It Should Be No Surprise that Musk is Messing Up Twitter

I have to admit – I’m somewhat bemused by all the news rolling out of Elon Musk’s V2.0 edition of Twitter. Here is just a quick round up of headlines grabbed from a Google News search last week:

Elon Musk took over a struggling business with Twitter and has quickly made it worse – CNBC

Elon Musk is Bad at This – The Atlantic

The Elon Musk (Twitter) Era Has Been a Complete Mess – Vanity Fair

Elon Musk “Straight-up Alone,” “Winging” Twitter Changes – Business Insider

To all these, I have to say, “What the Hell did you expect?”

Look, I get that Musk is on a different plane of smart from most of us. No argument there.

The same is true, I suspect, for most tech CEOs who are the original founders of their company. The issue is that the kind of smart they are is not necessarily the kind of smart you need to run a big complex corporation. If you look at the various types of intelligence, they would excel at logical-mathematical intelligence – or what I would call “geek-smart.” But this intelligence can often come at the expense of other kinds of intelligence that would be a better fit in the CEO’s role. Both interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence immediately come to mind.

Musk is not alone. There is a bushel load of Tech CEOs who have pulled off a number of WTF moves. In his article in the Atlantic titled Silicon Valley’s Horrible Bosses, Charlie Warzel gives us a few examples ripped straight from the handbook of the “Elon Musk School of Management.” Most of them involve making hugely impactful HR decisions with little concern for the emotional impact on employees and then doubling down on mistake by choosing to communicate through Twitter.

For most of us with even a modicum of emotional intelligence, this is unimaginable. But if you’re geek-smart, it probably seems logical. Twitter is a perfect communication medium for geek-smart people – it’s one-sided, as black and white as you can get and conveniently limited to 280 characters. There is no room for emotional nuance or context on Twitter.

The disconnect in intelligence types comes in looking at the type of problems a CEO faces. I was CEO of a very small company and even at that scale, with a couple dozen employees, I spent the majority of my time dealing with HR issues. I was constantly trying to navigate my way through these thorny and perplexing issues. I did learn one thing – issues that include people, whether they be employees or customers, generally fall into the category of what is called a “complex problem.”

In 1999, an IBM manager named Dave Snowden realized that not every problem you run into when managing a corporation requires the same approach. He put together a decision-making model to help managers identify the best decision strategy for the issue they’re dealing with. He called the model Cynefin, which is the Welsh word for habitat. In the model, there are five decision domains: Clear, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic and Confusion. Cynefin is really a sense-making tool to help guide managers through problems that are complicated or complex in the hope that chaos can be avoided.

Geek Smart People are very good at complicated problems. This is the domain of the “expert” who can rapidly sift through the “known unknowns.”

Give an expert a complicated problem and they’re the perfect fit for the job. They have the ability to hone in on the relevant details and parse out the things that would distract the rest of us. Cryptography is an example of a complicated problem. So is most coding. This is the natural habitat of the tech engineer.

Tech founders initially become successful because they are very good at solving complicated problems. In fact, in our culture, they are treated like rock stars. They are celebrated for their “expertise.” Typically, this comes with a “smartest person in the room” level of smugness. They have no time for those that don’t see through the complications of the world the same way they do.

Here we run into a cognitive obstacle uncovered by political science writer Philip E. Tetlock in his 2005 book, Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?

As Tetlock discovered, expertise in one domain doesn’t always mean success in another, especially if one domain has complicated problems and the other has complex problems.

Complex problems, like predicting the future or managing people in a massive organization, lie in the realm of “unknown unknowns.” Here, the answer is emergent. These problems are, by their very nature, unpredictable. The very toughest complex problems fall into a category I’ve talked about before: Wicked Problems. And, as Philip Tetlock discovered, experts are no better at dealing with complexity than the rest of us. In fact, in a complex scenario like predicting the future, you’d probably have just as much success with a dart throwing chimpanzee.

But it gets worse. There’s no shame in not being good at complex problems. None of us are. The problem with expertise lies not in a lack of knowledge, but in experts sticking to a cognitive style ill-suited to the task at hand: trying to apply complicated brilliance to complex situations. I call this the “everything is a nail” syndrome. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Tetlock explains, “ They [experts] are just human in the end. They are dazzled by their own brilliance and hate to be wrong. Experts are led astray not by what they believe, but by how they think.”

A Geek-Smart person believes they know the answer better than anyone else because they see the world differently. They are not open to outside input. And it’s just that type of open-minded thinking that is required to wrestle with complex problems.

When you consider all that, is it any wonder that Musk is blowing up Twitter –  and not in a good way?

Looking at Life through Ad-Coloured Glasses

Love em or hate em – you have to admit that ads are a fascinating creative form. They are – more perhaps than any other form of creative expression – a message with a mission.

Orson Welles once said, “The Enemy of Art Is the Absence of Limitations.”

Lorne Michaels – Executive Producer of Saturday Night Live, agreed, “To me there’s no creativity without boundaries. If you’re gonna write a sonnet, it’s 14 lines, so it’s solving the problem within the container.”

