simplifying complex decision-making
I recently took on a new job as a market researcher. On my very first day, I was faced with a monumental task that would take all my analytical skills, education, and powers of perception: signing up for employee benefits.
I am no stranger to complexity and jargon; yet, signing up for benefits is one of the most complicated things I have ever done.As a former academic, I am no stranger to complexity and jargon; yet, signing up for benefits is one of the most complicated things I have ever done. It’s hard to believe hundreds of millions of Americans have found themselves in the position of signing up for benefits given how shockingly unwieldy they are.
When I’m contributing to my 401K, what percentage of my bimonthly paycheck is reasonable? 10%? 20%? 50%? Should my contributions be pre-tax? After tax? Should I get a Roth IRA? Which investment plan should I put my money in? I guess that depends on whether I’m planning to retire at 55, 60, 65, or 70, since the portfolios associated with each are employing different risk strategies. Which health insurance plan should I get? Should I get the one that has a $1500 deductible or the one with a $1000 deductible? It’s going to be important because beyond the initial deductible, the percentage of co-pay is going to change between in-network and out-of-network doctors. Should I pick the dental PPO or the HMO? One costs half as much as the other, but there’s a difference between how each takes care of major restorative work, and also if I pick the HMO, it doesn’t pay for dentures, should I need them. Vision care seems awfully expensive given that I may or may not even get new glasses this year. But then, what happens if I need new glasses? They are pricy, what with frames alone costing $150, for reasons that have never been clear to me.
Despite that dense paragraph of choices I just dumped out above, my options are actually fairly limited at this company; at the University of California, where I once worked, there were many, many more options for every piffling detail. I was handed a book that was literally 200 pages long that detailed all the available options in health insurance. Each option had a 2-3 page summary.
We all know that what I’ve just described is crazy. I’m fairly well educated, I have experience reading complex documentation, and I have business acumen that should allow me to make somewhat rational economic decisions based on my own particular set of circumstances. But let’s face it: few people are going to be able to make sense of all this information, especially at a time when one needs to be focusing one’s energies on learning the new work environment. Yet the proliferation of legalese, fine print minutiae, and paperwork across HR desks continues unabated, and most of us have just come to accept it as a nuisance that we deal with but mostly stay ignorant of.
Rather than an opt-out program that forces complex comparisons, I would offer a decision tree, which offers a logical process to eliminate choices.In their pop-lit behavioral economics book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein argue that the solution is to create a default “best choice” option for employees that no one actually has to sign up for. Instead of presenting employees with a choice at the beginning, employees have to switch from this option, which is designed to make the most sense for the most people. So even if it’s not the best choice for someone’s particular set of circumstances, they’re also most likely not being completely screwed by it either— something that actually is a risk when someone is presented with choosing from 50 options, where they might make a horrible choice or might put off doing anything altogether.
It sounds good in theory, and the way Thaler and Sunstein present this concept (with the curiously offputting name “Libertarian Paternalism”), it seems like it would prevent a lot of people from making bad decisions. It’s true that it cuts down heavily on cognitive demands, but this is not an ideal setup for a number of reasons:
- It encourages employees to remain ignorant about things that they really should be invested in
- It empowers one person or a group of people within a bureaucracy to make a judgment about what is best for an entire class of people
- It could invite abuse, since the people in charge of creating the default position could have ulterior motives that don’t best serve employees
- What does “best” mean, and what are the metrics used to arrive at a consensus?
Questions like “Would you rather A) spend an extra $500 if you end up in the hospital, or B) pay $250 in advance regardless of whether you go to a hospital” would force you to make tough decisions about what you are willing to compromise, instead of making you compare features.To alleviate some of the problems inherent in this, I would offer another method: a decision tree. This tree would be something an individual or family could go through to arrive at optimal choices based on their own priorities. Obviously, the specifics would be dependent on the distinctions of the plans themselves, but it would offer a logical process to eliminate choices. Further, the abstract details of features will be bypassed in favor of the utilitarian concerns that underlie them.
For example, asking a series of questions like “Would you rather a) spend an extra $500 if and when you end up in the hospital, or would you rather pay $250 in advance regardless of whether you go to a hospital” takes a lot of the cognitive effort out of the selection process because it’s stating the cost-benefit explicitly and is highlighting the essential trade-off. In marketing lingo, this is called a conjoint analysis. The tradeoffs are presented upfront— forcing you to make tough decisions about what you are willing to compromise. Ultimately, this process allows you to decide what is right for you given a portfolio of choices that are otherwise hard to compare. Answer enough ‘trade-off’ questions and you’re bound to find the right plan for you, provided your choices are internally consistent.
At this point, it’s not a process of laboriously comparing— something that humans are not very good at, according to countless studies— but a process of elimination based on objectives and personal philosophy. I hope that the next time I’m saddled with having to sign up for benefits, someone in an insurance company or in HR actually follows through with a program like this.
why building bicycle infrastructure is only a partial solution
PROLOGUE: THE NEED FOR RETHINKING THE CONVERSATION ON ENERGY AND BICYCLE GROWTH
At the recent Energy Hub Conference, held in mid-October in Madison, WI, Skip Laitner, Director of Economic and Social Analysis for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), argued in a keynote address that the vast majority of our nation’s conversation about solving energy problems assume that it’s all about employing amazing new technologies like solar power, hybrid vehicles, wind power, microscopic energy-producing organisms, and the like. Point taken— in fact, just moments before his talk, the audience was subjected to a five-person panel of scientists and businesspeople who took turns promoting their new and wonderful energy technologies, and who tried to convince us that their innovations were going to be key elements in the high growth energy markets that drive the American economy and which will prevent the energy disaster looming on the horizon.
