Quant vs Qual in the time of Crisis

Digesting reality is becoming more and more difficult. I often find myself gagging on it. Last Friday was a good example. I have been limiting my news intact for my own sanity, but Friday morning I went down the rabbit hole. Truth be told, I started doing some research for the post I was intending to write (which I will probably get to next week) and I was soon overwhelmed with what I was reading.

I’m beginning to suspect that we’re getting an extra dump of frightening news on Fridays as officials realize that it’s more difficult to enforce social distancing on weekends. Whether this is the case or not, I found my chest tightening from anxiety. My hands got shaky as I found myself clicking on frightening link after frightening link. Predictions scared the shit out of me. I was worried for my community and country. I was worried for myself. But most of all, I was worried for my kids, my wife, my dad, my in-laws and my family.

Fear and anxiety swamped my normally rational side. Intellect gave way to despair. That’s not a good mode for me. I have to run cool – I need to be rational to function. Emotions mentally shut me down.

So I retreated to the numbers. My single best source throughout this has been the posts from Tomas Pueyo – the VP of Growth at Course Hero. They are exhaustively researched statistical analyses and “what-if” models assembled by an ad-hoc team of rockstar quants. On his first post on March 10 –  “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now” – Pueyo and his team nailed it. If everyone listened and followed his advice, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Similarly, his post on March 19 – “Coronavirus: The Hammer and The Dance” gave a tough but rational prescription to follow. His latest – “Coronavirus: Out of Many, One” – drills down on a state-by-state analysis of COVID in the US.

I’m not going to blow smoke here. These are tough numbers to read. Even the best-case scenarios would have been impossible to imagine just a few weeks ago. But the worst-case scenarios are exponentially more frightening. And if you – like me – needs to retreat to ration in order to keep functioning, this is the best rationale I’ve found for dealing with COVID 19. It’s not what we want to hear, but it’s what we must listen to.

In my marketing life, I always encouraged a healthy mix of both quantitative and qualitative perspectives in trying to understand what is real. I’ve said in the past: “Quantitative is watching the dashboard while you drive. Qualitative is looking out the windshield.”

I often find that marketers tend to focus too much on the numbers and not enough on the people on the other side of those numbers. We were an industry deluged with data and it made us less human.

Ironically, I now find myself on the other side of that argument. We have to understand that even our most trustworthy media sources are going to be telling us the stories that have the most impact on us. Whether you turn to Fox or CNN as your news source, we would be getting soundbites out of context that are – by design – sensational in nature. They may differ in their editorial slants, but – right or left – we can’t consider them representational of reality. They are the outliers.

Being human, we can’t help but apply these to our current reality. It’s called availability bias. It the simplest terms possible, it means that those things that are most in our face become our understanding of any given situation.

In normal times, these individual examples can heighten our humanity and make us a little less numb. They remind us of the relevance of the individual experience– the importance of every life and the tragedy of even one person suffering.

“If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy.
If millions die, that’s only a statistic.”

– Joseph Stalin

Normally, I would never dream of quoting Joe Stalin in a post. But these are not normal times. And the fact is, Stalin was right. when we start looking at statistics and mathematical modelling, our brain works differently. It forces us to use a more rational cognitive mechanism; one less likely to be influenced by emotion. And in responding to a crisis, this is exactly the type of reasoning required.

This is a time unlike anything any of us has experienced. In times like this, actions should be based on the most accurate and scientific information possible. We need the cold, hard logic of math as a way to not become swamped by the wave of our own emotions. In order to make really difficult decisions for the greater good, we need to distance ourselves from our own little bubbles of reality, especially when that reality is made up of non-representative examples streamed to us through media channels.

Want Solid Covid-19 Information? Here is What I've Found

If you’re a statistical “what if” type of person, I can relate. I’ve been doing a lot of that over the last week or two. I’ve found some tools and resources that are heavy on statistical probability and solid information rather than panicked hyperbole or “head in the sand” denial. I thought I’d share them with you.

Updated Numbers

The one source I’ve been following the longest is Worldometer’s Coronavirus page, which is updated daily.

