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.

The Tourification of Our World

Who wouldn’t want to be in Venice? Gondolas drift by with Italian gondoliers singing “O Sole Mio.” You sit at a café savoring your espresso as you watch Latin lovers stroll by hand in hand on their way to the Bridge of Sighs. The Piazza San Marco is bathed in a golden glow as the sun sets behind the Basilica di San Marco. The picture? Perfect.  

Again, who wouldn’t want to live in Venice?

The answer, according to the latest population stats, is almost everyone. The population of Venice is one third what it was in 1970.

The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed that I changed the sentence slightly in the second version. I replaced “be” with “live.”  And that’s the difference. Venice is literally the “nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  

A lot of people do visit, well over 5 million a year. But almost nobody lives there. The permanent population of Venice has shrunk to below 60,000.

Venice has become tourified. It’s a false front of a city, one built for those who are going to be there for 48 to 72 hours. In the process, everything needed to make it sustainable for those who want to call it home has been stripped out. It has become addicted to tourist dollars — and that addiction is killing it.

We should learn from Venice’s example. Sometimes, in trying to make a fantasy real, you take away the very things needed to let it survive.

Perfection doesn’t exist in nature. Imperfections are required for robustness. Yet, we are increasingly looking for a picture of perfection we can escape to.

The unintended consequences of this are troubling to think about.

We spent a good part of the last century devising new ways to escape. What was once an activity that lived well apart from our real lives has become increasingly more entwined with those lives.

As our collective affluence has grown, we spend more and more time chasing the fantastical. Social media has accelerated this chase. Our feeds are full of posts from those in pursuit of a fantasy.

We have shifted our focus from the place we live to the “nice place to visit.” This distorts our expectations of what reality should be. We expect the tourist-brochure version of Venice without realizing that in constructing exactly that, we set in motion a chain of events resulting in a city that’s unlivable.

The rise of populist politics is the broken-mirror image of this. Many of us have mythologized the America we want — or Britain, or any of the other countries that have gone down the populist path.. And myths are, by definition, unsustainable in the real world. They are vastly oversimplified pictures that allow us to create a story that we long for. It’s  the same as the picture I painted of Venice in the first paragraph: a fantasy that can’t survive reality.

In our tendency to “tourify” everything, there are at least two unintended consequences: one for ourselves and one for our world.

For us, the need to escape continually draws our energies and attentions from what we need to do to save the world we actually live in, toward the mythologization of the world we think we want to live in. We ignore the inconvenient truths of reality as we pursue our imagined perfection.

But it’s the second outcome that’s probably more troubling. Even if we were successful in building the world we think we want, we could well find that built a bigger version of Venice, a place sinking under the weight of its own fantasy.

Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for.

Looking Back at a Decade That’s 99.44% Done

Remember 2010? For me that was a pretty important year. It was the year I sold my digital marketing business. While I would continue to actively work in the industry for another 3 years, for me things were never the same as they were in 2010. And – looking back – I realize that’s pretty well true for most of us. We were more innocent and more hopeful. We still believed that the Internet would be the solution, not the problem.

In 2010, two big trends were jointly reshaping our notions of being connected. Early in the year, former Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker laid them out for us in her “State of the Internet” report. Back then, just three years after the introduction of the iPhone, internet usage from mobile devices hadn’t even reached double digits as a percentage of overall traffic. Meeker knew this was going to change, and quickly. She saw mobile adoption on track to be the steepest tech adoption curve in history. She was right. Today, over 60% of internet usage comes from a mobile device.

The other defining trend was social media. Even then, Facebook had about 600 million users, or just under 10% of the world’s population. When you had a platform that big – connecting that many people – you just knew the consequences will be significant. There were some pretty rosy predications for the impact of social media.

Of course, it’s the stuff you can’t predict that will bite you. Like I said, we were a little naïve.

One trend that Meeker didn’t predict was the nasty issue of data ownership. We were just starting to become aware of the looming spectre of privacy.