Laitner, however, was skeptical of this viewpoint. He argued, quite convincingly, that we need to wipe clean the slate on which we have written the dominant narratives about energy independence and we need to rethink it from the bottom up. One of his central points was that that we need to seriously think not about creating more energy, but in using what we have more efficiently. In general far too much attention has been paid to looking to the future technologies, and too little has been spent in understanding and addressing, in his words, the “cultural and anthropological” aspects. In short: We have a tendency to think of improvement in terms of technology, not in terms of behavior.
It is in this spirit of rethinking that I write this essay, in the hopes that it can better articulate why bicycling, a practice that in theory could be very instrumental in accelerating energy independence, requires a new approach in promoting its growth. I hope that in examining this issue and proposing marketing strategies, I can do my part to illuminate how the growth of the bicycle market can be not only be hugely profitable, but also culturally valuable to the American populace in a number of salient ways, not least in reducing energy dependence.
UNDERSTANDING THE BICYCLING MARKET AND ITS BARRIERS TO GROWTH
One of the highest product growth markets in the United States from 2000 to 2008 was bicycles.1 Indeed, the number of bicyclists on American streets has grown exponentially, and the prominence of bicycling in the mainstream consciousness has been increasing quite rapidly. Lance Armstrong is now a household name, and his athletic abilities have been held in high regards by Americans, who view him who is reinforcing American excellence on the world stage in competitive games like the Tour de France.
However, the growth of bicycling is starting to plateau; it experienced a rapid rise, but is now butting up against formidable barriers. The bicycle industry and bicycling-related groups are now finding themselves facing a seriously uphill battle in breaking bicycles into the American mainstream.
Three Major Sources of Consumer Resistance to Bicycling
As an avid cyclist myself, I have spent much time considering how advances in bicycle ridership could occur, and I have uncovered three distinct areas that require attention:
- Serious attention to improving bicycle design
- Improved transit infrastructure and bicycling amenities
- Greatly increased focus by bicycle companies on understanding the cultural barriers in bicycle growth, and addressing them in meaningful ways
The first of these issues is one that I have written about before, and which might be of interest. To quickly summarize, it seems apparent to me that most R&D and innovation at bicycle companies go towards efforts like reducing bike weight. While this is certainly something that is of concern to road bicyclists and many others that currently make up the core market of bicycle buyers, this is not a concern for the massive potential market that U.S. bicycle companies seem to be completely oblivious to. There are other, seemingly minor concerns regarding bicycle design that I strongly suspect are at least partially responsible for preventing an explosion in bicycle sales that would exponentially grow the entire bicycle market. While it is critical to understand this argument, it is not the focus of the essay here.
The second of these issues, the lack of bicycle infrastructure, tends to be the one that bicyclists fixate on. There are constant laments from cycling quarters that not enough money is being spent by city, state, and federal governments on improving transit infrastructure for bicycles despite its growing popularity. As a result, cyclists and bicycling advocacy groups have been relentless in pushing new projects like bike paths, bike lanes, and other amenities for cyclists. While I agree that these amenities would be nice, pushing this angle also implicitly argues that bicycling is an alternative form of transport that requires special and additional facilities to accommodate. This is a false assertion, and one that needs to be seriously questioned. Bicycles could easily make use of infrastructure that is already in place, and theoretically, even infrastructure that cars couldn’t use (like sidewalks and narrow alleyways). The United States has already built more than 4 million miles of public roads, almost all of which are currently allocated to cars. However, the ownership of this space by cars is not generally a legal designation so much as a cultural and psychological one, which brings me to the third point, which I think is the one that most seriously needs to be addressed: cultural barriers.
The recent increases in bicycling have rather unexpectedly hit a sensitive cultural nerve for something that might appear from the sidelines as an innocuous hobby. This is because bicycling is a phenomenon that touches heavily on a number of issues that are central to American culture, identity, and outlook, and like many of the other highly controversial issues on our collective table, is creeping rather nastily into the messy purview of the culture wars. In this article, we will examine many of the issues surrounding the controversies and cultural warfare that has erupted somewhat unexpectedly from bicycling, while situating the conversation in a socio-historic context. My hope is that understanding the resistance to bicycling from the mainstream can help bicycling manufacturers and advocacy groups reposition cycling to be a more attractive pursuit to the mainstream consumer than it traditionally has been.
RECURRING THEMES IN OUR CULTURAL DIALOGUE ABOUT BICYCLES
With the socio-cultural context of American streets as a backdrop, it is interesting to note that there has been a massive increase in interest in bicycles over the past decade. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but it likely has a lot to do with young people being more environmentally-conscious than their parents, economic woes forcing people to adopt cheaper forms of transport, our culture’s increasing focus on ‘authentic’ lifestyle choices as being more status-conferring than traditional wealth-oriented consumption patterns, and the internet’s help in fomenting communities. It doesn’t hurt that city planners have been spending more time thinking about how cities can better reflect the needs of people through initiatives that encourage civic pride.
As a result of this, there has been a great increase in bike-related stories in news outlets. In recent years, I’ve lost track of the number of articles about bicycling public policy, government proposals about allocations of money to bicycling projects, details of bicycling accidents, opinion articles about bicycle culture, advocates raising the merits of bicycling, and other bike-related coverage that I’ve come across without even looking for them. Clearly, something is happening in the public consciousness with regards to bicycling. I’ve noticed that many of these stories—and the comments made about them on sites that allow user comments— involve explicit or unstated tensions, pitting bikers against other members of the community. The following are themes that I’ve collected, and which I think it is extremely important for bicycle advocates and bike manufacturers to take note of and to address in a serious and focused manner if we are to look at cultural barriers.
