Drifting Alone on the Social Network

This was not your ordinary Facebook post (if there is such a thing).

For one thing, it was long. Almost 1600 words long. That’s longer than this column. Secondly, it was raw. It was written by somebody in deep pain who laid their soul bare for their entire network to see. I barely knew this person and I was given a look into the deepest and darkest part of their lives. The post told the story of the break-up of a marriage and a struggle with depression. It was a disturbing blow – by – blow chronicle of someone hitting the bottom.

A strange thing happened while I was reading the post. At one level, I responded as I hope any decent human would. I felt the pain of this person – even though we were barely acquaintances – and wanted to help in some way. But – in a sort of meta-awareness – I monitored myself as a sample of one to see what the longer-term impact was. This plea through social media seemed extraordinary in a number of ways. What were the possible unintended consequences of this online confessional?

I should add an additional – traumatic – context to this story. This post was catalyzed by the recent suicide of a well-known member of the industry I used to work in. Again, I was made aware of the tragedy through several posts on Facebook. And again, I barely knew the person involved but somewhere along the line we had connected through Facebook. In the last two days of his life, he had updated his status. He was young. He had a family. He should have had everything to live for. But then again, I really didn’t know him or his circumstances. I certainly didn’t know his pain. Judging by the shock I was in the comments on Facebook, I don’t think any of us knew.

And that’s what prompted this post I’m writing about. Obviously, this person wanted us to know his pain. He was asking for help. But he was also offering it to anyone who needed it.  And he choose to do it through Facebook. This should be social media at its finest…a moving example of people connecting when it counts most. The post certainly touched those that read it. 80 comments – all supportive – followed the post. Many contained their own abbreviated confessions of going through similar pain. It seemed cathartic. I would even call it inspirational.

So why was I so troubled by this? Something seemed wrong.

Social Networks are Built on Weak Ties

Perhaps the problem is in the nature of our online social networks. In the 1990’s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested our brains had a cognitive limit on the number of stable social relationships we could maintain. The number was 150, which has since become known as Dunbar’s Number.

In follow up research, released in the last few years, Dunbar has found that within this circle of 150 acquaintances, there are smaller circles of increasingly more intimate friends. The next layer in is what we would probably call “friends” – people we chose to spend time with. That’s about 50 people.  Then we have “close friends” – people we tend to socialize with more frequently. On average, we would have 15 of these. And finally, we have our closest friends – those we are intimately connected to. Dunbar puts our cognitive limit at 5 for these most precious connections.

I have about 450 “Friends” on Facebook. If Dunbar’s Number is correct, this is three times the number of social connections I can mentally coordinate. By necessity, they’ll almost all what Mark Granovetter would refer to as “weak ties” – social connections that are not actively maintained. And my network is relatively small. Others in the online industry typically have social networks numbering well over a thousand connections. Yet, with all these thousands of connections, did they not have one of those very close friends they could reach out to in person? Perhaps they did, but the personal investment might have been too high.

The Psychology of the Online Confessional

We all need to be heard. And sometimes, it seems easier to confide in a stranger than a friend. We can talk without worrying about all the baggage we are carrying. Our closest friends know all about that baggage. The personal costs are much higher when we choose to go to a friend. I think- subconsciously – we sometimes tend to gravitate towards “weak ties” when things are at their worst. It’s the reason that psychotherapists and confessional booths exist.

Also, a confession is easier when it’s physically detached from the feedback. We can craft the language before we post. We are not sitting across from someone who might judge us. We are posting alone, and this can bring its own sense of comfort. But, unfortunately, that comfort can be short lived.

The Half Life of Online Empathy

Eventually, the empathy dies away and the social shaming begins. I wish this wasn’t’ the case – I wish humans were better than this – but we’re not. We’re just human.

If you’re not an absolute sociopath, you can’t help but be empathetic when someone lays their grieving soul bare for you. And the investment required to post a supportive comment is minimal. It is determined by the same cognitive algorithm I talked about last week regarding “slacktivism.” It’s a few seconds of our life and a handful of carefully selected words. At the time, we are probably sincere in our offer of help, but then we move on. This is a weak tie – a person we hardly know. We have no skin in the game.

