Personal Endeavour in the Age of Instant Judgement

No one likes to be judged — not even gymnasts and figure skaters. But at least in those sports, the judges supposedly know what it is they’re judging. So, in the spirit of instant feedback, let me rephrase: No one likes to be judged by a peanut gallery*. Or, to use a more era appropriate moniker, by a troll’s chorus.

Because of this, I feel sorry for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners of “Game of Thrones.” Those poor bastards couldn’t be any more doomed if they had been invited to a wedding of the red variety.

At least they were aware of their fate. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, they disclosed their plans for the airing of the final episode. “We’ll in an undisclosed location, turning off our phones and opening various bottles,” Weiss admitted. “At some point, if and when it’s safe to come out again, somebody like [HBO’s ‘GOT’ publicist] will give us a breakdown of what was out there without us having to actually experience it.” Added Benioff: “I plan to be very drunk and very far from the internet.”

Like it or not, we now live in an era of instant judgement, from everyone. It’s the evil twin of social virality. It means we have to grow thicker skins than your average full-grown dragon**. And because I’m obsessively fixated on unintended consequences, this got me to thinking. How might all this judgement impact our motivation to do stuff?

First of all, let’s look at the good that comes from this social media froth kicked up by fervent fans. There is a sense of ownership and emotional investment in shows like “Game of Thrones” that’s reached a pitch never seen before — and I truly believe we’re getting better TV because of it.

If you look at any of the lists of the best TV shows of all time, they are decidedly back-end loaded. “Game of Thrones,” even at its worst, is better than almost any television of the ’80s or ’90s. And it’s not only because of the advances in special effects and CGI wizardry. There is a plethora of thoughtful, exquisitely scripted and superbly acted shows that have nary an enchantress, dragon or apocalypse of the walking dead in sight. There is no CGI in “Better Call Saul,” “Master of None” or “Atlanta.”

But what about the dark side of social fandom?

I suspect instant judgement might make it harder for certain people to actually do anything that ends up in the public arena. All types of personal endeavors require failure and subsequent growth as an ingredient for success. And fans are getting less and less tolerant of failure. That makes the entry stakes pretty high for anyone producing output that is going to be out there, available for anyone to pass judgement on.

We might get self-selection bias in arenas like the arts, politics and sports. Those adverse to criticism that cuts too deep will avoid making themselves vulnerable. Or — upon first encountering negative feedback — they may just throw in the towel and opt for something less public.

The contributors to our culture may just become hard-nosed and impervious to outside opinion — kind of like Cersei Lannister. Or, even worse, they may be so worried about what fans think that they oscillate trying to keep all factions happy. That would be the Jon Snows of the world.

Either way, we lose the contributions of those with fragile egos and vulnerable hearts. If we applied that same filter retroactively to our historic collective culture, we’d lose most of what we now treasure.

In the end, perhaps David Benioff got it right. Just be “very drunk and very far from the internet.”

* Irrelevant Fact #1: The term peanut gallery comes from vaudeville, where the least expensive seats were occupied by the rowdiest members of the audience. The cheapest snack was peanuts, which the audience would throw at the performers.

** Irrelevant Fact #2: Dragons have thick skin because they don’t shed their skins. It just keeps getting thicker and more armor-like. The older the dragon, the thicker the skin.

The Gap Between People and Platforms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Selfies: A Different Take on Reality

It was a perfect evening in Sydney Harbor. I was there for a conference and the organizers had arranged an event for the speakers at Milsons Point – under the impressive span of the Harbour bridge. It was dusk and the view of downtown Sydney spread out in front of us with awesome breadth and scope. It was one of those moments that literally takes your breath away. That minute seemed eternal.

After some time, I turned around. There was another attendee, who was intently focused on taking a selfie and posting it to social media. His back was turned to the view behind him. At first, I thought I should do the same. Then I changed my mind. I’d rely on my memory and actually try to stay in the moment. My phone stayed in my pocket.