You can drill down to breakdowns for most countries. I’ve been particularly looking at results in example countries that are ahead of us on the curve: on the plus side: China and South Korea. On the negative side: Italy and Spain. The US has further breakdowns by state. Keep on eye on Washington, which will be soon getting to the point where they’ll see if their efforts at lockdown are being effective. Governor Jay Inslee did a statewide lockdown on March 15, the first state to do so. What we want to see if that starts “bending the curve” in the right direction. We should start to see trends in the next week or so.

One note of caution on looking at these numbers. You have to factor in the ramp up of testing, which will identify many more new cases. While this looks scary, it’s very much a good thing. Increased testing is one of the most important steps in slowing down the spread.

Canadian Specific Numbers

Canada does not have a province by province breakdown on Worldometer. The best site I’ve seen for Canada is from the Globe and Mail.

This tool does offer provincial breakdowns. Again, we want to be watching the daily new case graphs to see if the curve starts to bend. Provinces that were leaders in this regard are the ones that have been hit the hardest: BC, Ontario and Alberta. In BC we’ve been stepping towards total lock down for the last week or so. On Friday, we finally shut all restaurants, so we’re about a week behind Washington State in this regard. Ontario was a little bit ahead of us.

Other Trackers

Bing

If you prefer a map-based interface, other tools you might want to check out are Bing’s Covid Tracker:

Bing has done a nice job here, particularly if you’re in the US. You can drill down to very specific location based tracking if you’re American. It’s less useful for Canadians. I also want to see new case incident rates, which are missing.

Google

New on the scene is Google’s Covid Tracker

To be honest, I was expecting a lot more from Google. I know it’s just been rolled out, but Bing is miles ahead in functionality

Bottom Line

If you want to see what might happen, you need to drill down on locations that were aggressive in implementing lockdowns and see what is happening there on a day by day – new cases and new deaths – basis. Remember, there is a 7 – 14 day incubation period, so you need to factor that in. Social distancing and Shelter at Home strategies will take 2 to 3 weeks to show up on these graphs.

Sound Statistics and Modelling

Tomas Pueyo has done an absolutely stellar job of taking available information and modelling out what we might expect to see. In two posts on Medium, he has knocked it out of the park. If you need some solid statistical arguments why you should keep your ass on your couch, you’ll find it here. The first post came on March 10. It convinced me to “shelter at home”.

(By the way, I’ll be using terms around which there is a lot of confusion currently. See this guide about what these terms mean)

Pueyo, who is the VP of Growth at Course Hero, has basically assembled a team of academics, health authorities and quants to “hack” an approach to saving our collective lives. His original post has been read over 40 million times and has been translated into over 30 languages. The science is sound here. His message is straight forward and urgent: stay the fuck home.

The first post, published March 10, is entitled: Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now:

The second post from March 19 is called: Coronovirus: The Hammer and The Dance

Neither of these posts are easy reading, but it is essential that you do. Pueyo does get into the weeds on his statistical reasoning, but it’s the best analysis I’ve seen about what we might expect.

Statistical Models

The final resource I’ll point you to are a few statistical models I’ve found that allow you to do some what-if modelling for your own circumstances. By far the best is the Epidemic Calculator on Github:

It looks a little daunting at first, but there are really only a few adjustments you need to make. On the bottom, you can leave almost everything in the default position. The inputs are based on the latest information we have on Covid-19. The one you might want to change is the Population input. Set this for your home country, region or even city if you want.

What you want to change are the two slider controls on the top, the Intervention Threshold and the Rt Factor. These two work together, one the timing of actions and the other the severity of actions. The R factor is the transmission rate (Pueyo talks about this extensively). It appears that Covid currently has an R factor of about 2.2, which means that every infected person will infect 2.2 other people. What we want is to get that under 1. Until we do that, the disease spreads exponentially.

Drag the Intervention slider to see the impact of delaying action. Then adjust the slider to the right to see why staying at home is so important. If anything drove it home for me, this did.

There are other models out there. If you like Canadian Content in your statistical models, there is also this one from Memorial University:

Why is This Important?

The biggest problem with what we’re about to go through is the tendency to either panic or to not be aware of the urgency of the situation. Both can be equally dangerous.

