The Fundamentals of an Evil Marketplace

Last week, I talked about the nature of tech companies and why this leads to them being evil. But as I said, there was an elephant in the room I didn’t touch on — and that’s the nature of the market itself. The platform-based market also has inherent characteristics that lead toward being evil.

The problem is that corporate ethics are usually based on the philosophies of Milton Friedman, an economist whose heyday was in the 1970s. Corporations are playing by a rule book that is tragically out of date.

Beware the Invisible Hand

Friedman said, “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.”

This is a porting over of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” theory from economics to ethics: the idea that an open and free marketplace is self-regulating and, in the end, the model that is the most virtuous to the greatest number of people will take hold.

That was a philosophy born in another time, referring to a decidedly different market. Friedman’s “virtue” depends on a few traditional market conditions, idealized in the concept of a perfect market: “a market where the sellers of a product or service are free to compete fairly, and sellers and buyers have complete information.”

Inherent in Friedman’s definition of market ethics is the idea of a deliberate transaction, a value trade driven by rational thought. This is where the concept of “complete information” comes in. This information is what’s required for a rational evaluation of the value trade. When we talk about the erosion of ethics we see in tech, we quickly see that the prerequisite of a deliberate and rational transaction is missing — and with it, the conditions needed for an ethical “invisible hand.”

The other assumption in Friedman’s definition is a marketplace that encourages open and healthy competition. This gives buyers the latitude to make the choice that best aligns with their requirements.

But when we’re talking about markets that tend to trend towards evil behaviors, we have to understand that there’s a slippery slope that ends in a place far different than the one Friedman idealized.

Advertising as a Revenue Model

For developers of user-dependent networks like Google and Facebook, using advertising sales for revenue was the path of least resistance for adoption — and, once adopted by users, to profitability. It was a model co-opted from other forms of media, so everybody was familiar with it. But, in the adoption of that model, the industry took several steps away from the idea of a perfect market.

First of all, you have significantly lowered the bar required for that rational value exchange calculation. For users, there is no apparent monetary cost. Our value judgement mechanisms idle down because it doesn’t appear as if the protection they provide is needed.

In fact, the opposite happens. The reward center of our brain perceives a bargain and starts pumping the accelerator. We rush past the accept buttons to sign up, thrilled at the new capabilities and convenience we receive for free. That’s the first problem.

The second is that the minute you introduce advertising, you lose the transparency that’s part of the perfect market. There is a thick layer of obfuscation that sits between “users” and “producers.” The smoke screen is required because of the simple reality that the best interests of the user are almost never aligned with the best interests of the advertiser.

In this new marketplace, advertising is a zero-sum game. For the advertiser to win, the user has to lose. The developer of platforms hide this simple arithmetic behind a veil of secrecy and baffling language.

Products That are a Little Too Personal

The new marketplace is different in another important way: The products it deals in are unlike any products we’ve ever seen before.

The average person spends about a third of his or her time online, mostly interacting with a small handful of apps and platforms. Facebook alone accounts for almost 20% of all our waking time.

This reliance on these products reinforces our belief that we’re getting the bargain of a lifetime: All the benefits the platform provides are absolutely free to us! Of course, in the time we spend online, we are feeding these tools a constant stream of intimately personal information about ourselves.

What is lurking behind this benign facade is a troubling progression of addictiveness. Because revenue depends on advertising sales, two factors become essential to success: the attention of users, and information about them.

An offer of convenience or usefulness “for free” is the initial hook, but then it becomes essential to entice them to spend more time with the platform and also to volunteer more information about themselves. The most effective way to do this is to make them more and more dependent on the platform.

Now, you could build conscious dependency by giving users good, rational reasons to keep coming back. Or, you could build dependence subconsciously, by creating addicts. The first option is good business that follows Friedman’s philosophy. The second option is just evil. Many tech platforms — Facebook included — have chosen to go down both paths.