The biggest Internet related story of 2010 was WikiLeaks. In February, Julian Assange’s site started releasing 260,000 sensitive diplomatic cables sent to them by Chelsea Manning, a US soldier stationed in Iraq. According to the governments of the world, this was an illegal release of classified material, tantamount to an act of espionage. According to public opinion, this was shit finally rolling uphill. We revelled in the revelations. Wikileaks and Julian Assange was taking it to the man.

That budding sense of optimism continued throughout the year. By December of 2010, the Arab Spring had begun. This was our virtual vindication – the awesome power of social media was a blinding light to shine on the darkest nooks and crannies of despotism and tyranny. The digital future was clear and bright. We would triumph thanks to technology. The Internet had helped put Obama in the White House. It had toppled corrupt regimes.

A decade later, we’re shell shocked to discover that the Internet is the source of a whole new kind of corruption.

The rigidly digitized ideals of Zuckerberg, Page, Brin et al seemed to be a call to arms: transparency, the elimination of bureaucracy, a free and open friction-free digital market, the sharing economy, a vast social network that would connect humanity in ways never imagined, connected devices in our pockets – in 2010 all things seemed possible. And we were naïve enough to believe that those things would all be good and moral and in our best interests.

But soon, we were smelling the stench that came from Silicon Valley. Those ideals were subverted into an outright attack on our privacy. Democratic elections were sold to the highest bidder. Ideals evaporated under the pressure of profit margins and expanding power. Those impossibly bright, impossibly young billionaire CEO’s of ten years ago are now testifying in front of Congress. The corporate culture of many tech companies reeks like a frat house on Sunday morning.

Is there a lesson to be learned? I hope so. I think it’s this. Technology won’t do the heavy lifting for us. It is a tool that is subject to our own frailty. It amplifies what it is to be human. It won’t eliminate greed or corruption unless we continually steer it in that direction. 

And I use the term “we” deliberately. We have to hold tech companies to a higher standard. We have to be more discerning of what we agree to. We have to start demanding better treatment and not be willing to trade our rights away with the click of an accept button. 

A lot of what could have been slipped through our fingers in the last 10 years.  It shouldn’t have happened. Not on our watch.

The Joy of Listening to Older People

The older I get, the more I enjoy talking to people who have accumulated decades of life experience. I consider it the original social media: the sharing of personal oral histories.

People my age often become interested in their family histories. When you talk to these people, they always say the same thing: “I wish I had taken more time to talk to my grandparents when they were still alive.” No one has ever wished they had spent less time with Grandma and Grandpa.

In the hubris of youth, there seems to be the common opinion that there couldn’t be anything of interest in the past that stretches further than the day before yesterday.  When we’re young, we seldom look back. We live in the moment and are obsessed with the future.

This is probably as it should be. Most of our lives lie in front of us. But as we pass the middle mark of our own journey, we start to become more reflective. And as we do so, we realize that we’ve missed the opportunity to hear most of our own personal family histories from the people who lived it. Let’s call it ROMO: The Regret of Missing Out.

Let me give you one example. In our family, with Remembrance Day (the Canadian version of Veterans Day) fast approaching, one of my cousins asked if we knew of any family that served in World War I. I vaguely remembered that my great grandfather may have served, so I did some digging and eventually found all his service records.

I discovered that he enlisted to go overseas when he was almost 45 years old, leaving behind a wife and five children. He served as a private in the trenches in the Battle of the Somme and Vimy Ridge. He was gassed. He had at least four bouts of trench fever, which is transmitted by body lice.

As a result, he developed a debilitating soreness in his limbs and back that made it impossible for him to continue active duty. Two and a half years after he enlisted, this almost 50-year-old man was able to sail home to his wife and family.

I was able to piece this together from the various records and medical reports. But I would have given anything to be able to hear these stories from him.

Unfortunately, I never knew him. My mom was just a few years old when he died, a somewhat premature death that was probably precipitated by his wartime experience.

This was a story that fell through the cracks between the generations. And now it’s too late. It will remain mostly hidden, revealed only by the sparse information we can glean from a handful of digitized records.

It’s not easy to get most older people talking. They’re not used to people caring about their past or their stories. You have to start gently and tease it out of them.