It’s so important to know what might come. We have a couple of significant obstacles in this regard:

The Cause/Effect Gap

First, we are dealing with the incubation lag, that frustrating delay between what we do today and when we begin to see the payoff from it. For me, statistical analysis is the best way to drive that point home. With it, its abundantly clear to see why we need to act now and act aggressively.

The Things We Can’t See

The other problem is underestimating the number of people that are already infected. Remember, some of those infected may never show symptoms but still be contagious. Others will show symptoms at 5 or 6 days but will be contagious before that. You can’t look at the number of confirmed cases in your area and get any feeling of security from that. You can be sure the number of actual infections is much higher. This was the same dangerous path that Italy and Spain went down.

For me this has been a roller coaster ride. I need information – good information that’s grounded in fact based research and reasoning. There is far too much bad information out there. That is why I wanted to share these resources. As near as I can tell, this will give you the best baseline of where we’re at and what we need to do going forward. It is scary shit. So the last thing I’ll leave with are some tips of how to cope when it all gets too much: a conversation with psychologist and mental health expert Dr. Reyman Abdulrehman.

Whipped Into a Frenzy

Once again, we’re in unprecedented territory. According to the CDC – COVID-19 is the first global pandemic since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. While Facebook was around in 2009, it certainly wasn’t as pervasive or impactful as it is today. Neither – for that matter – was H1N1 when compared to COVID-19. That would make COVID-19 the first true pandemic in the age of social media.

While we’re tallying the rapidly mounting human and economic costs of the pandemic on a day-by-day basis, there is a third type of damage to consider. There will be a cognitive cost to this as well.

So let’s begin by unpacking the psychology of a pandemic. Then we’ll add the social media lens to that.

Emotional Contagion aka “The Toilet Paper Syndrome”

Do you have toilet paper at your local store? Me neither. Why?

The short answer is that there is no rational answer. There is no disruption in the supply chain of toilet paper. If you were inclined to stock up on something to battle COVID-19, hand sanitizer would be a much better choice.  Search as you might, there is no logical reason why people should be pulling toilet paper by the pallet full out of their local Costco.

There is really only one explanation; panic is contagious. It’s called emotional contagion. And there is an evolutionary explanation for it. We evolved as herd animals and when our threats came from the environment around us, it made sense to panic when you saw your neighbor panicking. Those that were on the flanks of the herd acted as an early warning system for the rest. When you saw panic close to you, the odds were very good that you were about to be eaten, trampled or buried under a rockslide. We’re hardwired to live by the principle of “Monkey see, monkey do.”

Here’s the other thing about emotional contagion. It doesn’t work very well if you have to take time to think about it. Panicked responses to threats from your environment will only save your life if they happen instantly. Natural selection has ensured they bypass the slower and more rational processing loops of our brain.

But now let’s apply the social media lens to this. Before modern communication tools were invented, emotional contagion was limited by the constraints of physical proximity. It was the original application of social distancing. Emotions could spread to a social node linked by physical proximity, but it would seldom jump across ties to another node that was separated by distance.

Then came Facebook, a platform perfectly suited to emotional contagion. Through it, emotionally charged messages can spread like wildfire regardless of where the recipients might be – creating cascades of panic across all nodes in a social network.

Now we have cascades of panic causing – by definition – irrational responses. And that’s dangerous. As Wharton Management professor Sigal Barsade said in a recent podcast, “I would argue that emotional contagion, unless we get a hold on it, is going to greatly amplify the damage caused by COVID-19”

Why We Need to Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On – the famous slogan from World War II Britain – is more than just a platitude that looks good on a t-shirt. It’s a sound psychological strategy for survival, especially when faced with threats in a complex environment. We need to think with our whole brain and we can only do that when we’re not panicking.

Again, Dr. Barsade cautions us “One of the things we also know from the research literature is that negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, cause us to become very rigid in our decision-making. We’re not creative. We’re not as analytical, so we actually make worse decisions.”

Let’s again consider the Facebook Factor (in this case, Facebook being my proxy for all social media). Negative emotional messages driven by fear gets clicked and shared a lot on social media. Unfortunately, much of that messaging is – at best – factually incomplete or – at worst – a complete fabrication. A 2018 study from MIT showed that false news spreads six times faster on social media than factual information.

