A Year on the Inside

(Note: This is the column this week for MediaPost’s Media Insider Column, which I write for every Tuesday. The references in this post are to that publication)

In the past 12 months, what have your Media insiders been talking about? I wondered that myself, so I did a tally. I grouped all last year’s columns into 10 broad categories. Here, roughly speaking, are the topics we’ve covered in 2018:

Disruption in Our Biz

At a whopping 63 columns, this was by far the most popular topic, accounting for a full 25% of all the Media Insider columns written last year. Authorship was pretty much split among all the insiders, including yours truly.

Editorial angles included disruption in TV ad buying, the future of the ad holding company and agencies, marketer distrust of their agencies, the rise of digital “frenemies” and the very nature of the relationship between advertisers and their market. We may have taken different approaches, but we all had this viewpoint in common with Stephen Stills when he wrote this song lyric for Buffalo Springfield: “Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

How Technology is Changing Us

The second most popular topic looked at disruption of a different sort: how tech is rewiring humans. This, of course, is my favorite topic, but I wasn’t alone. 37 columns were written on this issue, making up 15% of all the Media Insiders last year. The vast majority of these were cautionary in tone, worrying that tech may be leading us down a dystopian path.

Politically Charged Tech

The third most popular theme? No real surprise here. It was about the overlap of tech — especially social media — and politics. We collectively penned 34 columns on this topic, making up 13% of the total editorial calendar. The interesting aspect of this — for me, anyway — was the question of whether the relationship was simply correlational or causal. Did tech take us to where we are today? Or was it simply the channel we used to bitch about it?

Privacy and Data Concerns

Coming in as a close contender for the top three spots was the whole personal privacy mess, featuring the long-running Facebook debacle. The various security breaches, exposes of Russian hacking, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Facebook’s consistently abysmal behavior were on our collective minds, generating 30 columns making up 12% of all Media Insider content. Facebook may have been the poster child of this particular theme, but the question of data privacy goes beyond that to a much more fundamental question: Who should own our data?

Marketing Strategy and Execution

Rounding out the top five was probably the most helpful topic of the bunch: How the hell should you market anyway? In 2018, 27 columns were written on the topic, representing 11% of all columns which ran. A hat tip to fellow Insider Cory Treffiletti here, who wrote most of those.

New Consumer Tech

As you can see, the top five topics were mostly negative in nature, mainly concerned with worrying about what was happening. The next two topics were a little more starry-eyed, starting with dreaming about a richer tech future. Eighteen times in 2018 we wrote about new consumer tech (making up 7% of all columns), including voice-enabled, AR, VR and AI. While we sometimes hit a negative note, most of the time we adopted a “Gee Whiz” enthusiasm about what this new tech could bring.

New MarTech

The number seven theme had us putting on our marketer’s hat and enthusing about how tech will improve marketing. We wrote about this 13 times, representing 5% of the content. Again, while we realize that this is one of the contributing factors to disruption in our business, we remained overwhelming positive about the possibilities. We also saw consolidation of this market in our collective crystal balls.

A Glimpse Inside Our Personal Worlds

Tied for the 7th spot — with 13 columns — was a bit of a catchall category I called personal insights. The topics were varied, but they all touched on who we were as humans and how we saw the world. Often we used our own experiences as our narrative devices.

The Evolution of Entertainment and Content Publishing

The Insiders occasionally mused — 11 times last year, to be exact — about how the very notion of entertainment and content publishing was changing. Again, we were monitoring another disruptive trend. How we are reinventing the way we consume video — thanks to streaming and binge-watching — was the most popular topic in this category, but we also wondered about the future of the printed word as well.

The New Definition of Branding

Finally, we wondered what will become of the notion of branding in an increasingly polarized, digitally mediated market place. This was our topic for seven columns last year, making up 3% of the total Insider pie. We saw the continuing rise of brand activists, slacktivists and overtly political brand messaging. In short, we saw branding mirror what was happening in the real world.

As a sample of where our heads are at, there were no real surprises when I tallied up the numbers. This showed that we Insiders, just like everyone else, are trying to make sense of an increasingly nonsensical world and industry. We feel the earth moving under our feet, often in seismic jolts. We worry about the future. We remain cautiously optimistic about the promise of technology in general. We get mad when corporations behave badly. And we use our own lives to help frame our perspective of the world where we live and work.

It will be interesting to see what we write about in 2019.