The New Monopolies

The final piece of Friedman’s idealized marketplace that’s missing is the concept of healthy competition. In a perfect marketplace, the buyer’s cost of switching  is minimal. You have a plethora of options to choose from, and you’re free to pursue the one best for you.

This is definitely not the case in the marketplace of online platforms and tools like Google and Facebook. Because they are dependent on advertising revenues, their survival is linked to audience retention. To this end, they have constructed virtual monopolies by ruthlessly eliminating or buying up any potential competitors.

Further, under the guise of convenience, they have imposed significant costs on those that do choose to leave. The net effect of this is that users are faced with a binary decision: Opt into the functionality and convenience offered, or opt out. There are no other choices.

Whom Do You Serve?

Friedman also said in a 1970 paper that the only social responsibility of a business is to Increase its profits. But this begs the further question, “What must be done — and for whom — to increase profits?” If it’s creating a better product so users buy more, then there is an ethical trickle-down effect that should benefit all.

But this isn’t the case if profitability is dependent on selling more advertising. Now we have to deal with an inherent ethical conflict. On one side, you have the shareholders and advertisers. On the other, you have users. As I said, for one to win, the other must lose. If we’re looking for the root of all evil, we’ll probably find it here.

Why Good Tech Companies Keep Being Evil

You’d think we’d have learned by now. But somehow it still comes as a shock to us when tech companies are exposed as having no moral compass.

Slate recently released what it called the “Evil List”  of 30 tech companies compiled through a ballot sent out to journalists, scholars, analysts, advocates and others. Slate asked them which companies were doing business in the way that troubled them most. Spoiler alert: Amazon, Facebook and Google topped the list.  But they weren’t alone. Rounding out the top 10, the list of culprits included Twitter, Apple, Microsoft and Uber.

Which begs the question: Are tech companies inherently evil — like, say a Monsanto or Phillip Morris — or is there something about tech that positively correlates with “evilness”?

I suspect it’s the second of these.  I don’t believe Silicon Valley is full of fundamentally evil geniuses, but doing business as usual at a successful tech firm means there will be a number of elemental aspects of the culture that take a company down the path to being evil.

Cultism, Loyalism and Self-Selection Bias

A successful tech company is a belief-driven meat grinder that sucks in raw, naïve talent on one end and spits out exhausted and disillusioned husks on the other. To survive in between, you’d better get with the program.

The HR dynamics of a tech startup have been called a meritocracy, where intellectual prowess is the only currency.

But that’s not quite right. Yes, you have to be smart, but it’s more important that you’re loyal. Despite their brilliance, heretics are weeded out and summarily turfed, optionless in more ways than one. A rigidly molded group-think mindset takes over the recruitment process, leading to an intellectually homogeneous monolith.

To be fair, high growth startups need this type of mental cohesion. As blogger Paras Chopra said in a post entitled “Why startups need to be cult-like, “The reason startups should aim to be like cults is because communication is impossible between people with different values.” You can’t go from zero to 100 without this sharing of values.

But necessary or not, this doesn’t change the fact that your average tech star up is a cult, with all the same ideological underpinnings. And the more cult-like a culture, the less likely it is that it will take the time for a little ethical navel-gazing.

A Different Definition of Problem Solving

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And for the engineer, the hammer that fixes everything is technology. But, as academic researchers Emanuel Moss and Jacob Metcalf discovered, this brand of technical solutionism can lead to a corporate environment where ethical problems are ignored because they are open-ended, intractable questions. In a previous column I referred to them as “wicked problems.”

As Moss and Metcalf found, “Organizational practices that facilitate technical success are often ported over to ethics challenges. This is manifested in the search for checklists, procedures, and evaluative metrics that could break down messy questions of ethics into digestible engineering work. This optimism is counterweighted by a concern that, even when posed as a technical question, ethics becomes ‘intractable, like it’s too big of a problem to tackle.’”