- Biking as a rejection of modern society and the societal expectations of 21th century citizenship
In the summer of 2010, an article appeared in the online version of a Madison, WI newspaper describing current Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s desire to spend more money on transportation infrastructure that meets the needs of all consumers, not just ones that have typically benefited in the past. Translation: there are a lot of bikers (and walkers) out there, and we can further encourage biking (and walking) with improved infrastructure; while this might negatively impact motorized vehicle traffic, we need to think about the needs of society as a whole. I’ve read many news stories like this, and invariably, the comments sections are littered with comments by warring parties bemoaning either a) the hitherto under-recognized needs of individuals who do not want to use or do not have access to motorized vehicles, or b) the need for individuals falling in column ‘a’ to grow up and get with the times. One comment I read stated, with some degree of hostility, that “bicycles are an 18th century form of transport.” The implication being, of course, that people who use them are living in the past, and are refusing to come to grips with the advent of newer, better, faster, and more modern technologies. By choosing this mode of transport, it is suggested, these anachronistic contrarians are clogging our roads and hindering America’s technological, economic, and social progress.
- Biking as an obstructionist takeover of a space assigned to cars
Critical Mass is an organization that promotes bicycling and bicycling culture. As an organization that is prominent in major cities like San Francisco, they do a great job of getting bikers together for what amounts to organized protests. Once every few weeks, for example, they like to get hundreds of bikers together to take over heavily-trafficked main streets during particularly inconvenient times— like rush hour on Friday afternoons. By thrusting themselves into this public space while preventing the regular flow of motorized vehicular traffic, they essentially force motorists to take note of bicycling as a movement. Unfortunately, the tactics involved in this act basically amount to some rudimentary form of cultural terrorism. Even more unfortunately, like most forms of terrorism, it’s built on the frustrations of people who realize that getting their message across in non-confrontational ways is a fruitless endeavor, which is why they feel forced to do it in this way. To their credit, Critical Mass does bring biking to the forefront of the minds of people who otherwise don’t care— but ironically, their approach does little to create sympathy towards their cause, and does much to create antagonism. What besuited businessman stuck in bicycle-created gridlock on a Friday afternoon is going to think good thoughts about bicycles?
It’s not just Critical Mass members that face the wrath of angry motorists. For a society in which patience is not a commonly-held virtue, and for which instances of road rage are in rapid ascent, it does not surprise me that the sight of a bicyclist is inherently rage-inducing for many motorists. A bicyclist on a road probably fires the same neurons as a sluggish driver who waits too long when the light is green. As a result, bicyclists are often viewed by motorists as individuals who are obstructionists in a space that is designated for cars. They get in the way and prevent the smooth flow of traffic at the speeds motorists like. Few people like driving at 15mph, and the venom against cyclists ties into the combined frustration of traffic, low patience for delays, and perceived invasion of space by outsiders who aren’t playing by the rules set by society. Interestingly, in most states, bicycles are given equal status as cars, at least on urban streets and state highways. Usually bicycles are not allowed on freeways, presumably for safety reasons. Yet, stories of bicyclists facing harassment and marginalization on the streets are quite common. In high school, a classmate of mine bragged about chucking a bottle of urine on a bicyclist on a rural road; behavior like this may not be condemned by the public as much as a similar story about an assault on a pedestrian because the bicyclist is perceived as someone challenging a largely unquestioned notions about who owns street space.
- Biking as an explicit challenge to a cultural status quo
If you get to talking to people about food (everyone’s favorite topic!), one thing you’ll find very quickly is that many otherwise sensible people ridicule vegetarianism. On its surface, it’s hard to argue against it as a personal choice. Even if you think animals don’t have feelings and that they are here for human benefit, it really has little impact on anyone else if someone chooses not to eat meat. But once you look a little deeper into it, it’s clear that the attitude against vegetarianism has less to do with the lifestyle or personal choice, and more to do with meat-eaters perceiving vegetarians as making some moralistic statement about consumption, a statement that gives moral superiority to vegetarians over omnivores. The discomfort of feeling looked down upon, or perhaps even morally outdone is enough to make many meat-eaters dismissive of vegetarians, and by proxy, vegetarianism as a whole. Many vegetarians I’ve met claim that they don’t express hostility, condescension, or moral superiority towards their meat-eating brethren, but still feel as if others dump that baggage on them anyway. Having been a vegetarian myself for 3 years in my mid-20s, I understand the feeling. Because the overwhelming majority of people are omnivorous and our collective diet is so meat heavy, it’s hard to convey to others that your consumption habit is not necessarily a political statement but a personal choice; it so defies the dominant culture that it is bound to be viewed as a rejection of mainstream society, and as some kind of battle cry— even if it isn’t.
Bicyclists seem to fall into that same category of a marginalized group whose consumption habits defy mainstream cultural expectations. The United States has an extremely dominant car culture, so it’s hard for people who are heavily embedded in it to see the motives of the people who either reject car culture or who embrace bicycle culture. On its face, cycling has the appearance of a political movement because of its phenomenal growth, and because of the view of the car as the dominant mode of transport in this country. As a generally center-right nation, we have a fairly strong aversion to the idea of messing with the status quo, and we tend not to look favorably upon those who attempt this (at least outside of the business realm). Aside from the rose-colored glasses through which we view historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., we usually view people who challenge the status quo outside of a business context as either naive idealists, Che Guevara-style revolutionary wannabes, or meddlesome gadflies. Bicyclists seem to be tarred with all three of these dubious and unflattering epithets.