It gets worse. According to Pew Research, one in five Americans said that social media is their preferred source for news, surpassing newspapers. In those 18 -to 29, it was the number one source. When you consider the inherent flaws in the methodology of a voluntary questionnaire, you can bet the actual number is a lot higher.

Who Can You Trust?

Let’s assume we can stay calm. Let’s further assume we can remain rational. In order to make rational decisions, you need factual information.

Before 2016, you could generally rely on government sources to provide trustworthy information. But that was then. Now, we live in the reality distortion field that daily spews forth fabricated fiction from the Twitter account of Donald. J. Trump, aka the President of the United States.

The intentional manipulation of the truth by those we should trust has a crippling effect on our ability to respond as a cohesive and committed community. As recently as just a week and a half ago, a poll found that Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say that COVID-19 posed an imminent threat to the U.S. By logical extension, that means that Republicans were half as likely to do something to stop the spread of the disease.

My Plan for the Pandemic

Obviously, we live in a world of social media. COVID-19 or not, there is no going back. And while I have no idea what will happen regarding the pandemic, I do have a pretty good guess how this will play out on social media. Our behaviours will be amplified through social media and there will be a bell curve of those behaviors stretching from assholes to angels. We will see the best of ourselves – and the worst – magnified through the social media lens.

Given that, here’s what I’m planning to do. One I already mentioned. I’m going to keep calm. I’m going to do my damnedest to make calm, rational decisions based on trusted information (i.e. not from social media or the President of the United States) to protect myself, my loved ones and anyone else I can.

The other plan? I’m going to reread everything from Nassam Nicholas Taleb. This is a good time for all of us to brush up on our understanding of robustness and antifragility.

The Saddest Part about Sadfishing

There’s a certain kind of post I’ve always felt uncomfortable with when I see it on Facebook. You know the ones I’m talking about — where someone volunteers excruciatingly personal information about their failing relationships, their job dissatisfaction, their struggles with personal demons. These posts make me squirm.

Part of that feeling is that, being of British descent, I deal with emotions the same way the main character’s parents are dealt with in the first 15 minutes of any Disney movie: Dispose of them quickly, so we can get on with the business at hand.

I also suspect this ultra-personal sharing  is happening in the wrong forum. So today, I’m trying to put an empirical finger on my gut feelings of unease about this particular topic.

After a little research, I found there’s a name for this kind of sharing: sadfishing. According to Wikipedia, “Sadfishing is the act of making exaggerated claims about one’s emotional problems to generate sympathy. The name is a variation on ‘catfishing.’ Sadfishing is a common reaction for someone going through a hard time, or pretending to be going through a hard time.”

My cynicism towards these posts probably sounds unnecessarily harsh. It goes against our empathetic grain. These are people who are just calling out for help. And one of the biggest issues with mental illness is the social stigma attached to it. Isn’t having the courage to reach out for help through any channel available — even social media — a good thing?

I do believe asking for help is undeniably a good thing. I wish I myself was better able to do that. It’s Facebook I have the problem with. Actually, I have a few problems with it.

It’s Complicated

Problem #1: Even if a post is a genuine request for help, the poster may not get the type of response he or she needs.

Mental Illness, personal grief and major bumps on our life’s journey are all complicated problems — and social media is a horrible place to deal with complicated problems. It’s far too shallow to contain the breadth and depth of personal adversity.

Many read a gut-wrenching, soul-scorching post (genuine or not), then leave a heart or a sad face, and move on. Within the paper-thin social protocols of Facebook, this is an acceptable response. And it’s acceptable because we have no skin in the game. That brings us to problem #2.

Empathy is Wired to Work Face-to-Face

Our humanness works best in proximity. It’s the way we’re wired.

Let’s assume someone truly needs help. If you’re physically with them and you care about them, things are going to get real very quickly. It will be a connection that happens at all possible levels and through all senses.

This will require, at a minimum, hand-holding and, more likely, hugs, tears and a staggering personal commitment  to help this person. It is not something taken or given lightly. It can be life-changing on both sides.

