In a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, titled What Makes Online Content Viral?, Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman analysed about 7000 New York Times articles to examine which articles made it to “the most e-mailed” list. The conclusion of the research was the emotional intensity evoked by the articles was a major factor in determining their virality. Thus a change in the article characteristic by one standard deviation causes the following changes in the probability of making it to the most e-mailed list:
The articles have higher virality (more shared) if they stir up emotions. Some emotions have higher impact than others, but the one outstanding aspect is that anger and awe have a higher influence than the practical value or the interest of the article. The research shows that the low-arousal emotions (like sadness) dampen our enthusiasm for sharing. This is also interesting. My reading into this is that sadness has lower social value and it is not looked upon favourably by our peers. I dare say this is in line with behaviour linked to depression when people tend to suffer in silence.
Do we have the same appetite for sharing in other social situations, such as Facebook or Twitter?
Ben Elowitz wrote an interesting post on his blog, where he shared (!) a few thoughts about emotions that drive sharing. He analysed the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 and discovered that the emotional drivers have a different pattern of influence on. Number one factor is emotionality at 23%, followed by negativity (18%), interest (15%), surprise (13%) and positivity (13%). The practical value is way down to 3%!
Sure, the emotional patterns differ from one sharing environment to another, but clearly sharing is an emotional act. As Berger and Milkman noted in What Makes Online Content Viral?, “Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal”. I guess spiritual/intellectual emotions would count as low-arousal – there is not one word about that in that study.
Harvard Business Review published research on the same topic. In The New Science of Viral Ads, Tales Teixeira describes five ways of increasing the chances of people sharing video ads:
- Utilise brand pulsing: don’t put your logo straight in the middle, but show it only from time to time. This increases the chance of sharing by 20%
- Open with joy: right at the opening do something that causes positive, joyful reaction. This prevents boredom.
- Create a roller coaster: keep coming up with surprises and joyful experiences: this prevents the drop in interest
- Surprise but not shock: if the shock is negative, embarrassing or venturing into taboo territories, people may feel inhibited about sharing
- Use all of the above: joyful opening, show the brand here and there, keep people hooked, don’t shock.
The methods of measuring the emotion, the type of sharing medium and the type of content are different, but the role of the emotion in the decision to share something is undeniable
This may explain why sharing in formal circumstances doesn’t work. When you get the emotion out of the content, sharing is not that attractive, lacking the virality we see in informal social situations. By contrary, as the Berger and Milkman’s research shows, the low-arousal emotions have an inhibiting factor.
We share more when we feel that emotional impulse in the content. However, emotion is involved not only before but also in the act of sharing. What do people feel when they share? Unfortunately the research is mostly focused on the correlation between the emotion triggered by the content and the decision to share ignoring the emotion of sharing.
Emotions such as feeling appreciated, feeling good about being funny, intellectual, practical or artistic, getting rewarding feedback, feeling social as opposed to isolated, feeling contributing to an important cause, being the best in some ranking system, all of these contribute to making people want to share the content. These emotions have to do with our character, and our character and experience have to do with our choice of environment for communication.
Our sharing behaviour must be influenced also by the kind of environment we use and the type of human network we are part of. For example, people are never going to share funny videos on LinkedIn. Why because there is an expectation you need to look “professional” there. You can’t take the risk of broadcasting on LinkedIn a prank video of the Pope dancing with Madonna at Mardi Gras festival even if you think is really funny. You will be frowned upon by all the HR departments.
This is why I think we should be looking on not only what makes the content viral, which is a marketing problem, but also about what makes people share, which is a social communication problem. Formal network environments miss the opportunity to engage and get people become more creative, curious and motivated because they lack of emotion, inhibiting the social communication.
As an example, SharePoint is a very good product, but it is too formal, too boring to capture the imagination of people making the information sharing less effective. The SharePoint 2010 My Profile feature is a typical corporate “search to find information” strategy. Even the voice describing the features is emotionless. The product design is all about information, fields, tags, skills and projects. There is very little about socio-emotional features, a comprehensive anti how to make information viral strategy. I dare challenge you to listen to that video describing My Profile feature until the end of it. If, as research shows, people are far more likely to share in a state of arousal, this sleep inducing video, has close to zero chance of being share. Oh, except for me. I just did it! I guess we can put this in the category “interest” or “practical value” basket. Anyway, it needs to add a socio-emotional dimension to it to really become an effective information sharing tool; let’s say a combination of Facebook/Google Plus and SharePoint would do much better.
Social games are derided by some as being too superficial, something for de-stress therapy in the weekend. But modern games are really getting better at engaging our internal emotions which defines us who we are. Gamifying the sharing experience works because it adds emotional value to the act of sharing. If the sharing environment adds features that tap into these emotions such as giving rewards, showing your approval/disapproval for shared content, follow and be followed, all these increase the chances content will be shared. This could mean that specialised social networks will spread and gradually replace the formal sharing environments and put more colour into our virtual office lives.