I do agree with both Mr. Michaels and Mr. Welles, so let’s strip down advertising to the 4 bare walls that make up the boundaries of a commercial message:

  • It has to get your attention when you may not want to give it
  • It has to get you to think about something you’re not currently thinking about
  • It has to persuade you to buy something or do something you probably don’t absolutely need to have or do
  • It needs to get its message across in an incredibly short span of time

Given these limitations, a successful ad gives us a fascinating glimpse into the context of the culture it was created within. In order to successfully tick all the boxes above, it can’t be subtle. It has to prick our consciousness, piercing through the fog of the cloud of cultural content we exist within. And, in doing all that, it then has to leave us feeling somewhere north of ambivalent about the product or brand that the ad is about.

For this reason, ads have to be unapologetically commercial, often blunt and sometimes push against the edge of what’s acceptable to us. They have to arouse our brains without triggering outrage. The boundaries of an ad help define the form of creativity that goes into the creation of an effective ad. This creativity, in turn, becomes an interesting reflection of the culture in which that ad has to perform.

I’ve talked before about the psychological concept called “leveling and sharpening” – where our brains repackage our experiences to make them easier to remember and retell as stories. Unnecessary detail is “leveled” out and certain outstanding details are “sharpened” to add interest. I suspect ads may represent an intentional leveling and sharpening that make them caricatures of the culture they come from.

I have a friend who’s a history professor. Some years ago, he oversaw an archeological dig at a site that had been a railway laborer camp 100 years before. He told me that for an archeologist, the most interesting area to dig was where they had the latrines, because that’s where you threw everything you didn’t want people to find. It was there that you found out what life was really like in the camps. In this way, maybe ads are a kind of metaphorical outhouse for our culture.

This all came to mind when I happened across an online post that featured ads from the past that would be unacceptable to us now, but as a relic of the culture they came from, gives us a fascinating and often uncomfortable glimpse of what was acceptable in a different time and place.

Looking Kellogg’s ad from the early 1900s. Source: Veronica Costa / Flickr / The Commons)

Take an ad for Kellogg’s Pep Cereal, circa 1940s. The ad’s headline is, “So The Harder a Wife Works, The Cuter She Looks” The ad features a picture of a couple, wife in front wearing a dress and apron while holding a feather duster, while the husband hugs her from behind with an admiring look in his eye. This messaging is not so far removed from the cultural context that would have surrounded it. Women were meant to be at home, making the house tidy and cooking dinner for her husband. Her only other worth is hinted at in the headline.

At least that ad is a little more subtle than the one for Pitney Bowes Postage Meters from 1947. The headline here is “Is It Always Illegal to Kill a Woman?” The premise – wait for it – is that the postage meter makes life so easy for a secretary that she has more time to gossip and slack off at work, driving her boss to justifiable homicide.

(Image Source: Monolith68 / Flickr / The Commons)

This ad, in particular, makes my point. Obviously, the supposed humor in the situation has been grossly exaggerated to get your attention. But even with this, there had to be a culture that saw this as being within the bounds of the acceptable, resulting in a “wink-wink” type of bemusement rather than moral outrage.

You also have to wonder about the targeting strategies of these ads. In the case of Kellogg’s Pep, it would have been assumed that women did the grocery shopping, so the ad would have been targeted with this unspoken message: “Women, throw some Kellogg’s Pep in your grocery cart and you’ll be the perfect wife.”

In the case of the Pitney Bowes ad, men would buy postage machines for an office (no women should have that much power) and so the ad played on what an “unsufferable pain in the ass female employees were.”

It’s in these ads where you see how misogynistic the culture truly was. These attitudes towards the place of women in society were more muted and often glamorized in other longer-form media, such as movies. Consider the bluntness of the chauvinism found in these ads compared to the more subtle forms found in popular movies of the time – such as the loyalty of Donna Reed to James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life or Ingrid Bergman’s “Ilsa” in Casablanca. All views came from the same culture, but through a different lens.

Ads didn’t have the luxury of being subtle. When you only have a few seconds to get your message across, there is no room for nuance. The boundaries defined the form of the message, and the message was that culturally, women were still considered chattel.

In our current reality of cancel culture, these ads are in a category of poor taste that can only be described as jaw dropping. But they do act as a lens through which to look at another place and time. They are cultural caricatures that – hopefully – point out that we have made some progress and perhaps, the past wasn’t as golden and innocent as some would have us believe.

Risk, Reward and the Rebound Market

Twelve years ago, when looking at B2B purchases and buying behaviors, I talked about a risk/reward matrix. I put forward the thought that all purchases have an element of risk and reward in them. In understanding the balance between those two, we can also understand what a buyer is going through.

At the time, I was saying how many B2B purchases have low reward but high risk. This explains the often-arduous B2B buying process, involving RFPs, approved vendor lists, many levels of sign off and a nasty track record of promising prospects suddenly disappearing out of a vendors lead pipeline. It was this mystifying marketplace that caused us to do a large research investigation into B2B buying and lead to me writing the book, The Buyersphere Project: How Businesses Buy from Businesses in the Digital Marketplace.