In the age of selfies, it turns out that my mini-existential crisis is getting more common. According to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, something called “self-presentational concern” can creep into these lifetime moments and suck the awe right out of them. One of the study authors, Alixandra Barasch, explains, “When people take photos to share, they remember their experience more from a third-person perspective, suggesting that taking photos to share makes people consider how the event (and the photos) would be evaluated by an observer. “

Simply stated, selfies take us “out of the moment”. But this effect depends on why we’re taking the selfie in first place. The experimenters didn’t find the effect when people took selfies with the intent of just remembering the moment. It showed up when the selfie was taken for the express purpose of sharing on social media. Suddenly, we are more worried about how we look than where we are and what we’re doing.

Dr. Terri Apter, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University, has been looking at the emergence of selfies as a form of “self-definition” for some time. “We all like the idea of being sort of in control of our image and getting attention, being noticed, being part of the culture.” But when does this very human urge slip over the edge into a destructive spiral? Dr. Apter explains, “You can get that exaggerated or exacerbated by celebrity culture that says unless you’re being noticed, you’re no one,”

I suspect what we’re seeing now is a sort of selfie arms race. Can we upstage the rest of our social network by posting selfies in increasingly exotic locations, doing exceptional things and looking ever more “Mahvelous”? That’s a lot of pressure to put on something we do when we’re just supposed to be enjoying life.

A 2015 study explored the connection between personality traits and posting of selfies. In particular, the authors of the study looked at narcissism, psychopathy and self-objectification. They found that frequent posting of selfies and being overly concerned with how you look in the selfies can be tied to both self-objectification and narcissism. This is interesting, because those two things are at opposite ends of the self-esteem spectrum. Narcissists love themselves and those that self-objectify tend to suffer from low self-esteem. In both cases, selfies represent a way to advertise their personal brands to a wider audience.

There’s another danger with selfie-preoccupation that goes hand-in-hand with distancing yourselves from the moment you’re in – you can fall victim to bad judgement. It happened to Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony. In a moment when he should have been acting with appropriate gravitas, he decided to take a selfie with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and then British Prime Minister David Cameron. It was a stunningly classless moment from a usually classy guy. If you check a photo taken at the time, you can see that Michelle Obama was not amused. I agree.

Like many things tied to social media, selfies can represent a troubling trend in how we look at ourselves in a social context. These things seem to be pointing in the same direction: we’re spending more time worrying about an artificial reality of our own making and less time noticing reality as it actually exists.

We just have to put the phone down sometimes and admire the view across the harbor.

 

Less Tech = Fewer Regrets

In a tech ubiquitous world, I fear our reality is becoming more “tech” and less “world.”  But how do you fight that? Well, if you’re Kendall Marianacci – a recent college grad – you ditch your phone and move to Nepal. In that process she learned that, “paying attention to the life in front of you opens a new world.”

In a recent post, she reflected on lessons learned by truly getting off the grid:

“Not having any distractions of a phone and being immersed in this different world, I had to pay more attention to my surroundings. I took walks every day just to explore. I went out of my way to meet new people and ask them questions about their lives. When this became the norm, I realized I was living for one of the first times of my life. I was not in my own head distracted by where I was going and what I needed to do. I was just being. I was present and welcoming to the moment. I was compassionate and throwing myself into life with whoever was around me.”

It’s sad and a little shocking that we have to go to such extremes to realize how much of our world can be obscured by a little 5-inch screen. Where did tech that was supposed to make our lives better go off the rails? And was the derailment intentional?

“Absolutely,” says Jesse Weaver, a product designer. In a post on Medium.com, he lays out – in alarming terms – our tech dependency and the trade-off we’re agreeing to:

“The digital world, as we’ve designed it, is draining us. The products and services we use are like needy friends: desperate and demanding. Yet we can’t step away. We’re in a codependent relationship. Our products never seem to have enough, and we’re always willing to give a little more. They need our data, files, photos, posts, friends, cars, and houses. They need every second of our attention.

We’re willing to give these things to our digital products because the products themselves are so useful. Product designers are experts at delivering utility. “

But are they? Yes, there is utility here, but it’s wrapped in a thick layer of addiction. What product designers are really good at is fostering addiction by dangling a carrot of utility. And, as Weaver points out, we often mistake utility for empowerment,

“Empowerment means becoming more confident, especially in controlling our own lives and asserting our rights. That is not technology’s current paradigm. Quite often, our interactions with these useful products leave us feeling depressed, diminished, and frustrated.”

That’s not just Weaver’s opinion. A new study from HumaneTech.com backs it up with empirical evidence. They partnered with Moment, a screen time tracking app, “to ask how much screen time in apps left people feeling happy, and how much time left them in regret.”