If that seems callous and cruel on my part, there are previous examples to point to. Over and over again, we pour out our support when the pain is fresh, only to move on to the next thing more and more quickly. This is true when the tragedies are global in nature. I suspect the same is true when they’re more localized, with people we are passingly acquainted with. And these people have now gone public with their pain. It is now part of their digital footprint. Today, we may feel nothing but empathy. But how will we feel 6 weeks hence? Or 6 months? I would like to think we would remain noble, kind and gracious in our thoughts, but most of the evidence points to the contrary.

I didn’t want to be negative in the writing of this. I sincerely hope that such online pleas for help bring aid and comfort to the person in question. As I said, this was all sparked by someone who never got the help he needed at the right time. Perhaps a weak tie online is better than no tie at all.

But I will remain a strong believer in the power of a true person-to-person connection – with all its messiness and organic imperfection. We need more of that. And the more time we spend alone keying in our thoughts in front of the light blue glow of a monitor, the less likely that is to happen.

 

Why The Paradox of Choice Doesn’t Apply to Netflix

A recent article in Mediapost reported that Millennials – and Baby Boomers for that matter – prefer broad choice platforms like Netflix and YouTube to channels specifically targeted to their demo. A recent survey found that almost 40% of respondents aged 18 – 24 used Netflix most often to view video content.

Author Wayne Friedman mused on the possibility that targeted channels might be a thing of the past: “This isn’t the mid-1990s. Perhaps audience segmentation into different networks — or separately branded, over-the-top digital video platforms  — is an old thing.”

It is. It’s aimed at an old world that existed before search filters. It was a world where Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice was a thing. That’s not true in a world where we can quickly filter our choices.

Humans in almost every circumstance prefer the promise of abundance to scarcity. It’s how we’re hardwired. The variable here is our level of confidence in our ability to sort through the options available to us. If we feel confident that we can heuristically limit our choices to the most relevant ones, we will always forage in a richer environment.

In his book, Schwartz used the famous jam experiment of Sheena Iyengar to show how choice can paralyze us. Iyengar’s research team set up a booth with samples of jam in a gourmet food market. They alternated between a display of 6 jams and one of 24 options. They found that in terms of actually selling jams, the smaller display outperformed the larger one by a factor of 10 to 1. The study “raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory,” Dr. Iyengar later said, “but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”

Yes, and no. What isn’t commonly cited is that in the study 60% of shoppers were drawn to the larger display, while only 40% were hooked by the smaller one. Yes, fewer bought, but that probably came down to a question of being able to filter, not the attraction of the display itself. Also, other researchers (Scheibehenne, Griefeneder and Todd, 2010) have ran into problems trying to verify the findings of the original study. They found that “on the basis of the data, no sufficient conditions could be identified that would lead to a reliable occurrence of choice overload.”

We all have a subconscious “foraging algorithm” that we use to sort through the various options in our environment. One of the biggest factors in this algorithm is the “cost of searching” – how much effort do we need to expend to find the thing we’re looking for? In today’s world, that breaks down into two variables: “finding” and “filtering.” A platform that’s rich in choice – like Netflix – virtually eliminates the cost of “finding.” We are confident that a platform that offers a massive number of choices will have something we will find interesting. So now it comes to “filtering.” If we feel confident enough in the filtering tools available to us, we will go with the richest environment available to us.  The higher our degree of confidence in our ability to “filter”, the less we will want our options limited for us.

So, when does it make sense to limit the options available to an audience? There are some conditions identified by Scheibehenne at al where the Paradox of Choice is more likely to happen:

Unstructured Choices – The harder it is to categorize the choices available, the more likely it is that it will be more difficult to filter those options.

Choices that are Hard to Compare to Each Other – If you’re comparing apples and oranges, either figuratively or literally, the cognitive load required to compare choices increases the difficulty.

The Complexity of Choices – The more information we have to juggle when we’re making a choice, the greater the likelihood that our brains may become overtaxed in trying to make a choice.