When I wrote about the matrix right here on Mediapost back then, there were those that said I had oversimplified buying behavior – that even the addition of a third dimension would make the model more accurate and more useful. Better yet, do some stat crunching on realtime data, as suggested by Andre Szykier:

“Simple StatPlot or SPSS in the right hands is the best approach rather than simplistic model proposed in the article.”

Perhaps, but for me, this model still serves as a quick and easy way to start to understand buyer behavior. As British statistician George P. Box once said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Fast forward to the unusual times we now find ourselves in. As I have said before, as we emerge from a forced 2-year hiatus from normal, it’s inevitable that our definitions of risk and reward in buying behaviors might have to be updated. I was reminded of this when I was last week’s commentary – “Cash-Strapped Consumers Seek Simple Pleasures” by Aaron Paquette. He starts by saying, “With inflation continuing to hover near 40-year highs, consumers seek out savings wherever they can find them — except for one surprising segment.”

Surprising? Not when I applied the matrix. It made perfect sense. Paquette goes on,

“Consumers will trade down for their commodities, but they pay up for their sugar, caffeine or cholesterol fix. They’re going without new clothes or furniture, and buying the cheapest pantry staples, to free scarce funds for a daily indulgence. Starbucks lattes aren’t bankrupting young adults — it’s their crushing student loans. And at a time when consumers face skyrocketing costs for energy, housing, education and medical care, they find that a $5 Big Mac, Frappuccino, or six pack of Coca-Cola is an easy way to “treat yo self.”

I have talked before about what we might expect as the market puts a global pandemic behind us. The concepts of balancing risk and reward are very much at the heart of our buying behaviors. Sociologist Nicholas Christakis explores this in his book Apollo’s Arrow. Right now, we’re in a delicate transition time. We want to reward ourselves but we’re still highly risk averse. We’re going to make purchases that fall into this quadrant of the matrix.

This is a likely precursor to what’s to come, when we move into reward seeking with a higher tolerance of risk. Christakis predicts this to come sometime in 2024: “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.”

The consumer numbers shared by Paquette shows we’re dipping our toes into the waters of hedonism . The party hasn’t started yet but we are more than ready to indulge ourselves a little with a reward that doesn’t carry a lot of risk.

50 Shades of Greying

Here is what I know: Lisa LaFlamme – the main anchor of CTV News, one of Canada’s national nightly newscasts – was fired.

What I don’t know is why. There are multiple versions of why floating around. The one that seems to have served as a rallying point for those looking to support Ms. LaFlamme is that she was fired because she was getting old. During COVID she decided to let her hair go to its natural grey. That, according to the popular version, prompted network brass to pull the pin on her contract.

I suspect the real reason why was not quite that cut and dried. The owners of the network, Bell Media, have been relentlessly trimming their payrolls at their various news organizations over the past several years. I know of one such story through a personal connection. The way this one scenario played out sounded very similar to what happened to Lisa LaFlamme – minus the accusations of ageism and gender double standards. In this case, it was largely a matter of dollars and cents. TV news is struggling financially. Long-time on-air talent have negotiated a salary over their careers that is no longer sustainable. Something had to give. These are probably just the casualties attributable to a dying industry. A hundred years ago it would have been blacksmiths and gas lamplighters that were being let go by the thousands. The difference is that the average blacksmith or lamplighter didn’t have a following of millions of people. They also didn’t have social media. They certainly didn’t have corporate PR departments desperately searching for the latest social media “woke” bandwagon to vault upon.

What is interesting is how these things play out through various media channels. In Ms LaFlamme’s case, it was a perfect storm that lambasted Bell Media (which owns the CTV Network). As the ageism rumours began to emerge, anti-ageism social media campaigns were run by Dove, Wendy’s and even Sports Illustrated. LaFlamme wasn’t mentioned by name in most of these, but the connection was clear. Going grey was something to be celebrated, not a cause for contract cancellation. Grey flecked gravitas should be gender neutral. “Who the f*&k were these Millennial corporate pin-heads that couldn’t stand a little grey on the nightly news!”

It makes excellent fodder for the meme-factory, but I suspect the reality wasn’t quite that simple. Ms La Flamme has never publicly revealed the actual reason for dismissal from her point of view. She never mentioned ageism. She simply said she was “blindsided” by the news. The reasoning behind the parting of the ways from Bell Media has largely been left up to conjecture.

A few other things to note.  LaFlamme received the news on June 29th but didn’t share the news until six weeks later (August 15th) on a personal video she shared on her own social media feed. Bell Media offered her the opportunity to have an on-air send off, but she declined. Finally, she also declined several offers from Bell to continue with the network in other roles. She chose instead to deliver her parting shot in the war zone of social media.

To be fair to both sides, if we’re to catalog all the various rumors floating about, there are also those saying that the decision was brought in – in part – by an allegedly toxic work environment in the news department that started at the top, with LaFlamme.

