are quite similar to one my former company — Mediative — did a number of years ago (this link goes to a write-up about the study. Unfortunately, the link to the original study is broken. *Insert head smack here).

In the Nielsen Norman study, the two authors — Kate Moran and Cami Goray — looked at how a more visually rich and complex search results page would impact user interaction with the page. The authors of the report called the sum of participant interactions a “Pinball Pattern”: “Today, we find that people’s attention is distributed on the page and that they process results more nonlinearly than before. We observed so much bouncing between various elements across the page that we can safely define a new SERP-processing gaze pattern — the pinball pattern.”

While I covered this at some length when the original Mediative report came out in 2014 (in three separate columns: 1,2 & 3), there are some themes that bear repeating. Unfortunately, I found the study’s authors missed what I think are some of the more interesting implications. 

In the days of the “10 Blue Links” search results page, we used the same scanning strategy no matter what our intent was. In an environment where the format never changes, you can afford to rely on a stable and consistent strategy. 

In our first eye tracking study, published in 2004, this consistent strategy led to something we called the Golden Triangle. But those days are over.

Today, when every search result can look a little bit different, it comes as no surprise that every search “gaze plot” (the path the eyes take through the results page) will also be different. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons for this. 

SERP Eye Candy

In the Nielsen Norman study, the authors felt “visual weighting” was the main factor in creating the “Pinball Pattern”: “The visual weight of elements on the page drives people’s scanning patterns. Because these elements are distributed all over the page and because some SERPs have more such elements than others, people’s gaze patterns are not linear. The presence and position of visually compelling elements often affect the visibility of the organic results near them.”

While the visual impact of the page elements is certainly a factor, I think it’s only part of the answer. I believe a bigger, and more interesting, factor is how the searcher’s brain and its searching strategies have evolved in lockstep with a more visually complex results page. 

The Importance of Understanding Intent

The reason why we see so much variation in scan patterns is that there is also extensive variation in searchers’ intent. The exact same search query could be used by someone intent on finding an online or physical place to purchase a product, comparing prices on that product, looking to learn more about the technical specs of that product, looking for how-to videos on the use of the product, or looking for consumer reviews on that product.

It’s the same search, but with many different intents. And each of those intents will result in a different scanning pattern. 

Predetermined Page Visualizations

I really don’t believe we start each search page interaction with a blank slate, passively letting our eyes be dragged to the brightest, shiniest object on the page. I think that when we launch the search, our intent has already created an imagined template for the page we expect to see. 

We have all used search enough to be fairly accurate at predicting what the page elements might be: thumbnails of videos or images, a map showing relevant local results, perhaps a Knowledge Graph result in the lefthand column. 

Yes, the visual weighting of elements act as an anchor to draw the eye, but I believe the eye is using this anticipated template to efficiently parse the results page. 

I have previously referred to this behavior as a “chunking” of the results page. And we already have an idea of what the most promising chunks will be when we launch the search. 

It’s this chunking strategy that’s driving the “pinball” behavior in the Nielsen Norman study.  In the Mediative study, it was somewhat surprising to see that users were clicking on a result in about half the time it took in our original 2005 study. We cover more search territory, but thanks to chunking, we do it much more efficiently.

One Last Time: Learn Information Scent

Finally, let me drag out a soapbox I haven’t used for a while. If you really want to understand search interactions, take the time to learn about Information Scent and how our brains follow it (Information Foraging Theory — Pirolli and Card, 1999 — the link to the original study is also broken. *Insert second head smack, this one harder.). 

This is one area where the Nielsen Norman Group and I are totally aligned. In 2003, Jakob Nielsen — the first N in NNG — called the theory “the most important concept to emerge from human-computer interaction research since 1993.”

On that we can agree.

Looking Back at a Decade That’s 99.44% Done

Remember 2010? For me that was a pretty important year. It was the year I sold my digital marketing business. While I would continue to actively work in the industry for another 3 years, for me things were never the same as they were in 2010. And – looking back – I realize that’s pretty well true for most of us. We were more innocent and more hopeful. We still believed that the Internet would be the solution, not the problem.

In 2010, two big trends were jointly reshaping our notions of being connected. Early in the year, former Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker laid them out for us in her “State of the Internet” report. Back then, just three years after the introduction of the iPhone, internet usage from mobile devices hadn’t even reached double digits as a percentage of overall traffic. Meeker knew this was going to change, and quickly. She saw mobile adoption on track to be the steepest tech adoption curve in history. She was right. Today, over 60% of internet usage comes from a mobile device.

The other defining trend was social media. Even then, Facebook had about 600 million users, or just under 10% of the world’s population. When you had a platform that big – connecting that many people – you just knew the consequences will be significant. There were some pretty rosy predications for the impact of social media.

Of course, it’s the stuff you can’t predict that will bite you. Like I said, we were a little naïve.

One trend that Meeker didn’t predict was the nasty issue of data ownership. We were just starting to become aware of the looming spectre of privacy.