Time Pressure when Making a Choice – If you hear the theme song of Jeopardy when you’re trying to make a choice you’re more likely to become frustrated when trying to sort through a plethora of options.

If you are in the business of presenting options to customers, remember that the Paradox of Choice is not a hard and fast rule. In fact, the opposite is probably true – the greater the perception of choice, the more attractive it will be to them. The secret is in providing your customers the ability to filter quickly and efficiently.

 

The Pros and Cons of Slacktivism

Lately, I’ve grown to hate my Facebook feed. But I’m also morbidly fascinated by it. It fuels the fires of my discontent with a steady stream of posts about bone-headedness and sheer WTF behavior.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Many of us are morally outraged by our social media feeds. But does all that righteous indignation lead to anything?

Last week, MediaPost reran a column talking about how good people can turn bad online by following the path of moral outrage to mob-based violence. Today I ask, is there a silver lining to this behavior? Can the digital tipping point become a force for good, pushing us to take action to right wrongs?

The Ever-Touchier Triggers of Moral Outrage

As I’ve written before, normal things don’t go viral. The more outrageous and morally reprehensible something is, the greater likelihood there is that it will be shared on social media. So the triggering forces of moral outrage are becoming more common and more exaggerated. A study found that in our typical lives, only about 5% of the things we experience are immoral in nature.

But our social media feeds are algorithmically loaded to ensure we are constantly ticked off. This isn’t normal. Nor is it healthy.

The Dropping Cost of Being Outraged

So what do we do when outraged? As it turns out, not much — at least, not when we’re on Facebook.

Yale neuroscientist Molly Crockett studies the emerging world on online morality. And she found that the personal costs associated with expressing moral outrage are dropping as we move our protests online:

“Offline, people can harm wrongdoers’ reputations through gossip, or directly confront them with verbal sanctions or physical aggression. The latter two methods require more effort and also carry potential physical risks for the punisher. In contrast, people can express outrage online with just a few keystrokes, from the comfort of their bedrooms…”

What Crockett is describing is called slacktivism.

You May Be a Slacktivist if…

A slacktivist, according to Urbandictionary.com, is “one who vigorously posts political propaganda and petitions in an effort to affect change in the world without leaving the comfort of the computer screen”

If your Facebook feed is at all like mine, it’s probably become choked with numerous examples of slacktivism. It seems like the world has become a more moral — albeit heavily biased — place. This should be a good thing, shouldn’t it?

Warning: Outrage Can be Addictive

The problem is that morality moves online, it loses a lot of the social clout it has historically had to modify behaviors. Crockett explains:

“When outrage expression moves online it becomes more readily available, requires less effort, and is reinforced on a schedule that maximizes the likelihood of future outrage expression in ways that might divorce the feeling of outrage from its behavioral expression…”

In other words, outrage can become addictive. It’s easier to become outraged if it has no consequences for us, is divorced by the normal societal checks and balances that govern our behavior and we can get a nice little ego boost when others “like” or “share” our indignant rants. The last point is particularly true given the “echo chamber” characteristics of our social-media bubbles. These are all the prerequisites required to foster habitual behavior.

Outrage Locked Inside its own Echo Chamber

Another thing we have to realize about showing our outrage online is that it’s largely a pointless exercise. We are simply preaching to the choir. As Crockett points out:

“Ideological segregation online prevents the targets of outrage from receiving messages that could induce them (and like-minded others) to change their behavior. For politicized issues, moral disapproval ricochets within echo chambers but only occasionally escapes.”

If we are hoping to change anyone’s behavior by publicly shaming them, we have to realize that Facebook’s algorithms make this highly unlikely.

Still, the question remains: Does all this online indignation serve a useful purpose? Does it push us to action?

The answer seems to be dependent on two factors, both imposing their own thresholds on our likelihood to act. One is if we’re truly outraged or not. Because showing outrage online is so easy, with few consequences and the potential social reward of a post going viral, it has all the earmarks of a habit-forming behavior. Are we posting because we’re truly mad, or just bored?

“Just as a habitual snacker eats without feeling hungry, a habitual online shamer might express outrage without actually feeling outraged,” writes Crockett.