According to 200,000 iPhone users, here are the apps that make people happiest:

  1. Calm
  2. Google Calendar
  3. Headspace
  4. Insight Timer
  5. The Weather
  6. MyFitnessPal
  7. Audible
  8. Waze
  9. Amazon Music
  10. Podcasts

That’s three meditative apps, three utilitarian apps, one fitness app, one entertainment app and two apps that help you broaden your intellectual horizons. If you are talking human empowerment – according to Weaver’s definition – you could do a lot worse than this round up.

But here were the apps that left their users with a feeling of regret:

  1. Grindr
  2. Candy Crush Saga
  3. Facebook
  4. WeChat
  5. Candy Crush
  6. Reddit
  7. Tweetbot
  8. Weibo
  9. Tinder
  10. Subway Surf

What is even more interesting is what the average time spent is for these apps. For the first group, the average daily usage was 9 minutes. For the regret group, the average daily time spent was 57 minutes! We feel better about apps that do their job, add something to our lives and then let us get on with living that life. What we hate are time sucks that may offer a kernel of functionality wrapped in an interface that ensnares us like a digital spider web.

This study comes from the Center for Humane Technology, headed by ex-Googler Tristan Harris. The goal of the Center is to encourage designers and developers to create apps that move “away from technology that extracts attention and erodes society, towards technology that protects our minds and replenishes society.”

That all sounds great, but what does it really mean for you and me and everybody else that hasn’t moved to Nepal? It all depends on what revenue model is driving development of these apps and platforms. If it is anything that depends on advertising – in any form – don’t count on any nobly intentioned shifts in design direction anytime soon. More likely, it will mean some half-hearted placations like Apple’s new Screen Time warning that pops up on your phone every Sunday, giving you the illusion of control over your behaviour.

Why an illusion? Because things like Apple’s Screen Time are great for our pre-frontal cortex, the intent driven part of our rational brain that puts our best intentions forward. They’re not so good for our Lizard brain, which subconsciously drives us to play Candy Crush and swipe our way through Tinder. And when it comes to addiction, the Lizard brain has been on a winning streak for most of the history of mankind. I don’t like our odds.

The developers escape hatch is always the same – they’re giving us control. It’s our own choice, and freedom of choice is always a good thing. But there is an unstated deception here. It’s the same lie that Mark Zuckerberg told last Wednesday when he laid out the privacy-focused future of Facebook. He’s putting us in control. But he’s not. What he’s doing is making us feel better about spending more time on Facebook.  And that’s exactly the problem. The less we worry about the time we spend on Facebook, the less we will think about it at all.  The less we think about it, the more time we will spend. And the more time we spend, the more we will regret it afterwards.

If that doesn’t seem like an addictive cycle, I’m not sure what does.

 

Beijing’s Real-Life Black Mirror Episode

In another example of fact mirroring fiction (and vice versa), the Chinese Government has been experimenting since 2014 with a social credit program that rewards good behavior and punishes bad. Next year, it becomes mandatory. On hearing this news, many drew a parallel to the “Nosedive” episode from the Netflix series Black Mirror. The comparison was understandable. Both feature a universal system where individuals are assigned a behavior-based score has real-life consequences. And it is indeed ominous when a government known for being “Big Brother” is unveiling such a program. But this misses the point of Nosedive. Black Mirror creator and writer Charlie Brooker wasn’t worried about Big Brother. He was worried about you and I – and our behavior in the grips of such a program.

In Brooker’s world, there was no overseer of the program. It was an open market of social opinion. If people didn’t like you, you got docked points. If they did, you got extra points. It was like a Yelp for everyone, everywhere. And just like a financial credit score, your social credit score was factored into what kind of house you could buy, what type of car you could rent and what seat you got on an airplane.

If we strip emotion out of it, this doesn’t sound like a totally stupid idea. We like ratings. They work wonderfully as a crowd-sourced reference in an open market. And every day I’m reminded that there are a lot of crappy people out there. It sounds like this might be a plausible solution. It reminds me of a skit the comedian Gallagher used to do in the 80’s about stupid drivers. Everyone would get one of those suction dart guns. If you saw a jerk on the road, you could just shoot a dart at his car. Once he had collected a dozen or so darts, the cops could give him a ticket for being an idiot. This is the same idea, with digital technology applied.