You can’t do it at arm’s length. And you sure as hell can’t do it through a Facebook reply.

The Post That Cried Wolf

But the biggest issue I have is that social media takes a truly genuine and admirable instinct, the simple act of helping someone, and turns it into just another example of fake news.

Not every plea for help on Facebook is exaggerated just for the sake of gaining attention, but some of them are.

Again, Facebook tends to take the less admirable parts of our character and amplify them throughout our network. So, if you tend to be narcissistic, you’re more apt to sadfish. If you have someone you know who continually reaches out through Facebook with uncomfortably personal posts of their struggles, it may be a sign of a deeper personality disorder, as noted in this post on The Conversation.

This phenomenon can create a kind of social numbness that could mask genuine requests for help. For the one sadfishing, It becomes another game that relies on generating the maximum number of social responses. Those of us on the other side quickly learn how to play the game. We minimize our personal commitment and shield ourselves against false drama.

The really sad thing about all of this is that social media has managed to turn legitimate cries for help into just more noise we have to filter through.

But What If It’s Real?

Sadfishing aside, for some people Facebook might be all they have in the way of a social lifeline. And in this case, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If someone you know and care about has posted what you suspect is a genuine plea for help, respond as humans should: Reach out in the most personal way possible. Elevate the conversation beyond the bounds of social media by picking up the phone or visiting them in person. Create a person-to-person connection and be there for them.

The Ruts of Our Brain

We are not – by nature – open minded. In fact, as we learn something, the learning creates neural pathways in our brain that we tend to stick to. In other words, the more we learn, the bigger the ruts get.

Our brains are this way by design. At its core, the brain is an energy saving device. If there are two options open to it, one requiring more cognitive processing and one requiring less, the brain will default to the less resource intensive option.

This puts expertise into an interesting new perspective. In a recent study, researchers from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Columbia University, University College London and Flatiron Institute found that when mice learn a new task, the neurons in their brain actually change as they move from being a novice to an expert. At the beginning as they’re learning the task, the required neurons don’t “fire” until the brain makes a decision. But, as expertise is gained, those same neurons start responding before they’re even needed. It’s essentially Hebbian Theory (named after neurologist Donald Hebbs) in action: the neurons that fire together eventually wire together.

We tend to think of experts as bringing a well-honed subset of intellectual knowledge to a question. And that is true, as long as the question is well within their area of expertise. But the minute an expert ventures outside of their “rut” they begin to flounder. In fact, even when they are in their area of expertise but are asked to predict where that path that may lead in the future – beyond their current rut – their expertise doesn’t help them. In 2005 psychologist Phillip Tetlock published “Expert Political Judgement” – a book showing the results of a 20-year long study on the prediction track record of experts. It wasn’t good. According to a New Yorker review of the book, “Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world…are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys”

Why? Well, just like those mice in the above-mentioned study, once we have a rut, our brains like to stick to the rut. It’s just easier for us. And experts have very deep ruts. The deeper the rut, the more effort it takes to peer above it. As Tetlock found, when it comes to predicting what might happen in some area in the future, even if you happen to be an expert in that area, you’d probably be better off flipping a coin than relying on your brain.

By the way, for most of human history, this has been a feature, not a bug. Saving cognitive energy is a wonderful evolutionary advantage. If you keep doing the same thing over and over, eventually the brain pre-lights the neuronal path required, saving itself time and energy. The brain is directing anticipated traffic at faster than the speed of thought. And it’s doing it so well, it would take a significant amount of cognitive horsepower to derail this action.

Like I said, in a fairly predictably world of cause and effect, this system works. But in an uncertain world full of wild card complexity, it can be crippling.

Complex worlds require Foxes, not Hedgehogs. This analogy also comes from Tetlock’s book. According to an old Greek fable, “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows just one thing.” To that I would add; the fox knows a little about many things, but the hedgehog knows a lot about one thing. In other words, the hedgehog is an expert.

In Tetlock’s study, people with “fox” qualities had a significantly better track record then “hedgehogs” when it came to predicting the future. Their brains were better able to take the time to synthesize the various data inputs required to deal with the complexity of crystal balling the future because they weren’t barrelling down a pre-ordained path that had been carved by years of accumulated expertise.