Moving from online outrage to physical action — whether it’s changing our own behavior or acting to influence a change in someone else – requires a much bigger personal investment on almost every level. This brings us to the second threshold factor: our own personal experiences and situation. Millions of women upped the ante by actively supporting #Metoo because it was intensely personal for them. It’s one example of an online movement that became one of the most potent political forces in recent memory.

One thing does appear to be true. When it comes to social protest, there is definitely more noise out there. We just need a reliable way to convert that to action.

My View from Pier 21

This week, as we celebrate our countries on both sides of the 49th  Parallel (Canada Day – July 1st  – and the 4th of July in the US) – what exactly are we celebrating? What is it that we are so patriotic towards? The whole idea of a nation is a rather nebulous one. Exactly what is this thing we call America or Canada?

I got a partial answer a few weeks ago when I went to Pier 21 in Halifax. It’s the Canadian version of Ellis Island. It was where almost 1 million new Canadians first set foot when they immigrated to this continent. It is a celebration of courage, dreaming and acceptance.

Immigration – to a great extent – has woven the fabric of the nations we will celebrate this week. That is what makes the xenophobia that also seems to be part of our character in both countries so puzzling. If there were no immigrants, there would be no nation. At least, certainly not in the form we recognize this week. These immigrants, where ever they come from, have defined the nation we celebrate so vigorously. The things we revere as ours were forged from the intellect, inspiration and energy of millions that, at one time, had to step on this continent for the very first time. This includes almost everyone I know. I am the grandchild of immigrants who set sail from Liverpool. My in-laws are immigrants who set sail from Naples. The non-aboriginal roots of this continent do not run deep – a few generations for most of us – but they are strong. And this week, I celebrate that. I believe it’s a good thing. Very good.

In 2017, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers partner Mary Meeker showed just how important immigration was to that most hallowed of American ideals, technical innovation. Sixty percent of the highest value tech companies in America were co-founded by first- or second- generation immigrants. Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian. Sergey Brin was born in Russia. Facebook, Oracle, IBM, Uber, ADP, eBay – all of these American companies exist because someone decided that life would be better in a country other than the one they were born.

It is convenient to celebrate mmigration in hindsight. It is tempting to apply “Yes, but” logic to the topic. “Yes, we want immigrants, but only the right kind!” But what is the right kind? Who makes that choice? Who is wise enough – who has a crystal ball bright enough – to be able to look in the future and predict who will be a founder of the next Google or Facebook?

Here in Canada, we don’t have a great track record in that regard. Our record when it comes to welcoming new immigrants is hardly spotless. We treated the Chinese abysmally. We did the same to the Japanese during World War Two. In fact, we have – at one time or another – discriminated against immigrants from almost every nation on earth. Looking back, we admit our mistakes and apologize. We are Canadian, after all. But are we any the wiser for this knowledge? Aren’t we just making the same mistakes over and over again? The point of origin may be different, but the prejudice is all too familiar.

wheelofconsciousness

Wheel of Conscience – by Daniel Libeskind

At Pier 21 – as soon as you enter the door – you see a large mechanical wheel in the entry hall. It’s called the Wheel of Conscience, and it was created by architect Daniel Libeskind. It commemorates the tragic story of the SS. St. Louis.  The St Louis set sail for Cuba from Hamburg, Germany on May 13, 1939. There were 937 passengers, most of them were Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany. They left with valid Cuban visas, but due to a sudden change in immigration policy by a pro-Fascist government, they were denied entry in Havana. They next tried the US and set sail for Florida. Acting on the advice of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the US government also said no. The US Coast Guard trailed the St. Louis to prevent it from running aground and allowing their passenger to illegally enter the country. Their last chance was Canada. The captain, Gustav Schroder, headed to Halifax. There, he was met with the official government decision – “None is too many” – voiced by Frederick Blair, Canada’s Director of Immigration at the time.

The MS St. Louis had no choice but to return to Europe, where the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and the Netherlands received the refugees. Of course, three of these countries would soon be overrun by the Nazis, and it’s estimated that about one quarter of the original passengers did not survive the Holocaust. The names of the refused refugees are engraved on one side of the massive wheel.