Now, if the reason for the termination actually was ageism, that’s abhorrent. Ms. LaFlamme is actually a few years younger than I am. I would hate to think that people of our age, who should be still at the height of their careers, would be discriminated against simply because of age.

The same is true if the reason was sexism. There should be no distinction between the appropriate age of a male or female national anchor.

But if it’s more complex, which I’m pretty sure it is, it shows how our world doesn’t really deal very well with complexity anymore. The consideration required to understand them don’t fit well within the attention constraints of social media. It’s a lot easier just to sub in a socially charged hot button meme and wait for the inevitable opinion camps to form. Sure, they’ll be one dimensional and about as thoughtful as a sledgehammer, but those types of posts are a much better bet to go viral.

Whatever happened in the CTV National Newsroom, I do know that this shows that business decisions in the media business will have to follow a very different playbook from this point forward. Bell Media fumbled the ball badly on this one. They have been scrambling ever since to save face. It appears that Lisa LaFlamme – and her ragtag band of social media supporters – outplayed them at every turn.

By the way, LaFlamme just nabbed a temporary gig as a “special correspondent” for CityTV, Bell Media’s competitor, covering the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the proclamation of King Charles III.  She’s being consummately professional and comforting, garnering a ton of social media support as she eases Canada through the grieving process (our emotional tie to the Crown is another very complex relationship that would require several posts to unpack).  

Well played, Lisa LaFlamme – well played.

The Canary in the Casino

It may not seem like it if you’ve watched the news lately, but there are signs we’re balanced on the edge of a gigantic party. We’re all ready to treat ourselves with a little hedonistic indulging.

As I mentioned in a previous column (rerun last week), physician, epidemiologist and sociologist Nicholas Christakis predicted this behavior, but not for a few years yet. Christakis predicted a sort of global “letting loose” starting some time in 2024:

“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.”

So, there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel — but, according to a report just out from the American Gaming Association, some of us can’t wait a couple of years. First out of the gate were gamblers. Well before we started emerging from the pandemic, they were already rolling the dice and starting the party.

According to the report from the AGA, U.S. commercial gaming revenue hit a record $53 billion in 2021. That was more than 21% higher than the previous record, set in 2019, and a huge rebound of 77% from 2020 numbers, when COVID forced casinos to shut down for months at a time.

You might think online gaming accounts for the jump, but you’d be wrong. In-casino gambling underpins this huge spike, accounting for $45.6 billion of the $53 billion total. People were saying to hell with health mandates and streaming into casinos across the country, with most of the top markets seeing significant gains from pre-COVID 2019.

While some of us might not be ready to ditch the masks and belly up to the bar, I suspect these gamblers are an early indicator of things to come. Call them a canary in a coal mine, if you will.

Because I can’t resist interesting historical tidbits, I thought I’d share the story behind this saying about how canaries ended up in coal mines in the first place. Early in the last century, canaries were used as an early warning system for poison gas in England. John Scott Haldane, who was researching the effects of carbon monoxide on humans, suggested using canaries as a “sentinel species,” an animal more sensitive to the impact of poisonous gases. They were kept in cages throughout the mines — and if a canary died, the miners were warned to evacuate the mine.

But why canaries?

Canaries, like most birds, need tremendous amounts of oxygen to fly and to avoid altitude sickness. They actually take in oxygen twice on each breath, once while inhaling and again when exhaling. This, combined with their relatively small size, make them hyper-sensitive to the impact of a poisonous gas. Also, canaries were easy to come by in England and convenient to transport. So, they were recruited to help keep humans alive.

This makes them analogous to gamblers in the following way: Gamblers, by their nature, are built to be more willing to take some risk in search of a reward. You could say they are hyper-sensitive to the rush that comes from rewarding themselves. As such, they are the early adopters in the onrushing desire to put bad news behind them and let loose with a little hedonistic hell-raising. They are not atypical; they’re just ahead of the curve in this one respect.

Sooner or later, the rest of us will follow. Look for similar huge rebounds in the travel and hospitality sectors, entertainment, events and other industries focused on providing pleasure. The world will become one giant spring break party.

Which is perhaps only fitting, coming after a two-year-long winter of our discontent.

The Joe Rogan Experiment in Ethical Consumerism

We are watching an experiment in ethical consumerism take place in real time. I’m speaking of the Joe Rogan/Neil Young controversy that’s happening on Spotify. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, but if not, Canadian musical legend Neil Young had finally had enough of Joe Rogan’s spreading of COVID misinformation on his podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience.” He gave Spotify an ultimatum: “You can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

Spotify chose Rogan. Young pulled his library. Since then, a handful of other artists have followed Young, including former band mates David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, along with fellow Canuck Hall of Famer Joni Mitchell.

But it has hardly been a stampede. One of the reasons is that — if you’re an artist — leaving Spotify is easier said than done. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Rosanne Cash said most artists don’t have the luxury of jilting Spotify: 

It’s not viable for most artists. The public doesn’t understand the complexities. I’m not the sole rights holder to my work… It’s not only that a lot of people who aren’t rights holders can’t remove their work. A lot of people don’t want to. These are the digital platforms where they make a living, as paltry as it is. That’s the game. These platforms own, what, 40 percent of the market share?”