If you take this to the extreme, you get the Cambridge Analytica example, where programmer Christopher Wylie was so focused on the technical aspects of the platform he was building that he lost sight of the ethical monster he was unleashing.

A Question of Leadership

Of course, every cult needs a charismatic leader, and this is abundantly true for tech-based companies. Hubris is a commodity not in short supply among the C-level execs of tech.

It’s not that they’re assholes (well, ethical assholes anyway). It’s just that they’re, umm, highly focused and instantly dismissive of any viewpoint that’s not the same as their own. It’s the same issue I mentioned before about the pitfalls of expertise — but on steroids.

I suspect that if you did an ethical inventory of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Travis Kalanik, Reid Hoffman and the rest, you’d find that — on the whole — they’re not horrible people. It’s just that they have a very specific definition of ethics as it pertains to their company. Anything that falls outside those narrowly defined boundaries is either dismissed or “handled” so it doesn’t get in the way of the corporate mission.

Speaking of corporate missions, leaders and their acolytes often are unaware — often intentionally — of the nuances of unintended consequences. Most tech companies develop platforms that allow disruptive new market-based ecosystems to evolve on their technological foundations. Disruption always unleashes unintended social consequences. When these inevitably happen, tech companies generally handle them one of three ways:

  1. Ignore them, and if that fails…
  2. Deny responsibility, and if that fails…
  3. Briefly apologize, do nothing, and then return to Step 1.

There is a weird type of idol worship in tech. The person atop the org chart is more than an executive. They are corporate gods — and those that dare to be disagreeable are quickly weeded out as heretics. This helps explain why Facebook can be pilloried for attacks on personal privacy and questionable design ethics, yet Mark Zuckerberg still snags a 92% CEO approval rating on Glassdoor.com.These fundamental characteristics help explain why tech companies seem to consistently stumble over to the dark side. But there’s an elephant in the room we haven’t talked about. Almost without exception, tech business models encourage evil behavior. Let’s hold that thought for a future discussion.

Why Quitting Facebook is Easier Said than Done

Not too long ago, I was listening to an interview with a privacy expert about… you guessed it, Facebook. The gist of the interview was that Facebook can’t be trusted with our personal data, as it has proven time and again.

But when asked if she would quit Facebook completely because of this — as tech columnist Walt Mossberg did — the expert said something interesting: “I can’t really afford to give up Facebook completely. For me, being able to quit Facebook is a position of privilege.”

Wow!  There is a lot living in that statement. It means Facebook is fundamental to most of our lives — it’s an essential service. But it also means that we don’t trust it — at all.  Which puts Facebook in the same category as banks, cable companies and every level of government.

Facebook — in many minds anyway – became an essential service because of Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the effect of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. More users = exponentially more value. Facebook has Metcalfe’s Law nailed. It has almost two and a half billion users.

But it’s more than just sheer numbers. It’s the nature of engagement. Thanks to a premeditated addictiveness in Facebook’s design, its users are regular users. Of those 2.5 billion users, 1.6 billion log in daily. 1.1 billion log in daily from their mobile device. That means that 15% of all the people in the world are constantly — addictively– connected to Facebook.

And that’s why Facebook appears to be essential. If we need to connect to people, Facebook is the most obvious way to do it. If we have a business, we need Facebook to let our potential customers know what we’re doing. If we belong to a group or organization, we need Facebook to stay in touch with other members. If we are social beasts at all, we need Facebook to keep our social network from fraying away.

We don’t trust Facebook — but we do need it.

Or do we? After all, we homo sapiens have managed to survive for 99.9925% of our collective existence without Facebook. And there is mounting research that indicates  going cold turkey on Facebook is great for your own mental health. But like all things that are good for you, quitting Facebook can be a real pain in the ass.

Last year, New York Times tech writer Brian Chen decided to ditch Facebook. This is a guy who is fully conversant in tech — and even he found making the break is much easier said than done. Facebook, in its malevolent brilliance, has erected some significant barriers to exit for its users if they do try to make a break for it.