The Psychology Behind My NetFlix Watchlist

I live in Canada – which means I’m going into hibernation for the next 5 months. People tell me I should take up a winter activity. I tell them I have one. Bitching. About winter – specifically. You have your hobbies – and I have mine.

The other thing I do in the winter is watch movies. And being a with it, tech-savvy guy, I have cut the cord and get my movie fix through not one, but three streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime and Crave (a Canadian service). I’ve discovered that the psychology of Netflix is fascinating. It’s the Paradox of Choice playing out in streaming time. It’s the difference between what we say we do and what we actually do.

For example, I do have a watch list. It has somewhere around a hundred items on it. I’ll probably end up watching about 20% of them. The rest will eventually go gentle into that good Netflix Night. And according to a recent post on Digg, I’m actually doing quite well. According to the admittedly small sample chronicled there, the average completion rate is somewhere between 5 and 15%.

When it comes to compiling viewing choices, I’m an optimizer. And I’m being kind to myself. Others, less kind, refer to it as obsessive behavior. This is referring to satisficing/optimizing spectrum of decision making. I put an irrational amount of energy into the rationalization of my viewing options. The more effort you put into decision making, the closer you are to the optimizing end of the spectrum. If you make choices quickly and with your gut, you’re a satisficer.

What is interesting about Netflix is that it defers the Paradox of Choice. I dealt with this in a previous column. But I admit I’m having second thoughts. Netflix’s watch list provides us with a sort of choosing purgatory..a middle ground where we can save according to the type of watcher we think we are. It’s here where the psychology gets interesting. But before we go there, let’s explore some basic psychological principles that underpin this Netflix paradox of choice.

Of Marshmallows and Will Power

In the 1960’s, Walter Mischel and his colleagues conducted the now famous Marshmallow Test, a longitudinal study that spanned several years. The finding (which currently is in some doubt) was that children who had – when they were quite young – the willpower to resist immediately taking a treat (the marshmallow) put in front of them in return for a promise of a greater treat (two marshmallows)  in 15 minutes would later do substantially better in many aspects of their lives (education, careers, social connections, their health). Without getting into the controversial aspects of the test, let’s just focus on the role of willpower in decision making.

Mischel talks about a hot and cool system of making decisions that involve self-gratification. The “hot” is our emotions and the “cool” is our logic. We all have different set-points in the balance between hot and cool, but where these set points are in each of us depends on will power. The more willpower we have, the more likely it is that we’ll delay an immediate reward in return for a greater reward sometime in the future.

Our ability to rationalize and expend cognitive resources on a decision is directly tied to our willpower. And experts have learned that our will power is a finite resource. The more we use it in a day, the less we have in reserve. Psychologists call this “ego-depletion” And a loss of will power leads to decision fatigue. The more tired we become, the less our brain is willing to work on the decisions we make. In one particularly interesting example, parole boards are much more likely to let prisoners go either first thing in the morning or right after lunch than they are as the day wears on. Making the decision to grant a prisoner his or her freedom is a decision that involves risk. It requires more thought.  Keeping them in prison is a default decision that – cognitively speaking – is a much easier choice.

Netflix and Me: Take Two

Let me now try to rope all this in and apply it to my Netflix viewing choices. When I add something to my watch list, I am making a risk-free decision. I am not committing to watch the movie now. Cognitively, it costs me nothing to hit the little plus icon. Because it’s risk free, I tend to be somewhat aspirational in my entertainment foraging. I add foreign films, documentaries, old classics, independent films and – just to leaven out my selection – the latest audience-friendly blockbusters. When it comes to my watch list additions, I’m pretty eclectic.

Eventually, however, I will come back to this watch list and will actually have to commit 2 hours to watching something. And my choices are very much affected by decision fatigue. When it comes to instant gratification, a blockbuster is an easy choice. It will have lots of action, recognizable and likeable stars, a non-mentally-taxing script – let’s call it the cinematic equivalent of a marshmallow that I can eat right away. All my other watch list choices will probably be more gratifying in the long run, but more mentally taxing in the short term. Am I really in the mood for a European art-house flick? The answer probably depends on my current “ego-depletion” level.