Cash also brings up a fundamental issue with capitalism: it follows profit, and it’s consumers who determine what’s profitable. Consumers make decisions based on self-interest: what’s in it for them. Corporations use that predictable behavior to make the biggest profit possible. That behavior has been perfectly predictable for hundreds of years. It’s the driving force behind Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. It was also succinctly laid out by economist Milton Friedman in 1970:

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

We all want corporations to be warm and fuzzy — but it’s like wishing a shark were a teddy bear. It just ain’t gonna happen.

One who indulged in this wishful thinking was a little less well-known Canadian artist who also pulled his music  from Spotify, Ontario singer/songwriter Danny Michel. He told the CBC:

“But for me, what it was was seeing how Spotify chose to react to Neil Young’s request, which was, you know: You can have my music or Joe. And it seems like they just, you know, got out a calculator, did some math, and chose to let Neil Young go. And they said, clear and loud: We don’t need you. We don’t need your music.”

Well, yes, Danny, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Spotify did. It made a decision based on profit. For one thing, Joe Rogan is exclusive to Spotify. Neil Young isn’t. And Rogan produces a podcast, which can have sponsors. Neil Young’s catalog of songs can’t be brought to you by anyone.

That makes Rogan a much better bet for revenue generation. That’s why Spotify paid Rogan $100 million. Music journalist Ted Gioia made the business case for the Rogan deal pretty clear in a tweet

“A musician would need to generate 23 billion streams on Spotify to earn what they’re paying Joe Rogan for his podcast rights (assuming a typical $.00437 payout per stream). In other words, Spotify values Rogan more than any musician in the history of the world.”

I hate to admit that Milton Friedman is right, but he is. I’ve said it time and time before, to expect corporations to put ethics ahead of profits is to ignore the DNA of a corporation. Spotify is doing what corporations will always do, strive to be profitable. The decision between Rogan and Young was done with a calculator. And for Danny Michel to expect anything else from Spotify is simply naïve. If we’re going to play this ethical capitalism game, we must realize what the rules of engagement are.

But what about us? Are we any better that the corporations we keep putting our faith in?

We have talked about how we consumers want to trust the brands we deal with, but when a corporation drops the ethics ball, do we really care? We have been gnashing our teeth about Facebook’s many, many indiscretions for years now, but how many of us have quite Facebook? I know I haven’t.

I’ve seen some social media buzz about migrating from Spotify to another service. I personally have started down this road. Part of it is because I agree with Young’s stand. But I’ll be brutally honest here. The bigger reason is that I’m old and I want to be able to continue to listen to the Young, Mitchell and CSNY catalogs. As one of my contemporaries said in a recent post, “Neil Young and Joni Mitchell? Wish it were artists who are _younger_ than me.”

A lot of pressure is put on companies to be ethical, with no real monetary reasons why they should be. If we want ethics from our corporations, we have to make it important enough to us to impact our own buying decisions. And we aren’t doing that — not in any meaningful way.

I’ve used this example before, but it bears repeating. We all know how truly awful and unethical caged egg production is. The birds are kept in what is known as a battery cage holding 5 to 10 birds and each is confined to a space of about 67 square inches. To help you visualize that, it’s just a bit bigger than a standard piece of paper folded in half. This is the hell we inflict on other animals solely for our own gain. No one can be for this. Yet 97% of us buy these eggs, just because they’re cheaper.

If we’re looking for ethics, we have to look in other places than brands. And — much as I wish it were different — we have to look beyond consumers as well. We have proven time and again that our convenience and our own self-interest will always come ahead of ethics. We might wish that were different, but our spending patterns say otherwise.

What Media Insiders Were Thinking (And Writing) In 2021

Note: This is a year back look at the posts in the Media Insider Column on Mediapost, for which I write every Tuesday. All the writers for the column have been part of the Marketing and Media business for decades, so there’s a lot of wisdom there to draw on. This is the second time I’ve done this look back at what we’ve written about in the previous year.

As part of the group of Media Insiders, I’ve always considered myself in sterling company. I suspect if you added up all the years of experience in this stable of industry experts, we’d be well into the triple digits. Most of the Insiders are still active in the world of marketing. For myself, although I’m no longer active in the business, I’m still fascinated by how it impacts our lives and our culture.

For all those reasons, I think the opinions of this group are worth listening to — and, thankfully,  MediaPost gives you those opinions every day.

Three years ago, I thought it would be interesting to do a “meta-analysis” of those opinions over the span of the year, to see what has collectively been on the minds of the Media Insiders. I meant to do it again last year, but just never got around to it — as you know, global pandemics and uprisings against democracy were a bit of a distraction.

This year, I decided to give it another shot. And it was illuminating. Here’s a summary of what has been on our collective minds:

I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that your Insiders have been unusually existential in their thoughts in the past 12 months. Now, granted, this is one column on MediaPost that leads to existential musings. That’s why I ended up here. I love the fact that I can write about pretty much anything and it generally fits under the “Media Insider” masthead. I suspect the same is true for the other Insiders.