But it’s not just expertise that creates these ruts in our brains. The same pattern plays out when we look at the impact of our beliefs play in how open-minded we are. The stronger the belief, the deeper the rut.

Again, we have to remember that this tendency of our brains to form well-travelled grooves over time has been crafted by the blind watchmaker of evolution. But that doesn’t make it any less troubling when we think about the limitations it imposes in a more complex world. This is especially true when new technologies deliberately leverage our vulnerability in this area. Digital platforms ruthlessly eliminate the real estate that lies between perspectives. The ideological landscape in which foxes can effectively operate is disappearing. Increasingly we grasp for expertise – whether it’s on the right or left of any particular topic – with the goal of preserving our own mental ruts.

And as the ruts get deeper, foxes are becoming an endangered species.

Just in Time for Christmas: More Search Eye-Tracking

The good folks over at the Nielsen Norman Group have released a new search eye tracking report. The findings are quite similar to one my former company — Mediative — did a number of years ago (this link goes to a write-up about the study. Unfortunately, the link to the original study is broken. *Insert head smack here).

In the Nielsen Norman study, the two authors — Kate Moran and Cami Goray — looked at how a more visually rich and complex search results page would impact user interaction with the page. The authors of the report called the sum of participant interactions a “Pinball Pattern”: “Today, we find that people’s attention is distributed on the page and that they process results more nonlinearly than before. We observed so much bouncing between various elements across the page that we can safely define a new SERP-processing gaze pattern — the pinball pattern.”

While I covered this at some length when the original Mediative report came out in 2014 (in three separate columns: 1,2 & 3), there are some themes that bear repeating. Unfortunately, I found the study’s authors missed what I think are some of the more interesting implications. 

In the days of the “10 Blue Links” search results page, we used the same scanning strategy no matter what our intent was. In an environment where the format never changes, you can afford to rely on a stable and consistent strategy. 

In our first eye tracking study, published in 2004, this consistent strategy led to something we called the Golden Triangle. But those days are over.

Today, when every search result can look a little bit different, it comes as no surprise that every search “gaze plot” (the path the eyes take through the results page) will also be different. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons for this. 

SERP Eye Candy

In the Nielsen Norman study, the authors felt “visual weighting” was the main factor in creating the “Pinball Pattern”: “The visual weight of elements on the page drives people’s scanning patterns. Because these elements are distributed all over the page and because some SERPs have more such elements than others, people’s gaze patterns are not linear. The presence and position of visually compelling elements often affect the visibility of the organic results near them.”

While the visual impact of the page elements is certainly a factor, I think it’s only part of the answer. I believe a bigger, and more interesting, factor is how the searcher’s brain and its searching strategies have evolved in lockstep with a more visually complex results page. 

The Importance of Understanding Intent

The reason why we see so much variation in scan patterns is that there is also extensive variation in searchers’ intent. The exact same search query could be used by someone intent on finding an online or physical place to purchase a product, comparing prices on that product, looking to learn more about the technical specs of that product, looking for how-to videos on the use of the product, or looking for consumer reviews on that product.

It’s the same search, but with many different intents. And each of those intents will result in a different scanning pattern. 

Predetermined Page Visualizations

I really don’t believe we start each search page interaction with a blank slate, passively letting our eyes be dragged to the brightest, shiniest object on the page. I think that when we launch the search, our intent has already created an imagined template for the page we expect to see. 

We have all used search enough to be fairly accurate at predicting what the page elements might be: thumbnails of videos or images, a map showing relevant local results, perhaps a Knowledge Graph result in the lefthand column. 

Yes, the visual weighting of elements act as an anchor to draw the eye, but I believe the eye is using this anticipated template to efficiently parse the results page. 

I have previously referred to this behavior as a “chunking” of the results page. And we already have an idea of what the most promising chunks will be when we launch the search. 

It’s this chunking strategy that’s driving the “pinball” behavior in the Nielsen Norman study.  In the Mediative study, it was somewhat surprising to see that users were clicking on a result in about half the time it took in our original 2005 study. We cover more search territory, but thanks to chunking, we do it much more efficiently.