This is especially true if you have fallen into the convenient trap of using Facebook’s social sign-in on sites rather than juggling multiple passwords and user IDs. If you’re up for the challenge, Chen has put together a 6-step guide to making a clean break of it.

But what if you happen to use Facebook for advertising? You’ve essentially sold your soul to Zuckerberg. Reading through Chen’s guide, I’ve decided that it’s just easier to go into the Witness Protection Program. Even there, Facebook will still be tracking me.

By the way, after six months without Facebook, Chen did a follow-up on how his life had changed. The short answer is: not much, but what did change was for the better. His family didn’t collapse. His friends didn’t desert him. He still managed to have a social life. He spent a lot less on spontaneous online purchases. And he read more books.

The biggest outcome was that advertisers “gave up on stalking” him. Without a steady stream of personal data from Facebook, Instagram thought he was a woman.

Whether you’re able to swear off Facebook completely or not, I wonder what the continuing meltdown of trust in Facebook will do for its usage patterns. As in most things digital, young people seem to have intuitively stumbled on the best way to use Facebook. Use it if you must to connect to people when you need to (in their case, grandmothers and great-aunts) — but for heaven’s sake, don’t post anything even faintly personal. Never afford Facebook’s AI the briefest glimpse into your soul. No personal affirmations, no confessionals, no motivational posts and — for the love of all that is democratic — nothing political.

Oh, one more thing. Keep your damned finger off of the like button, unless it’s for your cousin Shermy’s 55th birthday celebration in Zihuatanejo.

Even then, maybe it’s time to pick up the phone and call the ol’ Shermeister. It’s been too long.

The Hidden Agenda Behind Zuckerberg’s “Meaningful Interactions”

It probably started with a good intention. Facebook – aka Mark Zuckerberg – wanted to encourage more “Meaningful Interactions”. And so, early last year, Facebook engineers started making some significant changes to the algorithm that determined what you saw in your News Feed. Here are some excerpts from Zuck’s post to that effect:

“The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.”

That makes sense, right? It sounds logical. Zuckerberg went on to say how they were changing Facebook’s algorithm to encourage more “Meaningful Interactions.”

“The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.

As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard — it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”


Let’s fast-forward almost two years and we now see the outcome of that good intention…an ideological landscape with a huge chasm where the middle ground used to be.

The problem is that Facebook’s algorithm naturally favors content from like-minded people. And surprisingly, it doesn’t take a very high degree of ideological homogeneity to create a highly polarized landscape. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. American Economist Thomas Schelling showed us how easy it was for segregation to happen almost 50 years ago.

The Schelling Model of Segregation was created to demonstrate why racial segregation was such a chronic problem in the U.S., even given repeated efforts to desegregate. The model showed that even when we’re pretty open minded about who our neighbors are, we will still tend to self-segregate over time.

The model works like this. A grid represents a population with two different types of agents: X and O. The square that the agent is in represents where they live. If the agent is satisfied, they will stay put. If they aren’t satisfied, they will move to a new location. The variable here is the level of satisfaction determined by what percentage of their immediate neighbours are the same type of agent as they are. For example, the level of satisfaction might be set at 50%; where the X agent needs at least 50% of its neighbours to also be of type X. (If you want to try the model firsthand, Frank McCown, a Computer Science professor at Harding University, created an online version.)

The most surprising thing that comes out of the model is that this threshold of satisfaction doesn’t have to be set very high at all for extensive segregation to happen over time. You start to see significant “clumping” of agent types at percentages as low as 25%. At 40% and higher, you see sharp divides between the X and O communities. Remember, even at 40%, that means that Agent X only wants 40% of their neighbours to also be of the X persuasion. They’re okay being surrounded by up to 60% Os. That is much more open-minded than most human agents I know.