But if you persist and show an eagerness to listen, eventually the barriers come down and the past comes tumbling out, narrated by the person who lived it. Trust me when I say there is nothing more worthwhile that you can do.

We tend to ignore old people because we just have too much going on in our own lives. But it kills me just a little bit inside when I see grandparents and grandchildren in the same room, the young staring at a screen and the old staring off into space because no one is talking to them.

The screen will always be there. But Grandma isn’t getting any younger. She has lived her life. And I guarantee that in the breadth and depth of that life, there are some amazing stories you should take some time to listen to.

This Election, Canucks were “Zucked”

Note: I originally wrote this before results were available. Today, we know Trudeau’s Liberals won a minority government, but the Conservatives actually won the popular vote: 34.4% vs 33.06% for the Liberals. It was a very close election.

As I write this, Canadians are going to the polls in our national election. When you read this, the outcome will have been decided. I won’t predict — because this one is going to be too close to call.

For a nation that is often satirized for our tendencies to be nice and polite, this has been a very nasty campaign. So nasty, in fact, that in focusing on scandals and personal attacks, it forgot to mention the issues.

Most of us are going to the polls today without an inkling of who stands for what. We’re basically voting for the candidate we hate the least. In other words, we’re using the same decision strategy we used to pick the last guest at our grade 6 birthday party.

The devolvement of democracy has now hit the Great White North, thanks to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.

While the amount of viral vitriol I have seen here is still a pale shadow of what I saw from south of the 49th in 2016, it’s still jarring to witness. Canucks have been “Zucked.” We’re so busy slinging mud that we’ve forgotten to care about the things that are essential to our well being as a nation.

It should come as news to no one that Facebook has been wantonly trampling the tenets of democracy. Elizabeth Warren recently ran a fake ad on Facebook just to show she could. Then Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook last week when he said: “While I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I worry about living in a world where you can only post things that tech companies decide to be 100 per cent true.”

Zuckerberg believes the onus lies with the Facebook user to be able to judge what is false and what is not. This is a suspiciously convenient defense of Facebook’s revenue model wrapped up as a defense of freedom of speech. At best it’s naïve, not to mention hypocritical. What we see is determined by Facebook’s algorithm. At worst it’s misleading and malicious.

Hitting hot buttons tied to emotions is nothing new in politics. Campaign runners have been drawing out and sharpening the long knives for decades now. TV ads added a particularly effective weapon into the political arsenal. In the 1964 presidential campaign, it even went nuclear with Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” Ad.

But this is different. For many reasons.

First of all, there is the question of trust in the channel. We have been raised in a world where media channels historically take some responsibility to delineate between what they say is factual (i.e., the news) and what is paid persuasion (i.e., the ads).

In his statement, Zuckerberg is essentially telling us that giving us some baseline of trust in political advertising is not Facebook’s job and not their problem. We should know better.

But we don’t. It’s a remarkably condescending and convenient excuse for Zuckerberg to appear to be telling us “You should be smarter than this” when he knows that this messaging has little to do with our intellectual horsepower.

This is messaging that is painstakingly designed to be mentally processed before the rational part of our brain even kicks in.

In a recent survey, three out of four Canadians said they had trouble telling which social media accounts were fake. And 40% of Canadians say they had found links to stories on current affairs that were obviously false. Those were only the links they knew were fake. I assume that many more snuck through their factual filters. By the way, people of my generation are the worst at sniffing out fake news.

We’ve all seen it, but only one third of Canadians 55 and over realize it. We can’t all be stupid.

Because social media runs on open platforms, with very few checks and balances, it’s wide open for abuse. Fake accounts, bots, hacks and other digital detritus litter the online landscape. There has been little effective policing of this. The issue is that cracking down on this directly impacts the bottom line. As Upton Sinclair said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Even given these two gaping vulnerabilities, the biggest shift when we think of social media as an ad platform is that it is built on the complexity of a network. The things that come with this — things like virality, filter bubbles, threshold effects — have no corresponding rule book to play by. It’s like playing poker with a deck full of wild cards.

Now — let’s talk about targeting.