- Biking as a flagship cause of liberal politics or a means of forwarding a liberal takeover of public space
Bicycling as a cause has come to be strongly associated with liberal politics in a way that simply rankles many conservatives irrationally, regardless of any objective social, environmental, or health benefits increased biking might provide our society. There is little doubt that due to certain historical and demographic realities (e.g. that many adults took up bicycling during their time in college), much of the public sees the interest in promoting biking as a preoccupation of a certain class of liberal elite— well-educated trust-funders who come from privilege and have a disdain for the white working class, the Protestant work ethic, and conservative values. It also doesn’t help that bicycling is associated with those elitist, socialist Europeans, whose entire continent many parochially-minded Americans apparently view with broad disdain for being effete, weak, and pretentious.
In fact, with these ideas in mind, many anti-biking factions genuinely view the pro-biking movement as a maneuver by a cancerous cell of socialists to hijack public resources for their nefarious political agendas and “special interest” needs— a theme that has repeatedly come up in opinion articles, responses, and conservative talk shows. This is regardless of the fact that legally speaking, motor vehicles are generally not privileged over bicycles, and that infrastructural changes would uniformly benefit all citizens (of course, whether or not you see these changes as benefits or a wasteful diversion of resources is a different matter entirely).2
- Biking as expression of anarchy, lawlessness, and the flouting of society’s values and social norms
One of the most commonly expressed frustrations motorists have with bicyclists is their apparent disinclination to follow the rules of the road. Watching as bicyclists blow through stop signs; ignore traffic lights; ride alternately on sidewalks, roads and lawns; cutting across several lanes of traffic; and riding the wrong way on one-way streets, many motorists see bicyclists as representing an element of lawlessness, anarchy, and a lack of common courtesy.
Bicyclists often don’t have good excuses for their lack of adherence for the laws. Observing from the sidelines, it is possible that this is a by-product of our car-friendly infrastructure coupled with American attitudes about non-motorized traffic on streets. In short, bicyclists don’t feel welcome on streets because they are car space, and they don’t feel welcome on sidewalks because they are pedestrian space. As a marginalized group, bicyclists feel as if they don’t belong anywhere, and are thus compelled to adopt a somewhat Machiavellian attitude that sidesteps following traffic laws. The unspoken question is: why follow traffic laws if you aren’t also being actively protected by them? Bicyclists also defend their actions by arguing that the potential for injury or damage that stems from ignoring traffic rules largely apply only to the cyclists themselves, not to others; that is, a car can inflict massive damage on human life, property, animals, and things that have nothing to do with the driver of the car, but a cyclist is mainly just going to be injured himself if he breaks the laws. Of course, this isn’t entirely true; cyclists can certainly hurt others, but—without defending lawlessness—it is true that the likelihood of a serious incident generally are much smaller.
What is interesting in observing this tensions, however, is that law-violating bicyclists seem to be expressing certain elements of the same frustrations that motorists have; namely, that they are impatient with the lack of movement on highways and arteries, and tired of having to deal with traffic slow-downs and obstructions. But unlike motorists, whose impotent rage at being stuck in traffic needs to be grounded, bicyclists can actually bypass the traffic and ignore the elements that cause the slow-downs. Of course, most drivers would likely do the same if they could get away with it, but the unwieldiness of cars, the potential for damage, and legal repercussions prevent it— while the agility of the bike actively facilitates it. Unfortunately, the overwhelming proclivity of bicyclists to take advantage of this fact only makes motorists more angry; the idea that some people on the road seem to view themselves as not being subject to the same laws as everyone else, and are able to easily benefit from breaking those laws (rarely with consequence) is often deeply upsetting and rage-inducing for motorists.
- Biking as an effete/unmasculine/pretentious pursuit
People already are annoyed with bikers for various reasons already described, but there’s also something about groups of people wearing skin-tight spandex that doesn’t quite translate to mainstream sensibilities. There’s also something convincingly cult-like and laughable about a bunch of identically dressed people parading around town together in a way that completely defies even the lowest-brow fashion sense. Maybe that’s why so many dismissive comments about road bikers revolve around their distinctive and decidedly eye-soreish garb. It’s hard for me to personally defend the bike clothing as fashion, because it’s obviously meant to be functional (the spandex wicks away moisture to prevent chafing). Nevertheless, the fact that this clothing is such a massive departure from the clothing that the general population chooses to wear is interpreted by motorists as reflecting a certain spacey, cultlike cluelessness. Such “fashion” statements (even if unintentional) tend to engender dismissiveness from outside observers.
EXAMINING CAUSES OF CONSUMER RESISTANCE
Without a doubt, over the past decade, there has been a rapid ascent in DIY culture that has privileged simplicity, customization, authenticity, and other crucial characteristics of consumer goods; these qualities are ones that make bicycles an attractive, cheap, and fashionable mode of transportation amongst members of certain demographics and psychographics. However, there is much resistance to widespread bicycle movements in areas outside of progressive hubs like Portland, Oregon; Davis, California; Boulder, Colorado; and Madison, Wisconsin. As I have already mentioned, some of the problem is infrastructural in nature (though truthfully, the U.S. has some 4 million miles of paved road, almost all of which is dedicated to motor vehicle traffic— an allotment that could be reapportioned given public support), and some of the problem is due to what I consider antiquated bicycle design; but a large part of the problem is cultural. As a society that has been heavily indoctrinated into car culture, we simply have a strong aversion to this alternative transport mode for reasons that aren’t easily addressed. For non-cyclists to begin adopting bicycling as a primary form of transport currently requires certain psychological adjustments that, depending on the person, range from minor to massive. The following are the specific barriers that are expressed through consumer resistance, and which play on the ideas mentioned above. For many, the idea of using a bicycle as a legitimate form of transport:
- Violates certain deeply engrained cultural beliefs about transport propriety
Namely, that the road is for cars and motorized vehicles only
- Requires many potential cyclists to re-evaluate their sense of identity
Am I the type of person who would be a bicyclist? Remember that to people who are not used to doing it, riding on main streets is somewhat of a renegade concept and may require them to view themselves as people who challenge status quo, which many are not comfortable with. Also, because many of the strongest advocates of bicycling currently are young people, people who have reached middle age might feel demographically excluded from participation
- Creates discomfort with political or group associations
Even if one follows road rules, if one belongs to a group of people that is widely considered the spoiled children of urban anarchy, it could be problematic for those who walk on the side of law and order, and value being associated with that image. To make things worse bicycling is now so closely associated with liberal politics, people who feel uncomfortable possibly being identified as such, or uncomfortable associating with those whose alleged political views are antithetical to their own may find biking problematic to their image.