Understanding how things work is an obsession and a necessity of ours as a human race. We explain how things work by trying to link facts in a logical sequence that builds and demonstrates the understanding.
The linear logic that has prevailed for centuries as the only reliable formal tool of thought has encountered a few challenges lately. The surprising aspect is that the challenges are more substantial right now when we have more research data than ever before and which supposedly should help us solve many problems with the application of systematic thought. However, we are finding that the admirable logic that worked so well in the world of mechanics stutters when it comes to more fluid world of biology and social phenomena.
Industrial thinking taught us that if you break down the system into its smaller components we could explain how it works by figuring out the relationship between these components. This works when dealing with systems with low complexity. In that situation it is easy to confuse causality with reality, or facts with “logical” beliefs. That problem didn’t bother us too much, because the logic was sufficient and it worked. But in complex and dynamic systems, the confusion causes big problems. Johan Lehrer explains beautifully the modern paradox caused by the abundance of information in Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us. Oops, I used the word “explains”!
Gathering data and identifying correlations works up to a certain extent as a way of demonstrating causality. Until that extent is reached one can successfully use the expression “explain” as a form of describing causal relationship, but beyond that level the explanation is simply an illusory way in which our brain deals with complexity. It is a bit like Voodoo science. We are generating a huge amount of new information captured in digital format. The social synapsis that connects us in so many ways accelerates the creation process which will boost the pace of generating new information. Very soon, the digital information stored on computer systems around the world will surpass the total of information stored in the people’s brains of the entire global population. The social, economic, cultural and political consequences will be vast and impossible to predict.
When the world is too complex linear logic ceases to operate. We only have our own interpretations as good guesses of what happens. There may be a way to identify the boundaries between the two worlds (the simple and the complex), but I am not aware of any such method or theory. It is all blurry. In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking concludes that entire universes with their distinct laws exist in the space created by the Big Bang. Laws don’t have to follow a linear system with which we are so familiar and they certainly don’t have to exist from the beginning of time. There are new laws and old laws. The laws that govern the social phenomena on planet Earth did not exist five billion years ago and we don’t know if they exist as such on other planets. The laws evolve; they change adopting new patterns accommodate behavioural discontinuities of systems in which the laws apply.
The difference between the realms of logic and non-logic thinking is similar to the difference between the art of Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) and Pablo Picasso. The first is a leading actor in the Renaissance movement dominated by the desire to bring the classics back to life by creating a perfect rational world. Painters have perfected the use perspective as a way of reflecting the reality. Rafael’s paintings are “perfect”. With attention to detail, Raphael produces studies of perfect world where the geometry is used to give the viewer a sense of linear depth. As an example, The School of Athens contains architectural elements based on semicircles and lines to give a 3D perspective that takes the focus of the viewer to a point of view in the centre of the painting. The image is symmetrical, with people occupying spaces in equal weighting and what seem to be important characters being placed in the middle. Even more mundane life moments with architectural elements in ruin are painted with careful choreographed perspective lines – The Virgin with the Veil (the thumbnail on the left) is an example.
Enter Pablo Picasso. In his early years he was a keen learner of the classics and his studies reflected that. Very soon that he broke with the tradition. His paintings challenge the order we have been trained to accept. The perspective is abandoned completely and when it appears it is only to be mocked. The faces of his characters have their parts represented in a multidimensional plan as if several views are painted simultaneously. For instance, The Portrait of Dora Maar is conceptually so different from The Virgin with the Veil. For the typical viewer it is hard to understand and accept Picasso’s art. I am not trying to argue for or against the style, but I am only observing that the rules for “liking” his art are different. For one, the viewer is an active consumer of the artistic product. The viewing is a personal experience and the viewer’s imagination plays a key role in determining that experience. Some may see beauty in the portrait of Dora Maar, and imagine a woman with passion, beautiful eyes and elegant figure. If you use the optical perception as educated by our traditional upbringing, the portrait doesn’t make sense at all. What are those hands and what is that double nose doing in there? What Picasso did though, was to multiply the possible interpretations of the visual design and create a variety of worlds based on individual rules. While Raphael seek to represent one view which was to be readily accepted by all the consumers of his paintings, Picasso created something which triggers different representations created in the viewer’s mind. Picasso captured the expression of our differences, zigzagged and opposed, while Raphael captured the essence of our common understanding, beautiful and uncontroversial. Picasso is “illogical” in stark contrast with the “logical” Raphael.
Let’s imagine the game of chess designed by these two maestros.
The classical chess game is a construct that lives in a perfect world of logic. Everything is known. There are a few rules and the number of combinations is discoverable, although it takes good computational power to do it. With our increasingly capable computers we should be able to calculate the perfect chess match in which the white and the black make the optimum moves based on a library of a huge number of possible scenarios. This is a game Raphael would feel comfortable with.