When you take all of the above and then factor in the data-driven targeting that is now possible, you light the fuse on the bomb nestled beneath our democratic platforms. You can now segment out the most vulnerable, gullible, volatile sectors of the electorate. You can feed them misinformation and prod them to action. You can then sit back and watch as the network effects play themselves out. Fan — meet shit. Shit — meet fan.

It is this that Facebook has wrought, and then Mark Zuckerberg feeds us some holier-than-thou line about freedom of speech.

Mark, I worry about living in a world where false — and malicious — information can be widely disseminated because a tech company makes a profit from it.

Trump’s Impeachment: The Biggest Media Showdown of All Time?

Note: A shorter version of this ran in MediaPost where it was edited for length. This is the full version as I originally wrote it. GH

In my lifetime, the articles of Impeachment of have been prepared to go to the House of Representatives twice: once for Richard Nixon in 1974 and once for Bill Clinton in 1998. As this week begins, it looks like we’re heading for number three with Donald Trump. I thought it might be interesting to look these impeachment proceedings in the context of the media landscape. As I started my research, I realized this actually shows the dramatic shifts both in our media and in the culture of our ideologies. It’s worth taking a few minutes to examine them.

First, a little historical housekeeping. Two presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Nixon resigned before the articles got to the House for voting. Because I’m looking at impeachment in the context of media, we won’t spend too much time on Johnson, but we’ll still look at it for the history of a Republic Divided.

Impeachment tends to crop up when there is a deep ideological divide in the country. The rifts naturally extend to Washington and its political climate. What is fascinating is to see how these divides have been reflected in the media landscape as it has evolved.

Andrew Johnson, 1868

First of all, to provide a somewhat objective baseline to begin with, let’s begin with a quick assessment of each impeachment case using two criteria from David Greenberg, a professor of history from Rutgers, author and a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. First, was Impeachment and conviction justified? And secondly, was impeachment and conviction possible? Remember, no presidential impeachment case has won the vote in both houses, leading to the removal of a president.

With Andrew Johnson, Greenberg’s answer to those two questions was, “Justified? Probably not.” and “Possible? Most definitely.” Johnson survived the senate impeachment debate by a single vote.

The Impeachment of Johnson was a direct result of differing opinions over reconstruction after the civil war. A Democrat, Johnson ran headlong into resistance from a Republican controlled Congress and Senate. Although the odds were stacked against him, 10 Republicans broke party ranks and voted against impeachment in the senate, which fell one vote below the required two-thirds majority.

Richard Nixon, 1974

According to David Greenberg, Nixon’s impeachment was both justified and possible. Tricky Dick was heading for almost certain impeachment when he resigned on August 9, 1974.

The U.S. in 1974 was deeply divided ideologically but this rift did not extend to the media. The US media landscape was relatively monolithic in the 70’s, dominated by national newspapers and the three big television networks. Media coverage of the Watergate scandal followed the lead of one of those national papers – the Washington Post – and the now mythic reporting of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. With a few exceptions, this media bloc definitely leaned left in its political views.

It’s also important to note the timeline of the Watergate revelations. Impeachment proceedings didn’t even begin until the Senate investigation was over a year old. By that time, there was substantial evidence pointing to both initial crimes and subsequent cover ups. The case was so damning – culminating in the release of the famous “smoking gun” tape – that even Republican support for Nixon quickly evaporated. We also have to remember that left-leaning media outlets had all the time in the world to erode public support for the president. This is not to condemn the journalism. It’s just acknowledging the media realities of the time.

The “Watergate Effect” would make its mark on national journalism for the next two decades. Suddenly, there was a flood of bright, idealistic (and yes – primarily left leaning) young people choosing journalism as a career. America’s right became increasingly frustrated with a media complex they saw as being dangerously biased to the left. One of the most vocal was Nixon’s own Executive Producer, a twenty-something named Roger Ailes.

Bill Clinton, 1998

This brings us to the Clinton Impeachment case, launched by an extra-marital affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. According to David Greenberg’s assessment, this impeachment was neither justified nor possible.