- Highlights safety issues
Again, the cultural assumption—and the obvious corporeal reality— that roads are car space factors heavily into the unwillingness of broader segments of people to adopt bicycling as some component of their portfolio of transportation options.
This reality became quite apparent to me in Madison, WI, where there is an annual (sometimes semi-annual) event called Ride the Drive in which large segments of major streets in the city are closed off to car traffic. In 2010, 50,000 people came out to bike around the city that day (to give you an idea of the magnitude of this event, Madison is a city of approximately 200,000). I took the opportunity to speak to participants at this year’s Ride the Drive event, and many confessed that although they own bicycles, they don’t use them as much as they’d like because they simply don’t feel comfortable with all those cars around, especially when many drivers are distracted with phones or aren’t looking out for cyclists.
CREATING MARKETING STRATEGIES TO COMBAT CULTURAL RESISTANCE AND TO GROW THE BICYCLING MARKET
Clearly, there are many barriers to the growth of bicycling, and many different ways that growth can be facilitated. Here, I describe how a successful approach to popularizing bicycles— in addition to manufacturing better bicycles and improving city infrastructure— must adopt marketing strategies that encompass holistic views of the cultural elements of bicycling, and the behavioral inhibitions that face many potential and current bicycle consumers. What follows here is not meant to be an exhaustive exploration of marketing strategy, but rather a brief sampling of the types of avenues that should be explored by bicycle manufacturers, bike advocacy organizations, and bicycle consumers.
- Legitimation of Bicycling by Respected Government/Non-partisan/Apolitical Agencies
Because the American cultural assumption is that cars are street space and that if you aren’t in a car, you should stay out of the street, many people are inculcated from childhood to believe that as bicyclists, they shouldn’t be on the streets. For this reason, it is important to average citizens that biking activities be legitimated by politically-neutral government agencies; the go-ahead from these groups government agencies is reassurance and encouragement that it is okay to be on the streets, even if you are not in a car. Some city governments advocate cycling once or twice a year with “bike to work weeks,” which give people who don’t bike much a green light to do it. More work of this nature and more frequent such events are absolutely necessary to convey the understanding that bicycles do belong on city streets, and that respectable organizations think so.
- Converting Advocacy from a Political Movement to an Apolitical Business or Social Organization
One of the best ways to grow the bicycle market is not by focusing on how to market bicycles per se, but rather, to focus on developing bicycle communities. The ones currently in existence revolve largely around bicycle advocacy through political processes. These have been organically-generated movements that arose from the fact that bicyclists have traditionally been somewhat disenfranchised on public streets, and these organizations served to raise awareness of bicycle issues, a cause near and dear to their members. However, at this stage, it is no longer beneficial for these groups to move in this fashion; indeed, I propose that their work might actually be harming their cause rather than helping it. Like with PETA, the explicitly confrontational tones that surround organizations like Critical Mass do not generate sympathy for the bicycling cause; instead, they contribute an unpleasant sense of haranguing the public, which preaches mostly to the choir, and may even eliminate goodwill from people who might otherwise be sympathetic. I propose that bicyclists and bicycling companies should create regular (i.e. daily) bicycling events that not only invite the general public to join, but place leadership roles in the hands of eager volunteers. Such events might be long rides around town, or perhaps organized rides from residential areas to business parks during the morning commute. The importance of the social element cannot be understated; it is legitimating, it is gives an opportunity to meet others, it conveys the sense that one is being left out of something interesting if one doesn’t join, and it can help create a sense of inclusion that doesn’t favor only certain types of people (e.g. age, political persuasion, gender, etc). Clearly, some thought should be put into how this goal can be achieved but there is no doubt that something needs to happen somehow on this front. I personally would propose some kind of social networking website that links bicyclists regionally, a one-stop site that combines maps, routes, group cycling events, group commuting times, etc. Done properly and with the simultaneous backing of all the major bicycle companies, this can eliminate a number of cultural barriers like safety issues, social issues, political fears, etc. Importantly, connections between people who can make things happen— even in the absence of bike corporation money— can be made, which could change everything.
- Promoting Local Races / Group Biking Experiences
Just as professional sports like the NBA and the NFL have been instrumental in turning the tides against racism, and television programming about gays and lesbians have been instrumental in changing Americans’ attitudes about homosexuality, establishing periodic regional bike races and group biking experiences would help greatly in exposing citizens to biking as a legitimate sport and bicycles as a non-threatening and perhaps even endearing presence. Targeting high school students for participation in such races might be a particularly good avenue because it involves young people (who eventually go on to continue the activities they enjoy throughout their lives) and it gets their parents and neighbors excited too. Moreover, America has a longstanding tradition of pitting various regional high schools against each other, and this is one more avenue for it to happen. Demonstrating the excitement and athletic prowess involved in racing, bike races could also be interesting periodic festival-style events in any town, especially if coupled with other festivities. Bicycling companies, working with various food and beverage companies, should go to extraordinary lengths to promote these types of races across the country, first starting in medium to large-sized metropolitan areas. In general, the more exposure and familiarity the general public gets to bicycling events, the more likely they are to accept bicycling as a normal and admirable pastime. Indeed, another angle that is worth thinking about is the deliberate playing-up of the turbulent lives of specific cyclists, to ensure that they join the ranks of celebrity gossip fodder (think: Brett Favre, Shaq, Tony Hawk, Venus and Serena Williams).