Now, let’s move the Schelling Model to Facebook. We know from the model that even pretty open-minded people will physically segregate themselves over time. The difference is that on Facebook, they don’t move to a new part of the grid, they just hit the “unfollow” button. And the segregation isn’t physical – it’s ideological.

This natural behavior is then accelerated by the Facebook “Meaningful Encounter” Algorithm which filters on the basis of people you have connected with, setting in motion an ever-tightening spiral that eventually restricts your feed to a very narrow ideological horizon. The resulting cluster then becomes a segment used for ad targeting. We can quickly see how Facebook both intentionally built these very homogenous clusters by changing their algorithm and then profits from them by providing advertisers the tools to micro target them.

Finally, after doing all this, Facebook absolves themselves of any responsibility to ensure subversive and blatantly false messaging isn’t delivered to these ideologically vulnerable clusters. It’s no wonder comedian Sascha Baron Cohen just took Zuck to task, saying “if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’”. 

In rereading Mark Zuckerberg’s post from two years ago, you can’t help but start reading between the lines. First of all, there is mounting evidence that disproves his contention that meaningful social media encounters help your well-being. It appears that quitting Facebook entirely is much better for you.

And secondly, I suspect that – just like his defence of running false and malicious advertising by citing free speech – Zuck has an not-so-hidden agenda here. I’m sure Zuckerberg and his Facebook engineers weren’t oblivious to the fact that their changes to the algorithm would result in nicely segmented psychographic clusters that would be like catnip to advertisers – especially political advertisers. They were consolidating exactly the same vulnerabilities that were exploited by Cambridge Analytica.

They were building a platform that was perfectly suited to subvert democracy.

Why Elizabeth Warren Wants to Break Up Big Tech

Earlier this year, Democratic Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren posted an online missive in which she laid out her plans to break up big tech (notably Amazon, Google and Facebook). In it, she noted:

“Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small businesses and stifled innovation.”

We, here in the west, are big believers in Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. We inherently believe that markets will self-regulate and eventually balance themselves. We are loath to involve government in the running of a free market.

In introducing the concept of the Invisible Hand, Smith speculated that,  

“[The rich] consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.”

In short, a rising tide raises all boats. But there is a dicey little dilemma buried in the midst of the Invisible Hand Premise – summed up most succinctly by the fictitious Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street: “Greed is Good.”

More eloquently, economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman explained it like this:

“The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.” 

But here’s the thing. Up until very recently, the concept of the Invisible Hand dealt only with physical goods. It was all about maximizing tangible resources and distributing them to the greatest number of people in the most efficient way possible.

The difference now is that we’re not just talking about toasters or running shoes. Physical things are not the stock in trade of Facebook or Google. They deal in information, feelings, emotions, beliefs and desires. We are not talking about hardware any longer, we are talking about the very operating system of our society. The thing that guides the Invisible Hand is no longer consumption, it’s influence. And, in that case, we have to wonder if we’re willing to trust our future to the conscience of a corporation?

For this reason, I suspect Warren might be right. All the past arguments for keeping government out of business were all based on a physical market. When we shift that to a market that peddles influence, those arguments are flipped on their head. Milton Friedman himself said , “It (the corporation) only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.” Let’s shift that to today’s world and apply it to a corporation like Facebook – “It only cares whether they can produce something that captures your attention.” To expect anything else from a corporation that peddles persuasion is to expect too much.

The problem with Warren’s argument is that she is still using the language of a market that dealt with consumable products. She wants to break up a monopoly that is limiting competition. And she is targeting that message to an audience that generally believes that big government and free markets don’t mix.

The much, much bigger issue here is that even if you believe in the efficacy of the Invisible Hand, as described by all believers from Smith to Friedman, you also have to believe that the single purpose of a corporation that relies on selling persuasion will be to influence even more people more effectively. None of most fervent evangelists of the Invisible Hand ever argued that corporations have a conscience. They simply stated that the interests of a profit driven company and an audience intent on consumption were typically aligned.