What is interesting about the Clinton case is how it marks the emergence of a right-wing media voice. The impeachment itself was largely a vendetta against the Clintons driven by Pentagon employee Linda Tripp and prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Tripp secretly recorded her conversations with Lewinsky in which she acknowledged the affair with Clinton. Lewinsky met Tripp after she had been reassigned to the Pentagon by White House aides hoping to avoid a scandal. Tripp then took the recordings to Newsweek hoping they would go public immediately. Given the implications of the story, Newsweek elected to sit on the story to give them the chance to do some further verification. Tripp was frustrated and had a book agent walk the tapes over to the Drudge Report, a fledgling Right-Wing story aggregator with a subscriber email list. They immediately published, causing a flustered mainstream media to follow suit.

Almost a year after the affair became public, Impeachment proceedings began. By this time, something called “Clinton Fatigue” had set in. Although the public was initially titillated by the salacious details, as the story dragged on, we all were struck with a collective and distasteful ennui. One got the sense that mainstream media were hoping the whole thing would eventually just go away. Eventually it did, after Clinton was acquitted in the Senate by all the Democrats and a handful of Republicans.

What Clinton’s impeachment did do was give a voice to the Right-Wing media which found a home in the explosion of cable channels and the very first online news sites. That same Roger Ailes was granted the helm of Fox News by Rupert Murdoch in 1996. The Conservatives were able to outflank the established media machine by laying claim to the emerging media platforms. This was media with a difference. Although the left-wing bias of mainstream media was generally acknowledged by most, it was largely an unspoken truth. Most journalists professed to be resolutely neutral and unbiased. The Right-Wing media was not so subtle. Their role was to counteract what they felt was a leftist spin machine.

The Clinton Impeachment also drove another wedge into the right-left split that has widened ever since. The staffers on Kenneth Starr’s prosecution team included current Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and recently resigned Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Also, an ex-investment banker by the name of Steve Bannon was thinking he might give entertainment and media a shot.

Donald Trump, 2019

So, what do we have to look forward to? As we seem to be barreling towards impeachment, how will the story play out in today’s media and political landscape?

Professor David Greenberg is quick to point out that these are uncharted waters. It makes little sense to look for historical precedent, because this impeachment will be unlike anything we have seen before. For what it’s worth, he says the Impeachment of Donald Trump is justified, but is highly unlikely to be successful, given that the Senate is controlled by a seemingly uncrackable Republican majority.

But here are the wild cards that we in the media should be watching:

 1) the speed at which this is playing out is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We are only one week into this.

2) We have never had a President – or a White House – like this.

3) We have never had a media landscape like this. There is a very vocal Right-Wing Media Machine that has proven to be every bit as effective as the mainstream media.

4) The way we consume – and interact – with media is light years removed from two decades ago. This shift has been so massive that we are still grappling with understanding it.

5) The general public has never been networked the way we are now. We have seen the fallout from network effects both in the 2016 US Election and the UK’s Brexit vote. What part will the network play in an Impeachment?

Buckle up!

The Internet: Nasty, Brutish And Short

When the internet ushered in an explosion of information in the mid to late 90s there were many — I among them — who believed humans would get smarter. What we didn’t realize then is that the opposite would eventually prove to be true.

The internet lures us into thinking with half a brain. Actually, with less than half a brain – and the half we’re using is the least thoughtful, most savage half. The culprit is the speed of connection and reaction. We are now living in a pinball culture, where the speed of play determines that we have to react by instinct. There is no time left for thoughtfulness.

Daniel Kahneman’s monumental book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” lays out the two loops we use for mental processing. There’s the fast loop, our instinctive response to situations, and there’s the slow loop, our thoughtful processing of reality.

Humans need both loops. This is especially true in the complexity of today’s world. The more complex our reality, the more we need the time to absorb and think about it.

 If we could only think fast, we’d all believe in capital punishment, extreme retribution and eye-for-eye retaliation. We would be disgusted and pissed off almost all the time. We would live in the Hobbesian State of Nature (from English philosopher Thomas Hobbes): The “natural condition of mankind” is what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, no laws, and no common power to restrain human nature. The state of nature is a “war of all against all,” in which human beings constantly seek to destroy each other in an incessant pursuit for power. Life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short.”