- Cultural Rebranding through Aesthetic Appeals
Unfortunately, many Americans tend to think of bicycling—unlike, say, football— as a sport that attracts wimps and pretentious arty types. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Thirty years ago, video games were almost the exclusive purview of the dorkiest kids in high school, but now we find that all kinds of people play video games. To present bicycling as a pursuit that could involve anyone— even non-dweebs— is important. One possible inroad into this could come in the form of the visual aesthetic of bicycles and clothing. Currently, neither have much in the way of ego-expressive qualities built into their aesthetics. You can glance at a car and instantly have an idea of what kind of person would drive it. Very often, you can have a look at someone’s wardrobe and quickly understand with a good degree of confidence how that person views him/herself. The same should be true with bicycles and bicycle clothing, to ensure that all feel welcome, and a set of options can be procured that are consistent with one’s self-image. Vehicles are a big part of identity in the United States, and work should be done to explore whether expanding the aesthetic dimensions of bikes and clothing can make the pursuit of cycling more appealing to those it currently has no appeal for.
- Transcending Political Barriers through Economic, Health, and Civic Benefits
The following do not address specific cultural barriers, but can be pushed as part of a larger outreach campaign. These elements can serve as ways to offset negatively viewed aspects of bicycling with clearly messaged benefits.
For many people, moral arguments about the merits of bicycling have little weight. For example, individuals who were not persuaded by environmental arguments to drive less were persuaded in the late to thousands to drive less because of rapidly rising fuel costs. Ultimately it is very difficult to make the sorts of moral arguments that bicyclists like to make to those who do not subscribe to the politics or the political views that are central to the rationale that many within the movement subscribe to. It is often easier to convince someone who is not philosophically aligned to engage via another route that more directly affects their personal concerns (which is what a good marketer should always do).
In a suffering economic climate in which unemployment is high, disposable income is decreasing, and there is a generally high level of instability, the argument for bicycles as a primary form of transport can be made more salient through explicit demonstrations of cost-effectiveness. Cars and car maintenance costs are very high, and through proper messaging, arguments can be made that bicycles provide a more effective use of money in transport. Ivan Illich’s 1974 book “Energy and Equity” suggests that the average American spends several hundred extra hours a year working just to own and maintain a car, time that could be spent in other ways (there are obvious complications involved in employing this calculation in a practical setting, but it is interesting nonetheless). It should be noted that economic incentivization may not be effective as a singular strategy; it should be employed in tandem with other methods of promotion.
As the obesity crisis reaches epic proportions, and while demands on American workers put a premium on time, many Americans find it increasingly difficult to find time to exercise. The use of the bicycle as a primary form of transport combines the economic benefits and health benefits in one package, and depending on the distance one has to travel for work and the geographic density, could actually save time. Bicycles can and should be aggressively promoted by bicycle companies as alternatives to gyms, ones that can be seamlessly integrated into one’s work day; instead of spending more time locked in a building, biking gives a person the opportunity to experience the outdoors during a time when he/she would be otherwise trapped in a car. Bicycle companies would be wise to band together and promote this message through advertising on television, magazines, contests, and channels that involve health-conscious consumers. This message would be much more powerful in conjunction with a social networking website that can quickly convert the message from well-intentioned thought to action.
Promoting Economic Revitalization and the Reclaiming of Civic Space
What became stunningly vivid to me during the aforementioned Ride the Drive events, where cars are banished from major streets, is the realization that cars take up an immense amount of real estate in a city—not just in terms of the literal space of the 2-4 lane city streets that cars dominate, but the more subtle psychic space of residents. The knowledge that cars are around forces us to be vigilant at all times when we’re anywhere near a street. There are giant metal behemoths whizzing by at 25-90 miles an hour wherever we go. In shopping areas, we have wait for traffic to pass or we have to go to a crosswalk before we can cross a street to go to a shop. We have to breathe the polluted air and listen to the constant noise of humming motors and honking horns.
Conveying the idea that cars have been instrumental in the decline of public space, the suggestion must be offered that increased use of non-motorized traffic would have the effect of promoting community and the reclaiming of space that was once dominated by motor vehicle traffic. With enough reduction in motor vehicle traffic, or an eventual massive overhaul of the apportionment of street space, it could even be argued that giving children the space to play in front of their own homes will reduce instances of delinquency and other unwholesome activities that detract from city life.
Most importantly, however, work should be done to asses the economic benefits of creating shopping areas in which only minimal traffic is present. There are only a handful of areas in the country like this. In Madison, WI, this area is 6 blocks long and does not allow motor vehicle traffic except for the occasional bus or police car. It is a very lively area filled with people and bicycles, and an area that is much more pleasant and conducive to spending long periods of time than similar areas that cater to cars. If cities can reliably create areas that produce economic benefits through this means, this can be a powerful signal for other cities to also build them and encourage non-motor vehicle traffic. Studies from urban planning should be compiled to understand the impact of pedestrian malls on economic climates.
In addition to legitimating government organizations, it is important to involve organizations like the American Lung Association, groups who aren’t easily categorized into politicized “special interest” groups. The ALA in particular is one that should be greatly concerned about air quality issues; the pollutants stemming from cars have had a far greater deleterious effect on Americans than cigarettes. Other organizations like MADD, the American Heart Association, and Noise-Free America might be interested in collaboration too.
