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.

Running on Empty: Getting Crushed by the Crush It Culture

“Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

Elon Musk

Those damned Protestants and their work ethic. Thanks to them, unless you’re willing to put in a zillion hours a week, you’re just a speed bump on the road to all that is good in the world. Take Mr. Musk, for example. If you happen to work at Tesla, or SpaceX, or the Boring Company, Elon has figured out what your average work week should be, “(It) Varies per person, but about 80 sustained, peaking above 100 at times. Pain level increases exponentially above 80.”

“Pain level increases exponentially above 8o”? WTF, Mr. Musk!

But he’s not alone. Google famously built their Mountainview campus so employees never had to go home. Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma calls the intense work culture at his company a “huge blessing.” He calls it the “996” work schedule, 9 am to 9 pm 6 days a week. That’s 72 hours, if you’re counting. But even that wouldn’t cut it if you work for Elon Musk. You’d be a dead beat.

This is the “Crush It” culture, where long hours equate to dedication and – by extension – success. No pain, no gain.

We spend lots of time talking about the gain – so let me spend just one column talking about the pain. Pain such as mental illness, severe depression, long term disabilities and strokes. Those that overwork are more likely to over-eat, smoke, drink excessively and develop other self-destructive habits.

You’re not changing the world. You’re shortening your life. The Japanese call it karoshi; death by overwork.

Like so many things, this is another unintended consequence of a digitally mediated culture. Digital speeds everything up. But our bodies – and brains – aren’t digital. They burn out if they move too fast – or too long.

Overwork as a sign of superior personal value is a fairly new concept in the span of human history. It came from the Puritans who settled in New England. They believed that those that worked hard at their professions were those chosen to get into heaven. The more wealth you amassed from your work, the more evidence there was that you were one of the chosen.

Lately, the creeping Capitalist culture of over-working has most firmly embedded itself in the tech industry. There, the number of hours you work has become a proxy of your own worth. A twisted type of machismo has evolved and has trapped us all into thinking that an hour not spent at our jobs is an hour wasted. We are looked down upon for wanting some type of balance in our lives.

Unfortunately for the Musks and Mas and other modern-day task masters – the biology just doesn’t support their proposed work schedules.

First, our brains need rest. Back in the 18th century when those Puritans proved their worth through work, earning a living was usually a physical endeavour. The load of overwork was spread amongst the fairly simple mechanical machinery of our own bodies. Muscles got sore. Joints ached. But they recovered.

The brain is a much more complex beast. When it gets overworked, it loses its executive ability to focus on the task at hand. When your work takes place on a desktop or laptop where there are unlimited diversions just a click away, you suddenly find yourself 45 minutes into an unplanned YouTube marathon or scrolling through your Facebook feed. It becomes a downward spiral that benefits no one.

An overworked mind also loses its ability to spin down in the evening so you can get an adequate amount of sleep. When your co-workers start boasting of being able to function on just 3 or 4 hours of sleep – they are lying. They are lying to you, but worse, they are lying to themselves. Very few of us can function adequately on less than 7 or 8 hours of sleep. For the rest of us, the negative effects start to accumulate. A study found that sleep deprivation has the same impact as drinking too much. Those that were getting less than 7 hours of sleep faired the same or worse on a cognitive test as those that had a 0.05% blood alcohol level. The legal limit in most states is 0.08%.

Finally, in an essay on Medium, Rachel Thomas points out that the Crush It Culture is discriminatory. Those that have a disability or chronic illness simply have fewer hours in the day to devote to work. They need time for medical support and usually require more sleep. In an industry like Tech where there is an unhealthy focus on the number of hours worked, these workers – which Thomas says makes up at least 30% of the total workforce – are shut out.

The Crush It Culture is toxic. The science simply doesn’t support it. The only ones evangelizing it are those that directly benefit from this modernized version of feudalism.  It’s time to call Bullshit on them.

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.

Catching Travel by the Long Tail

It’s been 13 years since then-Wired Editor in Chief Chris Anderson wrote his book “The Long Tail.” His analysis of the “Amazon Economy” completely flipped our notions of supply and demand. In theory, The Long Tail should have ushered in a democratization of the marketplace, spreading the wealth among a greater number of participants. And, in a perfect implementation of the Long Tail, that would be true. But bits and pieces of Long-Tail economics have ported over to a number of markets — and sometimes, an imperfect fit creates some undesirable consequences.