The biggest Internet related story of 2010 was WikiLeaks. In February, Julian Assange’s site started releasing 260,000 sensitive diplomatic cables sent to them by Chelsea Manning, a US soldier stationed in Iraq. According to the governments of the world, this was an illegal release of classified material, tantamount to an act of espionage. According to public opinion, this was shit finally rolling uphill. We revelled in the revelations. Wikileaks and Julian Assange was taking it to the man.

That budding sense of optimism continued throughout the year. By December of 2010, the Arab Spring had begun. This was our virtual vindication – the awesome power of social media was a blinding light to shine on the darkest nooks and crannies of despotism and tyranny. The digital future was clear and bright. We would triumph thanks to technology. The Internet had helped put Obama in the White House. It had toppled corrupt regimes.

A decade later, we’re shell shocked to discover that the Internet is the source of a whole new kind of corruption.

The rigidly digitized ideals of Zuckerberg, Page, Brin et al seemed to be a call to arms: transparency, the elimination of bureaucracy, a free and open friction-free digital market, the sharing economy, a vast social network that would connect humanity in ways never imagined, connected devices in our pockets – in 2010 all things seemed possible. And we were naïve enough to believe that those things would all be good and moral and in our best interests.

But soon, we were smelling the stench that came from Silicon Valley. Those ideals were subverted into an outright attack on our privacy. Democratic elections were sold to the highest bidder. Ideals evaporated under the pressure of profit margins and expanding power. Those impossibly bright, impossibly young billionaire CEO’s of ten years ago are now testifying in front of Congress. The corporate culture of many tech companies reeks like a frat house on Sunday morning.

Is there a lesson to be learned? I hope so. I think it’s this. Technology won’t do the heavy lifting for us. It is a tool that is subject to our own frailty. It amplifies what it is to be human. It won’t eliminate greed or corruption unless we continually steer it in that direction. 

And I use the term “we” deliberately. We have to hold tech companies to a higher standard. We have to be more discerning of what we agree to. We have to start demanding better treatment and not be willing to trade our rights away with the click of an accept button. 

A lot of what could have been slipped through our fingers in the last 10 years.  It shouldn’t have happened. Not on our watch.

The Gap Between People and Platforms

I read with interest fellow Spinner Dave Morgan’s column about how software is destroying advertising agencies, but not the need for them. I do want to chime in on what’s happening in advertising, but I need a little more time to think about it.

What did catch my eye was a comment at the end by Harvard Business School professor Alvin Silk: “You can eliminate the middleman, but not his/her function.”

I think Dave and Alvin have put their collective thumbs on something that extends beyond our industry: the growing gap between people and platforms. I’ll use my current industry as an example – travel. It’s something we all do so we can all relate to it.

Platforms and software have definitely eaten this industry. In terms of travel destination planning, the 800-pound Gorilla is TripAdvisor. It’s impossible to overstate its importance to operators and business owners.  TripAdvisor almost single-handedly ushered in an era of do-it-yourself travel planning. For any destination in the world, we can now find the restaurants, accommodations, tours and attractions that are the favorites of other travellers. It allows us to both discover and filter while planning our next trip, something that was impossible 20 years ago, before TripAdvisor came along.

But for all its benefits, TripAdvisor also leaves some gaps.

The biggest gap in travel is what I’ve heard called the “Other Five.” I live in Canada’s wine country (yes, there is such a thing). Visitors to our valley – the Okanagan – generally come with 5 wineries they have planned to visit. The chances are very good that those wineries were selected with the help of TripAdvisor. But while they’re visiting, they also visit the “other five” – 5 wineries they discovered once they got to the destination. These discoveries depend on more traditional means – either word of mouth or sheer serendipity. And it’s often one of these “other five” that provide the truly memorable and authentic experiences.

That’s the problem with platforms like TripAdvisor, which are based on general popularity and algorithms. Technically, platforms should help you discover the long tail, but they don’t. Everything automatically defaults to the head of the curve. It’s the Matthew Effect applied to travel – advantage accumulates to those already blessed. We all want to see the same things – up to a point.

But then we want to explore the “other five” and that’s where we find the gap between platforms and people. We have been trained by Google not to look beyond the first page of online results. It’s actually worse than that. We don’t typically scan beyond the top five. But – by the very nature of ratings-based algorithms – that is always where you’ll find the “other five.” They languish in the middle of the results, sometimes taking years to bump up even a few spots. It’s why there’s still a market – and a rapidly expanding one at that – for a tour guided by an actual human. Humans can think beyond an algorithm, asking questions about what you like and pulling from their own experience to make very targeted and empathetic suggestions.

The problem with platforms is their preoccupation with scale. They feel they have to be all things to all people. I’ll call it Unicornitis – the obsession with gaining a massive valuation. They approach every potential market focused on how many users they can capture. By doing so, they have to target the lowest common denominator. The web thrives on scale and popularity; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Yes, there are niche players out there, but they’re very hard to find. They are the “other five” of the Internet, sitting on the third page of Google results.

This has almost nothing to do with advertising, but I think it’s the same phenomenon at work. As we rely more on software, we gain a false confidence that it replaces human-powered expertise. It doesn’t. And a lot of things can slip through the gap that’s created.