The reason for getting these organizations involved is because social pressures can be very strong incentives for shifts in consumer behavior. For example, cigarette smoking was quite common until organizations like the ALA got involved and created a heavy stigma on smoking. Since then, smoking rates have dropped dramatically, and I’m inclined to think it had less to do with health benefits (especially since obesity rates have gone up) and more to do with these organizations essentially making smokers feel like bad people. The same has happened to some degree to SUV drivers, who increasingly feel some level of shame for being alone in a 6000lb. vehicles on the freeway. It’s not necessarily a pretty strategy, but increased effort in making bicycling feel like a civic responsibility that bestows upon cyclists a “warm glow” of respectability, and which simultaneously tars drivers with a negative stigma might be what it takes to grow the bicycle market. Medical organizations in particular seem like good agents of non-politicized stigma creation.
For cultural reasons, promoting the adoption of bicycles is not going to be an easy sell. Cultural attitudes are notoriously hard to overcome and are ingrained in entire thought patterns. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to believe that overcoming the hurdles can happen through a careful understanding of the cultural barriers and taking active steps towards addressing those barriers through effective marketing strategy. It will take some money, but a lot of work, planning, and relationship-building at the agency and aggregate level.
The above strategies are only a few ways to address the central issues. More effort should be put in my bicycle manufacturers and bike advocacy organizations in crafting strategies that take into account the cultural forms of resistance I have elucidated above. For reasons I have described, they are just as important (maybe more) as pushing for better dedicated bicycle infrastructure.
Do you have good ideas on how to address the cultural barriers to bicycle growth? Any important cultural barriers I have missed? Please let me know in the comments.
1 National Bicycle Dealers Association. “U.S. Bicycle Market Overview,” 2008.
2 The comparison of this particular theme is one that reminds me strongly of the origins of America’s attitude towards its drug policy. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading up on the economic aspects of American’s longstanding (and largely failed) war on narcotics, largely because understanding how this war has been executed vividly demonstrates how ineffective demonstrations of brute strength are against all known economic and marketing theory. Yet, it’s hard for anyone who has spent any time reading about this topic to walk away without the feeling that generalizations about the politics of drug users had a major impact on how policy has played out. The use of drugs during the 60s and 70s was associated with liberals, hippies, intellectuals, and minority groups. All their talking about revolution and social upheaval was not an association that, say, the Nixon administration was eager to be bedfellows with— regardless of what objective studies said about these drugs. I strongly suspect that in a similar way bicycles are maligned in an unwarranted fashion by those on the conservative end of the political spectrum.
What’s in an ‘A’?
I spent two years of my academic career teaching marketing. I found the work in many ways life-affirming and intriguing; there was something genuinely fun about stimulating young minds and opening them to new ways of thinking.
But from a more scientific angle, one of the most interesting aspects of my teaching gig was in examining the educational system itself, and how it affected students. For example, I would take note of students’ behavior in class, use that to make informal predictions on how they would ultimately fare on the exams and in the course. I think every teacher ends up doing this, whether they realize it or not. Is the kid who never shows up to class going to pass? Is the bookish girl who clearly spends hours on her homework going to ace the final? For me, it proved to be a compelling exercise in hypothesis testing, one that forced me to take a hard look at how students are served— or possibly harmed—- by the design of the educational system.
For a long time, I held the suspicion that there is a fundamental difference between ‘A’ students and ‘B’ students. In contrast with the common wisdom of our age, my hypothesis was not that ‘A’ students are necessarily smarter, harder working, or more capable; I suspected that for a significant portion of the student population, ‘A’ and ‘B’ grades are simply indicators of different student personality types. That is, my thought was that certain types of people thrive in the design of the standard educational environment and thus get good grades, and some are not stimulated by it, and don’t.
My views began taking form in high school, when I noticed repeating trends in the way that my ‘A’ friend and ‘B’ friends approached the world. More to the point, I saw that some of the sharpest and most intelligent people I knew were not ‘A’ students; no colleges were banging down their door to gain access to them, and no prestigious scholarships were forthcoming. These were people with strong critical thinking skills, an interest in a broad array of topics outside of school material, and who had genuine curiosity about the world, yet it somehow didn’t translate in their academic lives. To be clear, I don’t mean to imply that all the ‘B’ and ‘C’ students I knew were like this; only some— but this number wasn’t small enough to ignore.
Flash forward 15 years.
In my marketing class, there was a normal distribution of grades given out, following a schedule of A, AB, B, BC, C, D, and F (the AB and BCs are akin to A-, B+, B- and C+). Most students received Cs. Naturally, I was able to best conduct my informal experiment on the most vocal and active members of my class. Within this subset of vocal students, both my ‘A’ and ‘B’ students on the whole asked me a lot of questions. But I noticed a distinction in the types of questions these two groups asked, and how they asked them. The ‘A’ students liked to email me. They tended to ask me about details of fulfilling assignment requirements and how one should go about doing specific things within a marketing context. Their curiosity, in many ways, seemed to be bounded by the demands of the class. They also tended to fixate on administrative issues, like how exactly grades were calculated, and the time allowed during exams. ‘A’ students seemed to like having straightforward rules and procedures, and seemed to be uncomfortable with ambiguous contexts, or unexpected surprises.
My ‘B’ students, by contrast, were much less likely to email me. They liked to show up to my office hours, and especially liked to talk to me after class. They tended to puzzle over big picture concerns, posited ‘what-if’ scenarios, and generally seemed to be somewhat fascinated by complexity and possibility. Yet, when it came down to details, they weren’t all that interested, and were even turned off by all the nitty-gritty stuff that seemed to compose the bulk of the class. They felt that these practical ideas were not all that important, and that they sucked the life out of the subject matter. ‘B’ students often complained that the tests asked too much about obscure things, and they felt that essay tests would have been a much better way to test student knowledge.