That is not the world I want to live in. I want a world of compassion, empathy and respect. But the better angels of our nature rely on thoughtfulness. They take time to come to their conclusions.

With its dense interconnectedness, the internet has created a culture of immediate reaction. We react without all the facts. We are disgusted and pissed off all the time. This is the era of “cancel” and “callout” culture. The court of public opinion is now less like an actual court and more like a school of sharks in a feeding frenzy.

We seem to think this is OK because for every post we see that makes us rage inside, we also see posts that make us gush and goo. Every hateful tweet we see is leavened with a link to a video that tugs at our heartstrings. We are quick to point out that, yes, there is the bad — but there is an equal amount of good. Either can go viral. Social media simply holds up a mirror that reflects the best and worst of us.

But that’s not really true. All these posts have one thing in common: They are digested too quickly to allow for thoughtfulness. Good or bad, happy or mad — we simply react and scroll down. FOMO continues to drive us forward to the next piece of emotionally charged clickbait. 

There’s a reason why social media is so addictive: All the content is aimed directly at our “Thinking Fast” hot buttons. And evolution has reinforced those hot buttons with generous discharges of neurocchemicals that act as emotional catalysts. Our brain online is a junkie jonesing for a fix of dopamine or noradrenaline or serotonin. We get our hit and move on.

Technology is hijacking our need to pause and reflect. Marshall McLuhan was right: The medium is the message and, in this case, the medium is one that is hardwired directly to the inner demons of our humanity.It took humans over five thousand years to become civilized. Ironically, one of our greatest achievements is dissembling that civilization faster than we think. Literally.

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.

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.

The Inevitability of the Pendulum Effect

In the real world, things never go in straight lines or predictable curves. The things we call trends are actually a saw tooth profile of change, reaction and upheaval. If you trace the path, you’ll see evidence of the Law of the Pendulum.

In the physical world, the Law is defined as: “the movement in one direction that causes an equal movement in a different direction.

In the world of human behavior, it’s defined as: “the theory holding that trends in culture, politics, etc., tend to swing back and forth between opposite extremes.

Politically and socially, we’re in the middle of a swing to the right. But this will be countered inevitably with a swing to the left. We could call it Newton’s Third Law of Social Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Except that’s not exactly true. If it were, the swings would cancel each other out and we’d end in the same place we started from. And we know that’s not the case. Let me give you one example that struck me recently.

This past week, I visited a local branch of my bank. The entire staff were wearing Pride T-shirts in support of their employer’s corporate sponsorship of Pride Week. That is not really a cause for surprise in our world of 2019. No one batted an eye. But I couldn’t help thinking that it’s parsecs removed from the world I grew up in, in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

I won’t jump into the debate of the authenticity of corporate political correctness, but there’s no denying that when it comes to sexual preference, the world is a more tolerant place than it was 50 years ago. The pendulum has swung back and forth, but the net effect has been towards – to use Steven Pinker’s term – the better angels of our nature.

When talking about the Pendulum Effect, we also have to keep an eye on Overton’s Window. This was something I talked about in a previous column some time ago. Overton’s window defines the frame of what the majority of us – as a society – find acceptable. As the pendulum swings back and forth between extremes, somewhere in the middle is a collective view that most of us can live with. But Overton’s window is always moving. And I believe that the window today frames a view of a more tolerant, more empathetic world than the world of 50 years ago – or almost any time in our past. That’s true every day. Lately, it might not even be true most days. But this is probably a temporary thing. The pendulum will swing back eventually, and we’ll be in a better place.

My question is: why? Why – when we even out the swings – are we becoming better people? So far, this column has little to do with media, digital or otherwise. But I think the variable here is information. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, once said “Information wants to be free.” But I think information also wants to set us free – free from the limitations of our gene bound prejudice and pettiness. Where ever you find the pendulum swinging backwards, you’ll find a dearth of information. We need information to be thoughtful. And we need thoughtfulness to create a more just, more tolerant, more empathetic society.

We – in our industry – deal with information as our stock in trade. It is our job to ensure that information spreads as far as possible. It’s the one thing that will ensure that the pendulum swings in the right direction. Eventually.