But even with that in mind, this year was different. I think we’ve all spent a lot of the last year thinking about what the moral and ethical boundaries for marketers are — for everyone, really — in the world of 2021. Those ponderings broke down into a few recurring themes.

Trying to Navigate a Substantially Different World

Most of this was naturally tied to the ongoing COVID pandemic.  

Surprisingly, given that three years ago it was one of the most popular topics, Insiders said little about politics. Of course, we were then squarely in the middle of “Trump time.” There were definitely a few posts after the Jan. 6 insurrection, but most of it was just trying to figure out how the world might permanently change after 2021. Almost 20% of our columns touched on this topic.

A notable subset of this was how our workplaces might change. With many of us being forced to work from home, 4% of the year’s posts talked about how “going to work” may never look the same again.

Ad-Tech Advice

The next most popular topic from Insiders (especially those still in the biz, like Corey, Dave, Ted and Maarten) was ongoing insight on how to manage the nuts and bolts of your marketing. A lot of this focused on using ad tech effectively. That made up 15% of last year’s posts.

And Now, The Bad News

I will say your Media Insiders (myself included) are a somewhat pessimistic bunch. Even when we weren’t talking about wrenching change brought about by a global pandemic, we were worrying about the tech world going to hell in a handbasket. About 13.5% of our posts talked about social media, and it was almost all negative, with most of it aimed squarely at Facebook — sorry, Meta.

Another 12% of our posts talked about other troubling aspects of technology. Privacy concerns over data usage and targeting took the lead here. But we were also worried about other issues, like the breakdown of person-to-person relationships, disappearing attention spans, and tears in our social fabric. When we talked about the future of tech, we tended to do it through a dystopian lens.

Added to this was a sincere concern about the future of journalism. This accounted for another 5% of all our posts. This makes almost a full third of all posts with a decidedly gloomy outlook when it comes to tech and digital media’s impact on society.

The Runners-Up

If there was one branch of media that seemed the most popular among the Insiders (especially Dave Morgan), it was TV and streaming video. I also squeezed a few posts about online gaming into this category. Together, this topic made up 10.5% of all posts.

Next in line, social marketing and ethical branding. We all took our own spins on this, and together we devoted almost 9.5% of all posts in 2021 to it. I’ve talked before about the irony of a world that has little trust in advertising but growing trust in brands. Your Insiders have tried to thread the needle between the two sides of this seeming paradox.

Finally, we did cover a smattering of other topics, but one in particular rose about the others as something increasingly on our radar. We touched on the Metaverse and its implications in almost 3% of our posts.

Summing Up

To try to wrap up 2021 in one post is difficult, but if there was a single takeaway, I think it’s that both marketing and media are faced with some very existential questions. Ad-supported revenue models have now been pushed to the point where we must ask what the longer-term ethical implications might be.

If anything, I would say the past year has marked the beginning of our industry realizing that a lot of unintended consequences have now come home to roost.

It’s the Buzz That Will Kill You

If you choose to play in the social arena, you have to accept that the typical peaks and valleys of business success can suddenly become impossibly steep.

In social media networks, your brand message is whatever meme happens to emerge from the collective activity of this connected market. Marketers have little control — and sometimes, they have no control. At best, all they can do is react by throwing another carefully crafted meme into the social-sphere and hope it picks up some juice and is amplified through the network.

That’s exactly what happened to Peloton in the past week and a half.

On Dec. 9, the HBO Max sequel to “Sex and the City” killed off a major character — Chris Noth’s Mr. Big — by giving him a heart attack after his one thousandth Peloton ride. Apparently, HBO Max gave Peloton no advance warning of this branding back hand.

On Dec. 10, according to Axios,  there was a dramatic spike in social interactions talking about Mr. Big’s last ride, peaking near 80 thousand. As you can imagine, the buzz was not good for Peloton’s business.

On Dec. 12, Peloton struck back with its own ad, apparently produced in just 24 hours by Ryan Reynold’s Maximum Effort agency. This turned the tide of the social buzz. Again, according to data from Newswhip and Axios, social media mentions peaked. This time, they were much more positive toward the Peloton brand.

It should be all good — right? Not so fast. On Dec 16, two sexual assault allegations were made against Chris Noth, chronicled in The Hollywood Reporter. Peloton rapidly scrubbed its ad campaign. Again, the social sphere lit up and Peloton was forced back into defensive mode.

Now, you might call all this marketing froth, but that’s  the way it is in our hyper-connected world. You just have to dance the dance — be nimble and respond.

But my point is not about the marketing side of this of this brouhaha – which has been covered to death, at least at MediaPost (sorry, pardon the pun.) I’m more interested  in what happens to the people who have some real skin in this particular game, whose lives depend on the fortunes of the Peloton brand. Because all this froth does have some very IRL consequences.

Take Peloton’s share price, for one.

The day before the HBO show aired, Peloton’s shares were trading at $45.91. The next day, they tumbled 16%. to $38.51.