The non-logical world is one in which the game of chess is changes its rules and structure in unexpected ways. Imagine a chess board with a shape that changes with the temperature of the environment and the rules are slightly altered with each move. If you move the Queen from C4 to F7, the board will lower a corner of the board like melted chocolate extending the affected fields and the Knight can only move one field in a shortened “L” shape because of increased distances. This makes very difficult the analysis of scenarios based on past experience. The decision-tree algorithm becomes useless. A better strategy in this type of game is to experiment, see what changes occur, and based on that observation, decide the next move. Collecting data to identify correlation between temperatures and rules and aspect of the chess board will only give you limited understanding of the game. Perhaps over time, collecting large data, one could build a collection of patterns and use them as a guide, but never as a certain how-to recommendation.
The non-logical chess game suits the world of Picasso, a world in which each game is unique, never to be repeated where players influence the rules. A champion is one that has a lot of practice but has also ability to pick up new skills and has an open mind. In fact, this is a game where entire teams play together collaborating on making the best moves. Because of the many possible interpretations, a collective thinking, a sharing of ideas works best in understanding the evolving game. It is a continuous adjustment of strategy and interpretations that requires many brains working together to solve the puzzled created by each turn of the game.
If we think of creating software programs capable of playing the two kinds of chess, we would recognise that we need two different teams of programmers. The classical chess computer software requires massive calculations that are quite repetitive. The challenge is one of volume and ability to optimise the software to make rapid decisions by navigating through a large library of patterns. For the Picassonian chess game, the team is very different. Their programming must be fuzzy and social to allow for sharing opinions, experiences and expertise. The programmers must be creative and emphasize on the elements of sharing, collaboration and collective action. The outcome will need to be software that can learn and adapt through analysis of large data and parameters as the number of scenarios are practically limitless.
Why are we so excited about the New Year’s Eve? What is so different about this particular second when we go from one year to another? Perhaps it serves the purpose of a mental restart. It is as if a new life begins. We put aside all the bad parts that we experienced in the past year and we are giving ourselves the chance of a clean slate. This moment is so liberating, we celebrate it in style.
Over the years, the celebration has become a huge entertainment industry. The midnight fireworks mark the event for major cities around the world in a display of local pride, a show of creativity and a worldwide parade of urban artistic beauty.
Sydney Australia is the first major cities to kick start the competition. With its natural awesome scenery, the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, Sydney’s NYE fireworks are hard to beat. Sydney is always spectacular at this time of the year.
This year I also watched the fireworks in Rio de Janeiro and of course, New York. Rio’s show was spectacular too. I am sure the party that follows the NY show is absolutely awesome, Brazilian style. Both Sydney and Rio celebrate the passage into the New Year in full summer, which is perfect for heavy partying.
And yet, New York, with all the freezing air, is always so full of life and enthusiasm. It is probably the most intense New Year celebration. The expectation, the intimacy of Time Square where over one million people get together looking up the huge count-down display, the spirit of Frank Sinatra hovering above the crowd, the explosion of confetti, the kissing, the laughing, everything is so amazing.
This year it occur to me a small detail that startled me: in New York the fireworks are barely visible. You don’t see them as they are somewhere above the sky scrapers. I mean, you could see them if you want to, but why would you? You look at the ball, the confetti, the cheering crowd and you take in the moment. Everything happens together and people are in the middle of it. Sydney and Rio have huge fireworks, they are beautiful, but the arrangements are such that people are distant spectators watching a show of artistic objects. Sydney is a little bit more intimate, but in the case of Rio the separation couldn’t be more obvious. In New York, the people are the show. The fireworks are social geysers of emotional exuberance. That is the difference, and that is why New York might not offer the best fireworks, but it feels like the best New Year show on the planet.
We often hear stories of back-from-the-dead experiences of businesses that lost their way but then they hired a super-duper CEO who saved them by asking everyone to adopt a customer focus attitude. What is customer focus, actually? If this is the remedy then why not have that attitude all the time?
Some companies hire market researchers to tell them what the customers want. They will scour their respondent database, organise workshops, run surveys and after careful data filtering and analysis they give their clients the result of their research pointing to key customer requirements.
Others will get their customer service division to re-structure their support services to an impeccable level to increase the customer satisfaction. They say, “We have become more customer focused“.
Others will invest in business relationship management, beefing up account management, client functions, organise events aiming to impress their customers and understand their wants and wishes through collected feedback.
All the above methods work well, but the results have been mixed. There are two problems with these methods: 1. The customer’s mind is difficult to read with artificially engaging research tools, and 2. The customer may not be aware of their real needs, thus direct feedback will lack an essential ingredient.