We’re now playing a different game with significantly different rules.

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Relevance is the new gold standard in marketing. In an  article in the Harvard Business Review written last year, John Zealley, Robert Wollan and Joshua Bellin — three senior execs at Accenture — outline five stages of marketing (paraphrased courtesy of a post from Phillip Nones):

  1. Mass marketing (up through the 1970s) – The era of mass production, scale and distribution.Marketing segmentation (1980s) – More sophisticated research enabling marketers to target customers in niche segments.
  2. Customer-level marketing (1990s and 2000s) – Advances in enterprise IT make it possible to target individuals and aim to maximize customer lifetime value.
  3. Loyalty marketing (2010s) – The era of CRM, tailored incentives and advanced customer retention.
  4. Relevance marketing (emerging) – Mass communication to the previously unattainable “Segment of One.”

This last stage – according to marketers past and present – should be the golden era of marketing:

“The perfect advertisement is one of which the reader can say, ‘This is for me, and me alone.” 

— Peter Drucker

“Audiences crave tailored messages that cater to them specifically and they are willing to offer information that enables marketers to do so.”

 Kevin Tash, CEO of Tack Media, a digital marketing agency in Los Angeles.

Umm…no! In fact, hell, no!

I agree that relevance is an important thing. And in an ethical world, the exchange Tash talks about would be a good thing, for both consumers and marketers. But we don’t live in such a world. The world we live in has companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Stop Thinking Like a Marketer!

There is a cognitive whiplash that happens when our perspective changes from that of marketer to that of a consumer. I’ve seen it many times. I’ve even prompted it on occasion. But to watch it in 113 minutes of excruciating detail, you should catch “The Great Hack” on Netflix. 

The documentary is a journalistic peeling of the onion that is the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It was kicked off by the whistle blowing of Christopher Wylie, a contract programmer who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame. But to me, the far more interesting story is that of Brittany Kaiser, the director of business Development of SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. The documentary digs into the tortured shift of perspective as she transitions from thinking like a marketer to a citizen who has just had her private data violated. It makes for compelling viewing.

Kaiser shifted her ideological compass about as far as one could possibly do, from her beginnings as an idealistic intern for Barack Obama and a lobbyist for Amnesty International to one of the chief architects of the campaigns supporting Trump’s presidential run, Brexit and other far right persuasion blitzkriegs. At one point, she justifies her shift to the right by revealing her family’s financial struggle and the fact that you don’t get paid much as an underling for Democrats or as a moral lobbyist. The big bucks are found in the ethically grey areas.  Throughout the documentary, she vacillates between the outrage of a private citizen and the rationalization of a marketer. She is a woman torn between two conflicting perspectives.

We marketers have to stop kidding ourselves and justifying misuse of personal data with statements like the one previously quoted from Kevin Tash. As people, we’re okay. I like most of the marketers I know. But as professional marketers, we have a pretty shitty track record. We trample privacy, we pry into places we shouldn’t and we gleefully high-five ourselves when we deliver the goods on a campaign — no matter who that campaign might be for and what its goals might be. We are very different people when we’re on the clock.

We are now faced with what may be the most important questions of our lives: How do we manage our personal data? Who owns it? Who stores it? Who has the right to use it? When we answer those questions, let’s do it as people, and not marketers. Because there is a lot more at stake here than the ROI rates on a marketing campaign.

Is There Still Room In Today’s Marketing World For Rick Steves?

U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is — well, there’s no really kind way to put this — a weenie.

His on-air persona (on “Rick Steves’ Europe”) is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes — and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.

According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.”

Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy — Ned Flanders (of “The Simpsons” fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas — not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.

It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He was hosting a fund-raising marathon this past weekend on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”

Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?

Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.

You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50thbirthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?

I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or  at least not last?

It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.

Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.

And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”

This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.

If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.