And that’s just one chapter in the ongoing story of Peloton’s stock performance, which has been a hyper-compressed roller coaster ride, with the pandemic and a huge amount of social media buzz keeping the foot firmly on the accelerator of stock performance through 2020, but then subsequently dropping like a rock for most of 2021. After peaking as high as $162 a share exactly a year ago, the share price is back down to spitting distance of its pre-pandemic levels.

Obviously, Peloton’s share price is not just dependent on the latest social media meme. There are business fundamentals to consider as well.

Still, you have to accept that a more connected meme-market is going to naturally accelerate the speed of business upticks and declines. Peloton signed up for this dance — and  when you do that, you have to accept all that comes with it.

In terms of the real-world consequences of betting on the buzz, there are three “insider” groups (not including customers) that will be affected: the management, the shareholders and the employees. The first of these supposedly went into this with their eyes open. The second of these also made a choice. If they did their due diligence before buying the stock, they should have known what to expect. But it’s the last of these — the employees — that I really feel for.

With ultra-compressed business cycles like Peloton has experienced, it’s tough for employees to keep up. On the way up the peak, the company is running ragged trying to scale for hyper-growth. If you check employee review sites like Glassdoor.com, there are tales of creaky recruitment processes not being able to keep up. But at least the ride up is exciting. The ride down is something quite different.

In psychological terms, there is something called the locus of control. These are the things you feel you have at least some degree of control over. And there is an ever-increasing body of evidence that shows that locus of control and employee job satisfaction are strongly correlated. No one likes to be the one constantly waiting for someone else to drop the other shoe. It just ramps up your job stress. Granted, job stress that comes with big promotions and generous options on a rocket ship stock can perhaps be justified. But stress that’s packaged with panicked downsizing and imminent layoffs is not a fun employment package for anyone.

That’s the current case at Peloton. On Nov. 5 it announced an immediate hiring freeze. And while there’s been no official announcement of layoffs that I could find, there have been rumors of such posted to the site thelayoff.com.  This is not a fun environment for anyone to function in. Here’s what one post said: “I left Peloton a year ago when I realized it was morphing into the type of company I had no intention of working for.”

We have built a business environment that is highly vulnerable to buzz. And as Peloton has learned, what the buzz giveth, the buzz can also taketh away.

When Social Media Becomes the Message

On Nov. 23, U.K. cosmetics firm Lush said it was deactivating its Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat accounts until the social media environment “is a little safer.” And by a “safer” environment, the company didn’t mean for advertisers, but for consumers. Jack Constantine, chief digital officer and product inventor at Lush, explains in an interview with the BBC:

“[Social media channels] do need to start listening to the reality of how they’re impacting people’s mental health and the damage that they’re causing through their craving for the algorithm to be able to constantly generate content regardless of whether it’s good for the users or not.”

This was not an easy decision for Lush. It came with the possibility of a substantial cost to its business, “We already know that there is potential damage of £10m in sales and we need to be able to gain that back,” said Constantine. “We’ve got a year to try to get that back, and let’s hope we can do that.”

In effect, Lush is rolling the dice on a bet based on the unpredictable network effects of social media. Would the potential loss to its bottom line be offset by the brand uptick it would receive by being true to its core values? In talking about Lush’s move on the Wharton Business Daily podcast, marketing lecturer Annie Wilson pointed out the issues in play here:

“There could be positive effects on short-term loyalty and brand engagement, but it will be interesting to see the long-term effect on acquiring new consumers in the future.”

I’m not trying to minimize Lush’s decision here by categorizing it as a marketing ploy. The company has been very transparent about how hard it’s been to drop — even temporarily — Facebook and its other properties from the Lush marketing mix. The brand had previously closed several of its UK social media accounts, but eventually found itself “back on the channels, despite the best intentions.”

You can’t overstate how fundamental a decision this is for a profit-driven business. But I’m afraid Lush is probably an outlier. The brand is built on making healthy choices. Lush eventually decided it had to stay true to that mission even if it hurts the bottom line.

Other businesses are far from wearing their hearts on their sleeves to the same extent as Lush. For every Lush that’s out there, there are thousands that continue to feed their budgets to Facebook and its properties, even though they fundamentally disagree with the tactics of the channel.

There has been pushback against these tactics before. In July of 2020, 1000 advertisers joined the #StopHateForProfit Boycott against Facebook. That sounds impressive – until you realize that Facebook has 9 million clients. The boycotters represented just over .01% of all advertisers. Even with the support of other advertisers who didn’t join the boycott but still scaled back their ad spend, it only had a fleeting effect on Facebook’s bottom line. Almost all the advertisers eventually returned after the boycott.

As The New York Times reported at the time, the damage wasn’t so much to Facebook’s pocketbook as to its reputation. Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, the executive vice president of the public opinion analysis company RepTrak, wrote in a follow-up post,

“What could really hurt Facebook is the long-term effect of its perceived reputation and the association with being viewed as a publisher of ‘hate speech’ and other inappropriate content.”