Long-Tail Economics

In order to create an effective Long-Tail market, three conditions have to be met.

Unlimited inventory: Products that can be delivered digitally with no manufacturing costs free markets from the physical restraints of production and warehousing. Inventories are unlimited and fulfillment can be on demand.

Unlimited shelf space: Similarly, products in the digital domain allow for infinite shelf space — simply because no actual “space” is required. Spotify, Netflix and Amazon can make millions of digital copies available.

Perfect information: The last requirement is sometimes the most problematic. In order for the Long Tail marketplace to be the most effective, consumers need perfect information about their options. They need to know everything about anything that’s available and be able to make their choice accordingly.

This is impractical in the real world. Even the most effective search platform falls well short of providing perfect information.

Theoretically, if all three prerequisites are met, demand flows down from the head to the tail, shortening the first and extending the second. But Long-Tail economics don’t necessarily apply equally to every marketplace. Take travel, for instance.

Too Much of a Good Thing

In a recent MediaPost column looking at marketing travel, Harvey Chipkin outlined the problems being felt worldwide by “overtourism.”  Barcelona is a cautionary tale of what happens when consumers are deluded by the illusion of a Long-Tail market and suppliers are dealing with the realities of an infrastructure held back by physical constraints.

First, let’s deal with the delusion. We travel a lot differently than our parents did. Back in the ’80s, travel to Europe was the sole domain of the rich and famous. If one of us mere mortals did hit the continent, chances were we were doing the European Bus Tour Trifecta: London, Paris and Rome. For most of us, Disneyland was about as exotic and adventurous as our travel plans got.

But then we started craving authentic experiences. We wanted the thrill of unearthing the hidden gem. That was about the time we discovered Barcelona.

No one went to Barcelona in 1990. But then the city hosted the Olympics in 1992. This exposure on the world stage boosted tourism, effectively doubling it by 2000. Barcelona was cool, it was hip — and, most importantly, our next-door neighbors had never been there.

But it was the Long Tail of travel that really broke the back of Barcelona when it came to tourism. From 2000 to 2010, with the advent of the web and the explosion of available travel information, tourism to Barcelona again doubled and almost tripled.

Today, about 20 million annual visitors flock to a city with a population less than one tenth that number. The city is groaning under the weight of all those sun-burned bodies desperately searching for authenticity, to the point that Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, is threatening to slam the door on those gringo turistas in order to make the city livable again.

The delusion of the Long Tail leads us to believe there’s a smorgasbord of authentic travel options just waiting for us. But the reality falls far short of that. If we look at the prerequisites of a Long-Tail market, we begin to see why.  We can argue that there is unlimited shelf space. There is no corner of the world we can’t travel to if we have the budget and inclination. Destinations we never heard of just a few decades ago are now the new hot spots.

Perfect information is a little more of a challenge. When the options are limitless, we run into the limits of our own cognition. Working memory being what it is, we can’t endlessly juggle potential destinations. We rely on a search and suggestion engine like TripAdvisor. And there we run into the realities of the Matthew Effect: The rich tend to get richer and the poor get poorer. This can be otherwise stated as the Rule of Google: “No one goes past the first page.” Shelf space may be unlimited, but screen real estate is anything but.

Finally, as Barcelona is painfully discovering, there are definite limits to the inventory of authentic, one-of-a-kind travel experiences. Once, visiting La Sagrada Familia Basilica was an awe-inspiring, soul-stirring spiritual journey. Today, it’s a highly manufactured tourism machine that usually sells out for the day by 9 a.m.

This means that rather than the trickle-down effect we would hope to see in a Long-Tail market, demand tends to bunch up due to network effects. A new “authentic” experience climbs to the top of the listing and is suddenly inundated with new demands.

As Chipkin said in his column: “After a few people get the privilege of cooking with a Contessa in her ancestral home or taking in a remote tribal village … these “authentic” locals (and their neighbors) begin to catch on and think like entrepreneurs. In come the value engineers and the souvenir shops … and out goes the authenticity.”