The creator, Daniel Libeskind, was the son of Holocaust survivors. He was born in Poland and immigrated to the US with his family in 1957. He became one of North America’s best-known architects and industrial designers. In 2002, he was chosen to oversee the rebuilding of the World Trade Center after 9/11.

If you want to celebrate a nation – this seems like a good place to start.

 

Why Do Good People Become Bad Online?

Here are some questions I have:

  • When do crowds turn ugly?
  • Why do people become Trolls online?
  • When do opinions suddenly become moralizing and what is the difference between the two?

Whether we like it or not, online connection engenders some decidedly bad behavior. It’s one of those unintended consequences that I like to talk about – a behavioral side effect that’s catalyzed by technology.  And, if this is the case, we should know a little more about the psychology behind this behavior.

Modified Mob Behavior

So, when does a group become a mob? And when does a mob turn ugly? There are some aspects of herd mentality that seem to be particularly conducive to online connections. A group turns into a mob when their behaviors become synced to a common purpose. A recent study from the University of Southern California found two predictive signals in social media behavior that indicate when a group protest may become a violent mob.

Tipping Over the Threshold from an Opinion to a Moral

One of the things they found is that when we go from talking about our opinions to preaching morality, things can take a nasty turn. Let’s imagine a spectrum from loosely held opinions on the left end – things you’re not that emotionally invested in – to beliefs and then on the morals at the right end. This progression also correlates to different ways the brain processes the respective thoughts. At the least intense left end of the spectrum – opinions – we can process them with relative detached rationality. But as we move to the right, different parts of the brain start kicking in and begin to raise the emotional stakes. When we believe we’re talking about morals, we suddenly have strongly held beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. Morals are defined as “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.”

This triggers our ancient and universal feelings about fairness, Harm, betrayal, subversion and degradation – the planks of moral foundation theory. The researchers in the USC study found that people are more likely to endorse violence when they moralize the issue. When there are clearly held beliefs about right and wrong, violence seems acceptable.

Violence Needs Company

This moralizing signal is not necessarily tied to being online. But the second predictive signal is. The researchers also found that if people believe others share their views, they are more likely to tip over the threshold from peaceful protest to violence. This is Mark Granovetter’s crowd threshold effect that I’ve talked about before. In social media, this effect is amplified by content filtering and the structure of your network. Like-minded people naturally link to each other and their posts make for remarkably efficient indicators of their beliefs. It’s very easy in a social network to feel that everybody you know feels the same way that you do. The degree of violent language can escalate quickly through online posts until the entire group is pushed over the threshold into a model of behavior that would be unthinkable as a disconnected individual.

Trolls, Trolls Everywhere

Another study, this time from Stanford, shows that any of us can become a troll. We would like to think that trolls are just a particularly ubiquitous small group of horrible people. But this research indicates that trollism is more situational than previously thought. In other words, if we’re in a bad mood, we’re more likely to become a troll.

But it’s not just our mood. Here again Granovetter’s threshold model plays a part. Negative comments beget more negative comments, starting a downward spiral of venom. The researchers did a behavioral test where participants had to do either an easy or a difficult task and then had to read an online article that had either three neutral comments or three negative, troll-like comments. The results were eye-opening. In the group that was assigned an easy task and read the article that had the neutral comments, about 35% posted a negative comment. Knowing that one in three of us seem to have a low threshold for becoming a troll is not exactly encouraging, but it gets worse. If participants either did the difficult test or read negative comments, the likelihood for posting a troll-like comment jumped to 50%. And if participants got both the difficult test and read negative comments, the number climbed to 68%! In the three-part study, another factor that could lead to becoming a troll included the time that posts were made. Late Sunday and Monday nights are the worst time of the week for negative posts and Twitter bullying hit its peak between 5 pm and 8 pm on Sunday. While we’re on the subject, Donald Trump tends to tweet early in the morning and his most inflammatory tweets come on Saturdays.