Of course, that was all before the emergence of a certain Facebook data engineer by the name of Frances Haugen. The whistleblower released thousands of internal documents to the Wall Street Journal this past fall. It went public in September of this year in a series called “The Facebook Files.” If we had any doubt about the culpability of Zuckerberg et al, this pretty much laid that to rest.

Predictably, after the story broke, Facebook made some halfhearted attempts to clean up its act by introducing new parental controls on Instagram and Facebook. This follows the typical Facebook handbook for dealing with emerging shit storms: do the least amount possible, while talking about it as much as possible. It’s a tactic known as “purpose-washing.”

The question is, if this is all you do after a mountain of evidence points to you being truly awful, how sincere are you about doing the right thing? This puts Facebook in the same category as Big Tobacco, and that’s pretty crappy company to be in.

Lush’s decision to quit Facebook also pinpoints an interesting dilemma for advertisers: What happens when an advertising platform that has been effective in attracting new customers becomes so toxic that it damages your brand just by being on it? What happens when, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium becomes the message?

Facebook is not alone with this issue. With the systematic dismantling of objective journalism, almost every news medium now carries its own message. This is certainly true for channels like Fox News. By supporting these platforms with advertising, advertisers are putting a stamp of approval on those respective editorial biases and — in Fox’s case — the deliberate spreading of misinformation that has been shown to have a negative social cost.

All this points to a toxic cycle becoming more commonplace in ad-supported media: The drive to attract and effectively target an audience leads a medium to embrace questionable ethical practices. These practices then taint the platform itself, leading to it potentially becoming brand-toxic. The advertisers then must choose between reaching an available audience that can expand its business, or avoiding the toxicity of the platform. The challenge for the brand then becomes a contest to see how long it can hold its nose while it continues to maximize sales and profits.

For Lush, the scent of Facebook’s bullshit finally grew too much to bear — at least for now.

The Unusual Evolution of the Internet

The Internet we have today evolved out of improbability. It shouldn’t have happened like it did. It evolved as a wide-open network forged by starry-eyed academics and geeks who really believed it might make the world better. It wasn’t supposed to win against walled gardens like Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL — but it did. If you rolled back the clock, knowing what we know now, you could be sure it would never play out the same way again.

To use the same analogy that Eric Raymond did in his now-famous essay on the development of Linux, these were people who believed in bazaars rather than cathedrals. The internet was cobbled together to scratch an intellectual and ethical itch, rather than a financial one.

But today, as this essay in The Atlantic by Jonathan Zittrain warns us, the core of the internet is rotting. Because it was built by everyone and no one, all the superstructure that was assembled on top of that core is teetering. Things work, until they don’t: “The internet was a recipe for mortar, with an invitation for anyone, and everyone, to bring their own bricks.”

The problem is, it’s no one’s job to make sure those bricks stay in place.

Zittrain talks about the holes in humanity’s store of knowledge. But there’s another thing about this evolution that is either maddening or magical, depending on your perspective: It was never built with a business case in mind.

Eventually, commerce pipes were retrofitted into the whole glorious mess, and billions managed to be made. Google alone has managed to pull over a trillion dollars in revenue in less than 20 years by becoming the de facto index to the world’s most haphazard library of digital stuff. Amazon went one better, using the Internet to reinvent humanity’s marketplace and pulling in $2 trillion in revenue along the way.

But despite all this massive monetization, the benefactors still at least had to pay lip service to that original intent: the naïve belief that technology could make us better, and  that it didn’t just have to be about money.

Even Google, which is on its way to posting $200 billion in revenue, making it the fifth biggest media company in the world (after Netflix, Disney, Comcast, and AT&T), stumbled on its way to making a buck. Perhaps it’s because its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, didn’t trust advertising. In their original academic paper, they said that “advertising-funded search engines will inherently be biased toward the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers.”  Of course they ultimately ended up giving in to the dark side of advertising. But I watched the Google user experience closely from 2003 to 2011, and that dedication to the user was always part of a delicate balancing act that was generally successful.

But that innocence of the original Internet is almost gone, as I noted in a recent post. And there are those who want to make sure that the next thing — whatever it is — is built on a framework that has monetization built in. It’s why Mark Zuckerberg is feverishly hoping that his company can build the foundations of the Metaverse. It’s why Google is trying to assemble the pipes and struts that build the new web. Those things would be completely free of the moral — albeit naïve — constraints that still linger in the original model. In the new one, there would only be one goal: making sure shareholders are happy.

It’s also natural that many of those future monetization models will likely embrace advertising, which is, as I’ve said before, the path of least resistance to profitability.

We should pay attention to this. The very fact that the Internet’s original evolution was as improbable and profit-free as it was puts us in a unique position today. What would it look like if things had turned out differently, and the internet had been profit-driven from day one? I suspect it might have been better-maintained but a lot less magical, at least in its earliest iterations.

Whatever that new thing is will form a significant part of our reality. It will be even more foundational and necessary to us than the current internet. We won’t be able to live without it. For that reason, we should worry about the motives that may lie behind whatever “it” will be.