Seeking Sustainability

The Barcelona effect is beginning to be seen everywhere, including my own little corner of Canada. Forward-thinking tourism marketers are trying to get ahead of the deluge by finding ways to push traffic to the less-popular margins, artificially creating a Long-Tail effect. Labels like “slow tourism” and “immersive travel” are emerging to try to encourage a different mindset among visitors. But, in the end, most tourism operators are still trapped within the tyranny of TripAdvisor mindset, hoping to climb to the top of the rankings. They feel the potential trade-off is worth it.

To them, being “too popular” sounds like a tomorrow kind of problem.

Lee Iacocca and the Celebrity CEO

The recent passing of Lee Iacocca (on July 2) got me thinking about the celebrity CEO phenomenon. This is a sign of our times — our obsession with celebrity. Iacocca was not the first celebrity CEO, but he certainly ushered in a new era of personalized corporate brand building.

With Iacocca, having a bigger than life CEO went from being an oddity to a corporate expectation. In an article on Bloomberg.com, writer Joe Nocera notes, “Yes, there had been other famous corporate chieftains before Iacocca — John D. Rockefeller and Walt Disney come to mind — but they were the exceptions to the rule that CEOs should be low-key, boring even. Iacocca made it okay for a chief executive not just to gain fame, but to desire it.”

If you read any of the tributes to Iacocca, he is credited with:

  • Introducing the concept of auto loans
  • Creating the Ford Mustang
  • Introducing the Minivan
  • Saving Chrysler

But perhaps Iacocca’s biggest legacy was paving the way for celebrity CEOs who would follow in his footsteps. By stepping out from behind the mahogany desk and in front of the camera, he created the mold that would later turn out Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

My intention is not to take anything away from these leaders. It’s just to put things in perspective.

How Much Influence Does a CEO Really Have?

We love a great story, and one of the foundations of a story has always been the hero. We find the hero’s journey a compelling narrative arc, and we tend to ascribe heroic qualities without necessarily making sure our anointed heroes have the right qualifications. This is certainly true in the corporate world.

Phil Rosenzweig’s extraordinary book, “The Halo Effect,” strips the compelling narratives away from corporate success stories. He urges us to take a more scientific approach to determining what really works. And when we apply some scientific rigor to the concept of a celebrity CEO, we find (according to two studies Rosenzweig cites in his book) that the actual influence of a leader on the success of a company is between 4% and 10%.

A 10% swing is nothing to sneeze at. It’s certainly statistically significant. And this is an average over a number of companies in the study. I suspect if one was to accurately measure the influence of a Steve Jobs or Lee Iacocca on their companies, it could be much higher.

But when we consistently confuse correlation and causation and automatically give a celebrity CEO all the credit for a company’s success, we could be making an attribution error. We are giving short shrift to all the other factors that may have led to that success. We are applying a simple answer to a complex question. And we humans tend to do that — a lot.

The Cult of Personality

When we make this mistake while looking backwards, it’s one thing. But when we move forward under this mistaken assumption, it’s quite another. We fall victim to the oversimplification of the “great man theory,” where we believe history can pivot on the capabilities of one person. We also run the very real risk of creating a cult of personality.

The idea of the personality cult came from a speech by former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In it, he criticized the idealization of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. When a populace believes that one person has the power to right all wrongs, it confers on that person a frightening amount of authority. It also condones the mechanisms required to consolidate power in the hands of that person.

Wikipedia outlines the typical path that leads to a cult of personality:“(it) arises when a country’s regime – or, more rarely, an individual – uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.” 

Mistaking Charisma for Competency

Even if we do accept that the right person may make all the difference, we then come to the issue of how we’d recognize that person when we see them. Again, we run into the fallacy of the “Halo Effect.”

When we don’t have (or want) empirical evidence of a person’s competence, we look for a proxy signal for that competence. That’s why CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are generally two-and-a-half inches taller than the average American. Its why good-looking people are assumed to be kinder and more compassionate. And — if we’re looking for a leader — it’s why we believe charisma equals competency. We are often wrong about this. In fact, there’s probably a better chance that charisma goes hand in hand with sociopathy.  Oops.

I do believe that we have been blessed with some extraordinary corporate leaders. And some of these have deservedly become celebrities. Lee Iacocca was probably one of these.

But I also believe we are walking down a dangerous path when we believe this is the rule rather than the exception. To succeed in solving complex problems — which defines almost every problem we face — we need complex solutions. And those solutions almost never come in the form of one person. To believe they do is to ignore the true scope of the issue.

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.