But the genius of Brooker and the Black Mirror is to take an aspect of technology which actually makes sense, factor in human behavior and then take it to the darkest place possible. And that’s what he did in Nosedive. It’s about a character named Lacie – played by Bryce Dallas Howard – who’s idea of living life is trying to make everyone happy.  Her goal is immediately quantified and given teeth by a universal social credit score – a la Yelp – where your every action is given a score out of 5. This gets rolled up into your overall score. At the beginning of the episode, Lacie’s score is respectable but a little shy of the top rung scores enjoyed by the socially elite.

But here’s the Black Mirror twist. It turns out you can’t be elite and still be a normal person. It’s another side of the social influencer column I wrote last week. The only way you can achieve the highest scores is to become obsessed with them. Lacie – who is a pretty good person – finds the harder she tries, the faster her score goes into a nose dive – hence the name of the episode.

As Brooker explains, “Everyone’s a little tightened and false, because everyone’s terrified of being marked down – the consequences of that are unpleasant. So, basically, it’s the world we live in.”

China is taking more of a big brother/big data approach. Rather than relying exclusively on a social thumbs up or thumbs down, they’re crunching data from multiple sources to come up a algorithmically derived score. High scores qualify you for easy loans, better seats on planes, faster check ins at hotels and fast-tracked Visa applications. Bad scores mean you can’t book an airline ticket, get that promotion you’ve been hoping for or leave the country.  Rogier Creemers – an academic from Leiden University who is following China’s implementation of the program – explains, “I think the best way to understand the system is as a sort of bastard love child of a loyalty scheme.”

Although participation in the program is still voluntary (until 2020) an article on Wired published in 2017 hinted that Chinese society is already falling down the same social rabbit hole envisioned by Booker. “Higher scores have already become a status symbol, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) within months of launch.”

Personally, the last thing I would want is the government of China tracking my every move and passing judgement on my social worthiness. But even without that, I’m afraid Charlie Brooker would be right. Social credit would become just one more competitive hierarchy. And we’d do whatever it takes – good or bad – to get to the top.

Influencer Marketing’s Downward Ethical Spiral

One of the impacts of our increasing rejection of advertising is that advertisers are becoming sneakier in presenting advertising that doesn’t look like advertising. One example is Native advertising. Another is influencer marketing. I’m not a big fan of either. I find native advertising mildly irritating. But I have bigger issues with influencer marketing.

Case in point: Taytum and Oakley Fisher. They’re identical twins, two years old and have 2.4 million followers on Instagram. They are adorable. They’re also expensive. A single branded photo on their feed goes for sums in the five-figure range. Of course, “they” are only two and have no idea what’s going on. This is all being stage managed behind the scenes by their parents, Madison and Kyler.

The Fishers are not an isolated example. According to an article on Fast Company, adorable kids – especially twins –  are a hot segment in the predicted 5 to 10 billion dollar Influencer market. Influencer management companies like God and Beauty are popping up. In a multi-billion dollar market, there are a lot of opportunities for everyone to make a quick buck. And the bucks get bigger when the “stars” can actually remember their lines. Here’s a quote from the Fast Company article:

“The Fishers say they still don’t get many brand deals yet, because the girls can’t really follow directions. Once they’re old enough to repeat what their parents (and the brands paying them) want, they could be making even more.”

Am I the only one that finds this carrying the whiff of moral repugnance?

If so, you might say, “what’s the harm?” The audience is obviously there. It works. Taytum and Oakley appear to be having fun, according to their identical grins. It’s just Gord being in a pissy mood again.

Perhaps. But I think there’s more going on here than we see on the typical Instagram feed.

One problem is transparency – or lack of it. Whether you agree with traditional advertising or not, at least it happens in a well-defined and well-lit marketplace. There is transparency into the fundamental exchange: consumer attention for dollars. It is an efficient and time-tested market.  There are metrics in place to measure the effectiveness of this exchange.

But when advertising attempts to present itself as something other than advertising, it slips from a black and white transaction to something lurking in the darkness colored in shades of grey. The whole point of influencer marketing is to make it appear that these people are genuine fans of these products, so much so that they can’t help evangelizing them through their social media feeds. This – of course – is bullshit. Money is paid for each one of these “genuine” tweets or posts. Big money. In some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that all happens out of sight and out of mind. It’s hidden, and that makes it an easy target for abuse.