This entire mental framework presents its own paradox of choice to me every time I browse through my watchlist. I know I have previously said the Paradox of Choice isn’t a thing when it comes to Netflix. But I may have changed my mind. I think it depends on what resources we’re allocating. In Barry Schwartz’s book titled the Paradox of Choice, he cites Sheena Iyengar’s famous jam experiment. In that instance, the resource was the cost of jam. In that instance, the resource was the cost of jam. But if we’re talking about 2 hours of my time – at the end of a long day – I have to confess that I struggle with choice, even when it’s already been short listed to a pre-selected list of potential entertainment choices. I find myself defaulting to what seems like a safe choice – a well-known Hollywood movie – only to be disappointed when the credits roll. When I do have the will power to forego the obvious and take a chance on one of my more obscure picks, I’m usually grateful I did.

And yes, I did write an entire column on picking a movie to watch on Netflix. Like I said, it’s winter and I had a lot of time to kill.

 

A Thought on Thoughtfulness

Writing this column (first for Search Insider, then here) has been a private social experiment for me. It’s one that has now lasted at least 14 years and is pushing 700 iterations, in the form of the number of columns I’ve written.  It’s been fascinating to see which topics seem to elicit reaction amongst the MediaPost readership. Granted, the metrics I have available are limited to two: how often I’m shared and how often I get comments. Still, based on this limited feedback, I’ve come to some conclusions.

I’ll be totally honest here. Just a few weeks ago I was considering packing it in. But I didn’t. I attacked advertising instead. Perhaps you could chalk it up to the mood I was in at the time.

If you don’t write for an audience, know that it’s a soul sucking thing to do. You metaphorically chop out little – or large – pieces of your brain and string them up to see what flavor the carrion eaters (that’s would be you, the readers) are favouring today. That sounds gruesome, but when it comes to sharing ideas, you want to be eaten alive. It’s a good thing. I have found – again, based on the limited metrics I have access to – that I’m not usually the most popular taste-du-jour. There are other writers here at MediaPost that are shared far more often than I.

I’m okay with that. That wasn’t why I was considering packing it in. I was considering doing that because I wasn’t sure I had anything thoughtful left to say. After 14 years of doing this, I’ve said a lot of things here on MediaPost, and I was worried the well might be running dry. For heaven’s sake, I don’t even work in the industry anymore! I haven’t for 5 years now. Who am I to be pontificating on advertising, media or marketing?

But then I reconsidered. And I did so precisely because I’m not the most popular writer here in the MediaPost stable. I don’t really care if you share me (okay..I care a little bit). I do care if I make you think. And I think I can still do that. At least, I can on a good day.

The reason I keep carving off chunks of my prefrontal cortex to share with you is because I love thoughtfulness. If I can contribute to the dissemination of thoughtfulness – even in a small way – I need to keep doing what I’m doing.

I believe thoughtfulness is in danger. We are all collectively suffering from FOMO – we are scared of missing something. And so we all flick from meme to meme. I call them cog-bits. These are the proliferate mental tidbits that are thrown at us each day. They may be top ten lists, videos, pictures, posts – even news articles. The one thing they have in common is that they have been crafted for attention spans of 10 seconds or less. If you’re not hooked, you move on to the next cog-bit. They are not designed to make you think – their entire purpose is to make you share, which requires just 0.05 seconds of rational thought.

I admit I am not immune to the charms of a cog-bit. I’m a sucker for them, just like I suspect you are. But I also believe our mental diet should be balanced with some long-form thought provoking content. Thinking shouldn’t always be easy and instant. The end result shouldn’t always be a knee-jerk jamming of the share button. We should mull more. We should roll thoughts over in our mind, picking them apart gradually. We should be introduced to concepts and perspectives we haven’t thought before. And it’s okay if – in this process – we find our own minds changing. We also need to do that more.

To me, my best day writing is when I provoke a conversation. I don’t mean a trolling comment. I mean an honest-to-goodness conversation, where the parties are open to thoughtfulness and are mentally stretching the boundaries of their own perspectives. When is the last time you had a conversation where you really had to think – where you had to pause to catch your cognitive breath? It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?

In looking back at the last 14 years of writing for MediaPost, I have found that while I hope I have introduced some new ideas to you, the real reward has been how this weekly exercise has shaped my own thoughts. Frankly, some weeks it’s a pain in the ass to come up with an idea for the Tuesday slot. But when I actually engage with the creation of a column, I always find my ideas shift, just a little. Sometimes, I throw ideas out there that I know will be contentious – ideas that will make you think. Sometimes they will be half-baked. You may agree, you may not. All I ask is that you think about them.

That’s why I keep doing this.

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.

 

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.

 

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.