One Last Time: Learn Information Scent

Finally, let me drag out a soapbox I haven’t used for a while. If you really want to understand search interactions, take the time to learn about Information Scent and how our brains follow it (Information Foraging Theory — Pirolli and Card, 1999 — the link to the original study is also broken. *Insert second head smack, this one harder.). 

This is one area where the Nielsen Norman Group and I are totally aligned. In 2003, Jakob Nielsen — the first N in NNG — called the theory “the most important concept to emerge from human-computer interaction research since 1993.”

On that we can agree.

Why Quitting Facebook is Easier Said than Done

Not too long ago, I was listening to an interview with a privacy expert about… you guessed it, Facebook. The gist of the interview was that Facebook can’t be trusted with our personal data, as it has proven time and again.

But when asked if she would quit Facebook completely because of this — as tech columnist Walt Mossberg did — the expert said something interesting: “I can’t really afford to give up Facebook completely. For me, being able to quit Facebook is a position of privilege.”

Wow!  There is a lot living in that statement. It means Facebook is fundamental to most of our lives — it’s an essential service. But it also means that we don’t trust it — at all.  Which puts Facebook in the same category as banks, cable companies and every level of government.

Facebook — in many minds anyway – became an essential service because of Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the effect of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. More users = exponentially more value. Facebook has Metcalfe’s Law nailed. It has almost two and a half billion users.

But it’s more than just sheer numbers. It’s the nature of engagement. Thanks to a premeditated addictiveness in Facebook’s design, its users are regular users. Of those 2.5 billion users, 1.6 billion log in daily. 1.1 billion log in daily from their mobile device. That means that 15% of all the people in the world are constantly — addictively– connected to Facebook.

And that’s why Facebook appears to be essential. If we need to connect to people, Facebook is the most obvious way to do it. If we have a business, we need Facebook to let our potential customers know what we’re doing. If we belong to a group or organization, we need Facebook to stay in touch with other members. If we are social beasts at all, we need Facebook to keep our social network from fraying away.

We don’t trust Facebook — but we do need it.

Or do we? After all, we homo sapiens have managed to survive for 99.9925% of our collective existence without Facebook. And there is mounting research that indicates  going cold turkey on Facebook is great for your own mental health. But like all things that are good for you, quitting Facebook can be a real pain in the ass.

Last year, New York Times tech writer Brian Chen decided to ditch Facebook. This is a guy who is fully conversant in tech — and even he found making the break is much easier said than done. Facebook, in its malevolent brilliance, has erected some significant barriers to exit for its users if they do try to make a break for it.

This is especially true if you have fallen into the convenient trap of using Facebook’s social sign-in on sites rather than juggling multiple passwords and user IDs. If you’re up for the challenge, Chen has put together a 6-step guide to making a clean break of it.

But what if you happen to use Facebook for advertising? You’ve essentially sold your soul to Zuckerberg. Reading through Chen’s guide, I’ve decided that it’s just easier to go into the Witness Protection Program. Even there, Facebook will still be tracking me.

By the way, after six months without Facebook, Chen did a follow-up on how his life had changed. The short answer is: not much, but what did change was for the better. His family didn’t collapse. His friends didn’t desert him. He still managed to have a social life. He spent a lot less on spontaneous online purchases. And he read more books.

The biggest outcome was that advertisers “gave up on stalking” him. Without a steady stream of personal data from Facebook, Instagram thought he was a woman.

Whether you’re able to swear off Facebook completely or not, I wonder what the continuing meltdown of trust in Facebook will do for its usage patterns. As in most things digital, young people seem to have intuitively stumbled on the best way to use Facebook. Use it if you must to connect to people when you need to (in their case, grandmothers and great-aunts) — but for heaven’s sake, don’t post anything even faintly personal. Never afford Facebook’s AI the briefest glimpse into your soul. No personal affirmations, no confessionals, no motivational posts and — for the love of all that is democratic — nothing political.

Oh, one more thing. Keep your damned finger off of the like button, unless it’s for your cousin Shermy’s 55th birthday celebration in Zihuatanejo.

Even then, maybe it’s time to pick up the phone and call the ol’ Shermeister. It’s been too long.