The problem with these methods is that they have this distinct appearance of rigid corporate programs which risk turning off the interest of the customer the moment you mention them. In absence of anything else, these tools were great, but today they are not only unappealing, they are insufficient because they are not suited to capture the fluid nature of customer.
A customer focus does wonders when it offers a deep understanding of what makes a customer be. Asking questions through questionnaires or one-off face-to-face meetings reveal only some aspects of it. To have a better understanding you need to be exposed to the customer’s behaviour in a social setting unperturbed by artificial questionnaires. This is an authentic social environment in which new aspirations and challenges are created through the confluence of many factors.
There is this ad for a baby food company that shows a marketing guy hiding in all sorts of strange places to spy on moms to see how they feed their baby child and what problems they have in the process. One mum is aware of the espionage activity going on but she smiles with tacit approval of this stealth operation. Of course, in reality she would freak out to see a spy in her room like that, but the point here is that a company needs to make a huge effort to really understand how the customer lives and works.
Having a customer focus is a social act not an intellectual exercise. You cannot achieve a deep level of understanding unless you know what the customer’s social environment is.
There are two consequences to this enunciation. The first is that the company must go social. The company must invest in integrating social tools, practices and thinking into its business ethos. The other one is that the customer needs to acknowledge that mingling with others on social platforms is an open affair. This is fast becoming a fact of life and they need to understand how to manage their privacy and adapt to their own advantage.
This book has strengthen a perception of mine that even great journalists have a problem when they try to write non-fiction books. The Social Animal has a noble goal but the delivery is painfully dragging its ideas through a long winding story of two people who live an unhappy life. This is already a contentious point. For reasons that are not clear to me, the book is meant to describe the life of two people “who lead wonderfully fulfilling lives”. How can this be, when these two people live their lives absorbed in demanding jobs, with different ideals and that consider divorce at the age of fifty amidst desperation, bouts of alcoholism, a case of adultery, loneliness and realisation that they don’t fit each other? It is only because of a moral inner struggle that they decide to stay together, giving a strong impression that this is because there is no other practical option.
The main idea of The Social Animal is to follow two threads that are intertwined throughout the book: a story of two people that met, fell in love and decided to live together and a scientific exploration of the current status of research in human development, society, social behaviour, psychology, mind, genetics, biology and professional development that explain the way we make decisions and behave. It is a great idea, but difficult to implement.
The fundamental concept is that we make decisions at two levels: conscious awareness and subconscious. The first is the rational aspect of our behaviour, the logical thinking, the dry calculation, the methodical process by which we arrive at conclusions. David Brooks refers to this as the French Enlightenment thinking framework, “le rationalisme” personified by Voltaire and Descartes. The second level is the realm of deep unconscious, the unknown laboratory of human emotions, where feelings are born and fight against the rational thoughts from level 1 to ultimately determine how we make our decisions. This way of thinking is favoured by the British Enlightenment which affirms that in the end this is how we really decide. David Brooks has a plethora of examples of research studies that support this claim.
It may be that this is how we make decisions, with “epistemological modesty”, but it is rather hard to make sense of this book, other than just to say “hey, did you know that researchers discovered that… so and so?”. This is simply because I could not find “the hidden sources of love, character and achievement” as stated in the subtitle. I could see that hard work is necessary ingredient of success, that genetic inheritance is another asset that is good to have on your side and that being born in the richer part of society opens the door to more opportunities; but this is something that is hardly new.
There are a few interesting ideas here but they are lost in a long series of scientific explanations and popular statistics, but they lose traction because they are so disjointed, diluting any message that the book might have.
Here is one intriguing observation: we live today in a world where the cognitive load is so large it makes it more and more difficult for people from poorer parts of the society to traverse through education system to the richer side. The knowledge required is too high. David Brooks is not talking about the logical knowledge, but the emotional one which is the cultural fabric of society. This cannot be taught in a logical fashion in schools and in time it causes an increasing inequity that will lead to social tensions difficult to resolve.
The ramifications stemming from the idea that the subconscious in fact is quite rational are vast. You can choose your patch and rest assured you have in there plenty of interesting work for many many years. You could look at this from a computing perspective and think of the human brain as a sophisticated system with massive parallel processes that makes decisions in the background. Or look at this from a cognitive science perspective and try to understand the working model of the mind based on these “underground” processes. Then if you are an educator ask yourself how much of of our children formation is influenced by the education system and which parts are mostly influenced by other sources. I thought the subconscious intelligence is an important attribute defines us as a “social animal” in ways much more significant than the standard IQ. Unfortunately David Brooks did not insist on this topic. The brush he used was too broad in his attempt to cover all aspects of our lives.
Overall, I found that reading was an uneven experience as if I was traveling across the country often by a boring bus and occasionally by an exciting Ferrari. I must say, that despite this review, I love David Brooks posts in The New York Times and I look forward to read his writing.