But when it comes to trolling, there’s something else at play here as well. Yet another study, this time from Mt. Helen University in Australia, found that our own brand of empathy can also predict whether we’re going to become a troll or not. There is cognitive and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy means you can understand other people’s emotions – you know what will make them happy or mad. But affective empathy means you can internalize and experience the emotions of another – if they’re happy, you’re happy. If they’re mad, you’re mad. Not surprisingly, Trolls tend to have high cognitive empathy but low affective empathy. Obviously, there were plenty of such people before the Internet, but they’ve now gained the perfect forum for their twisted form of empathy. They can incite negativity relatively free from social consequence and reprisal. Even if the comments made are not anonymous, the poster can hide behind a degree of detachment that would be impossible in a physical environment.

So, why should we care? Again, it comes back to this idea of the unintended social consequences of technology. Increasingly, our connections are digital in nature. And for reasons already stated, I worry that these types of connections may bring out the worst in us.

 

The View from the Other Side

After a life time in marketing I am now sitting on the other side of the table. Actually, I’m sitting on all sides of the table. In my newest venture it’s just me, so I have to do everything. And I don’t mind telling you I’m overwhelmed. These past few years have given me a whole new appreciation of how damned difficult it is to be a business owner. And my circumstances are probably better than 90% of others out there. This started as a hobby that – with surprisingly little direction from me – somehow grew into a business.  There

Is no real financial pressure on me. There are no sales numbers I have to hit. I have no investors to answer to. I have no debt to service. My business is very limited in scope.

But still – somehow – I feel like I’m drowning. I couldn’t imagine doing this if the stakes were higher

It’s Hard to Find the Time to Build a Better Mousetrap…

I’ve always been of the opinion that the core of the business and the marketing of that business should be inseparable. But as I’ve learned, that’s a difficult balancing act to pull off. Marketing is a vast black hole that can suck up all your time. And in any business, there is just a lot of stuff that requires a lot of time to do. It requires even more time if you want to do it well. Something has to give. So what should that something be? That sounds trite, but it’s not.

Take me, for example. I decided to offer bike tours. Sound simple enough, right? I had no idea how many permits, licenses and authorizations I needed to have. That all takes time. And it was time I had to spend before I could do anything else.

Like I said, to do things well takes time. Businesses naturally have to evolve. Almost none of us gets it right out of the gate. We make mistakes and then have to figure out how not to make those mistakes again. This is good and natural. I believe a good business has to have a leader that sweats the details, because the details are where shit goes wrong. I’m a big picture guy but I’ve discovered that big pictures are actually a mosaic of a million little pieces that someone has to pay attention to. And that takes time.

The Fear of a Not Doing Everything Right Now

New companies used to have the luxury of time. No one expected them to hit the home run in their first year. Well, Google and Facebook screwed that up for everyone, didn’t they? We are now all supposed to operate within some ridiculously compressed timeline for success. Our business lives are all about rushing things to market, rapid iteration, agile development. And while we’re doing all that, we should also be keeping up with our Instagram posts and building a highly engaged online community. If we don’t successfully do all those things, we feel like we’ve failed.

I’m calling bullshit on that. Most studies done on this subject show the odds of survival for a new company lasting five years are somewhere between 40 and 50%. That’s not great, but I have to believe that given the coin toss survival rate, there are a lot of companies that may not have a fully optimized Facebook business page that have somehow managed to survive bankruptcy. And even the businesses that do wrap it up are not always financial failures. Many times it’s because the founder has just had enough.

I completely understand that. I started this busIness because I wanted to have fun. And while not many of us give that reason for starting a business, I don’t believe I’m the only one. If this isn’t fun, why the hell are we doing it? But juggling a zillion balls knowing that I’m guaranteed to drop many of them isn’t all that much fun. Each morning begins with a dropped ball inventory. It seems that business today is all about reactive triage. What did I do? What didn’t I do? What might kill me and what’s only going to hurt for a while?

I’d like to end this column with some pat advice, some strategy to deal with the inevitable inundation of stuff that is demanding your time. But I’m struggling. I believe it’s hidden somewhere between my two previous points – deal with what’s potentially fatal and try to have some fun. At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

Is Live the New Live?

