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.

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.