But there is more than just a transactional transparency problem here. There is also a moral one. By becoming an influencer, you are actually becoming the influenced – allowing a brand to influence who you are, how you act, what you say and what you believe in. The influencer goes in believing that they are in control and the brand is just coming along for the ride. This is – again – bullshit. The minute you go on the payroll, you begin auctioning off your soul to the highest bidder. Amena Khan and Munroe Bergdorf both discovered this. The two influencers were cut for L’Oreal’s influencer roster by actually tweeting what they believed in.

The façade of influencer marketing is the biggest problem I have with it. It claims to be authentic and it’s about as authentic as pro wrestling – or Mickey Rourke’s face. Influencer marketing depends on creating an impossibly shiny bubble of your life filled with adorable families, exciting getaways, expensive shoes and the perfect soymilk latte. No real life can be lived under this kind of pressure. Influencer marketing claims to be inspirational, but it’s actually aspirational at the basest level. It relies on millions of us lusting after a life that is not real – a life where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Or – at least – all the children are named Taytum or Oakley.

 

Reality Vs Meta-Reality

“I know what I like, and I like what I know;”
Genesis

I watched the Grammys on Sunday night. And as it turned out, I didn’t know what I liked. And I thought I liked what I knew. But by the time I wrote this column (on Monday after the Grammys) I had changed my mind.

And it was all because of the increasing gap between what is real, and what is meta-real.

Real is what we perceive with our senses at the time it happens. Meta-real is how we reshape reality after the fact and then preserve it for future reference. And thanks to social media, the meta-real is a booming business.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman first explored this with his work on the experiencing self and the remembering self. In a stripped-down example, imagine two scenarios. Scenario 1 has your hand immersed for 60 seconds in ice cold water that causes a moderate amount of pain. Scenario 2 has your hand immersed for 90 seconds. The first 60 seconds you’re immersed in water at the same temperature as Scenario 1, but then you leave you hand immersed for an additional 30 seconds while the water is slowly warmed by 1 degree.

After going through both scenarios and being told you have to repeat one of them, which would you choose? Logically speaking, you should choose 1. While uncomfortable, you have the benefit of avoiding an extra 30 seconds of a slightly less painful experience. But for those that went through it, that’s not what happened. Eighty percent who noticed that the water got a bit warmer chose to redo Scenario 2.

It turns out that we have two mental biases that kick in when we remember something we experienced:

  1. Duration doesn’t count
  2. Only the peak (best or worst moment) and the end of the experience are registered.

This applies to a lot more than just cold-water experiments. It also holds true for vacations, medical procedures, movies and even the Grammys. Not only that, there is an additional layer of meta-analysis that shifts us even further from the reality we actually experienced.

After I watched the Grammys, I had my own opinion of which performances I liked and those I didn’t care for. But that opinion was a work in progress. On Monday morning, I searched for “Best moments of Grammys 2019.” Rather quickly, my opinion changed to conform with what I was reading. And those summaries were in turn based on an aggregate of opinions gleaned from social media. It was Wisdom of Crowds – applied retroactively.

The fact is that we don’t trust our own opinions. This is hardwired in us. Conformity is something the majority of us look for. We don’t want to be the only one in the room with a differing opinion. Social psychologist Solomon Asch proved this almost 70 years ago. The difference is that in the Asch experiment, conformity happened in the moment. Now, thanks to our digital environment where opinions on anything can be found at any time, conformity happens after the fact. We “sandbox” our own opinions, waiting until we can see if they match the social media consensus. For almost any event you can name, there is now a market for opinion aggregation and analysis. We take this “meta” data and reshape our own reality to match.

It’s not just the malleability of our reality that is at stake here. Our memories serve as guides for the future. They color the actions we take and the people we become. We evolved as conformists because that was a much surer bet for our survival than relying on our own experiences alone.  But might this be a case of a good thing taken too far? Are we losing too much confidence in the validity of our own thoughts and opinions?

I’m pretty sure doesn’t matter what Gord Hotchkiss thinks about the Grammys of 2019. But I fear there’s much more at stake here.