HQ Trivia – the popular mobile game app –  seems to be going backwards. It’s an anachronism – going against all the things that technology promises. It tethers us to a schedule. It’s essentially a live game show broadcast (when everything works as it should, which is far from a sure bet) on a tiny screen – It also gets about a million players each and every time it plays, which is usually only twice a day.

My question is: Why the hell is it so popular?

Maybe it’s the Trivia Itself…

(Trivial Interlude – the word trivia comes from the Latin for the place where three roads come together. Originally in Latin it was used to refer to the three foundations of basic education – grammar, logic and rhetoric. The modern usage came from a book by Logan Pearsall Smith in 1902 – “Trivialities, bits of information of little consequence”. The singular of trivia is trivium)

As a spermologist (that’s a person who loves trivia – seriously – apparently the “sperm” has something to do with “seeds of knowledge”) I love a trivia contest. It’s one thing I’m pretty good at – knowing a little about a lot of things that have absolutely no importance. And if you too fancy yourself a spermologist (which, by the way, is how you should introduce yourself at social gatherings) you know that we always want to prove we’re the smartest people in the room. In HQ Trivia’s case, that room usually holds about a million people. That’s the current number of participants in the average broadcast. So the odds of being the smartest person is the room is – well – about one in a million. And a spermologist just can’t resist those odds.

But I don’t think HQ’s popularity is based on some alpha-spermology complex. A simple list of rankings would take care of that. No, there must be more to it. Let’s dig deeper.

Maybe it’s the Simoleons…

(Trivial Interlude: Simoleons is sometimes used as slang for American dollars, as Jimmy Stewart did in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The word could be a portmanteau of “simon” and “Napoleon” – which was a 20 franc coin issued in France. The term seems to have originated in New Orleans, where French currency was in common use at the turn of the last century.)

HQ Trivia does offer up cash for smarts. Each contest has a prize, which is usually $5000. But even if you make it through all 12 questions and win, by the time the prize is divvied up amongst the survivors, you’ll probably walk away with barely enough money to buy a beer. Maybe two. So I don’t think it’s the prize money that accounts for the popularity of HQ Trivia.

Maybe It’s Because it’s Live..

(Trivial Interlude – As a Canadian, Trivia is near and dear to my heart. America’s favorite trivia quiz master, Alex Trebek, is Canadian, born in Sudbury, Ontario. Alex is actually his middle name. George is his first name. He is 77 years old. And Trivial Pursuit, the game that made trivia a household name in the 80’s, was invented by two Canadians, Chris Haney and Scott Abbott. It was created after the pair wanted to play Scrabble but found their game was missing some tiles. So they decided to create their own game. In 1984, more than 20 million copies of the game were sold. )

There is just something about reality in real time. Somehow, subconsciously, it makes us feel connected to something that is bigger than ourselves. And we like that. In fact, one of the other etymological roots of the word “trivia” itself is a “public place.”

The Hotchkiss Movie Choir Effect

If you want to choke up a Hotchkiss (or at least the ones I’m personally familiar with) just show us a movie where people spontaneously start singing together. I don’t care if it’s Pitch Perfect Twelve and a Half – we’ll still mist up. I never understood why, but I think it has to do with the same underlying appeal of connection. Dan Levitin, author of “This is Your Brain on Music,” explained what happens in our brain when we sing as part of a group in a recent interview on NPR:

“We’ve got to pay attention to what someone else is doing, coordinate our actions with theirs, and it really does pull us out of ourselves. And all of that activates a part of the frontal cortex that’s responsible for how you see yourself in the world, and whether you see yourself as part of a group or alone. And this is a powerful effect.”

The same thing goes for flash mobs. I’m thinking there has to be some type of psychological common denominator that HQ Trivia has somehow tapped into. It’s like a trivia-based flash mob. Even when things go wrong, which they do quite frequently, we feel that we’re going through it together. Host Scott Rogowsky embraces the glitchiness of the platform and commiserates with us. Misery – even when it’s trivial – loves company.

Whatever the reason for its popularity, HQ Trivia seems to be moving forward by taking us back to a time when we all managed to play nicely together.