Though this data is admittedly informal and my interpretation subject to my own biases, I am inclined to believe that the grading system makes some students appear inferior when in fact, they are just different. One might argue that ‘B’ students really are inferior in some way since they obviously don’t put out the effort to make the ‘A’ like the ‘A’ students. This might be technically correct, but I am less confident about saying that this would be problematic in a real-world job scenario. In fact, I would wager that many ‘B’ students are more creative in problem-solving than ‘A’ students, while many ‘A’ students are more details-oriented. Neither of these characteristics is better; they are just different, and each would offer different benefits depending on the situation.
I have little doubt that the metrics academia uses to evaluate performance are often misguided and backwards— to the point that they actively undermine the purpose of our institutions. Every student at some point feels slighted by their grade on some exam or in some class, feeling that the score doesn’t fairly measure either their knowledge or the effort they expended. In fact, this feeling was so prominent in my classes that I spent many afternoons in my office hours counseling students on not equating their identity or capabilities with their grades.
Yet, as we all know, grades are important. They’re important because we can’t reach into peoples’ heads and instantly determine what they know. That’s really a shame. But what’s even more of a shame is that in my experience, grades can greatly misrepresent what people’s abilities are, and can create in one a false sense that a grade represents one’s ability. I am reminded of a quote from the ponderous book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
The idea that the majority of students attend a university for an education independent of the degree and grades is a little hypocrisy everyone is happier not to expose. Occasionally some students do arrive for an education but [the] rote and mechanical nature of the institution soon converts them to a less idealistic attitude. [Many students are] completely conditioned to work for a grade rather than for the knowledge the grade was supposed to represent.
a brief look at the ripple effects caused by the car in the American economy, culture, and society
Socio-Cultural and Socio-Historic View of American Streets, and the Decline of Streets as Social Space
Many academic takes on the decline of community in American society suggest that that the moment it all started to go awry was when television entered the scene. It was the advent of television, it is argued, that caused people to never leave their homes and to instead sit alone on their couches, bathing themselves in the glowing blue light of the “idiot box.” More recently, an author named Stan Cox seriously points the blame for the decline in American society to the invention of air conditioning (it seems like a stretch, but Cox makes some good arguments).
I think there is some merit to both of these arguments. But much of the blame, in my view, is the advent of the car. It’s obvious to anyone who has spent any time in the United States that it is a nation that is firmly entrenched in car culture. Cars heavily integrate into the American psyche, and have come to serve as a central metaphor for a lot of things about the way we view ourselves. Cars are viewed as symbols of independence, convenience, status, freedom, class, and success; beyond this, the car has come to be equated with these things.
But it’s not really the car itself that is problematic, but the way in which the car transformed the landscape of our roads and neighborhoods. The reasons for this are not entirely accidental, but are due to a number of historical factors that involve the way this nation was built up. In the United States, most of our streets were built after the invention of the car, unlike many places in Europe and Asia, where the streets existed long before cars were introduced. As a result, American roads were built specifically for car traffic, and with the needs of car traffic in mind.
Travel to places like India, and you will immediately see that people have an entirely different relationship to the road than people in the United States. In India, the road is a place for walking, doing business, hanging out, playing soccer, and selling vegetables. Dogs, cats, and cows walk around in the streets like they own the place. American streets were once like that, as this fascinating clip of Market Street in San Francisco, from 1906, suggests:
Since 1906, cars have commandeered streets, and as such, you will never see people trying to cross Market Street on foot now (except on designated crosswalks), and you would never see bicyclists riding in such a carefree manner. That’s because over time, due to the simple law of the jungle that might is right compounded with the early 1900s understanding that people in cars were clearly more important than people who traveled on foot, people quickly became attuned to the idea that streets are car spaces. This an attitude that as Americans, we all carry with us. We feel uncomfortable walking in the street. As bikers, we feel like second-class citizens who are only borrowing space and who should get out of the way as soon as a car comes near us. Heaven forbid that we allow children to play in the street with their friends—in fact, one of the very first lessons we teach children is about looking both ways before crossing a street. The message that has been written on our cultural frame—the operating system that undergirds our brains— is that streets are places for cars. Cars rule this space. If you are not in a car, you do not belong there.
Unlike many other parts of the world, large sections of the United States were built up after the advent of the automobile. More importantly, companies like Ford and General Motors were instrumental in much of the national and regional dialogue about how city planning should occur. Posing the argument that the design of American cities should revolve around the demands of the car, car companies suggested that catering to the car would ensure that Americans could bask in the fruits of economic prosperity. As a result, our nation became dependent on the car for transport around its towns. It was a rather uphill battle, for example, to get from one’s suburban home to the grocery store or the hardware store, which due to a new vision of urban planning, made these places miles away instead of being around the corner. It doesn’t require much imagination to think about the broader impacts of this historical decision:
- Marginalization of people and non-motorized vehicles on streets
- A high level of dependence by US populace on motor vehicles for everyday needs— a perennial problem for the poor and unemployed, since they need a car to get a job and need a job to get a car
- Increased fossil fuel consumption, which has led to higher levels of air pollution, greater traffic on streets, and almost certainly greater levels of global political instability due to oil dependencies
- Encouragement of sedentary lifestyles
There are many, many other side effects borne from the American car culture, but what is interesting is how completely our attitudes about the car have integrated into our views of what our daily life looks like, and how it should be. Think about this: there are a significant number of people in the US who do not step foot outside of a building on a typical day even though they travel around town. The car has become such an integral part of our lives that not having one can have severe consequences on one’s well-being, whether that involves practical issues like getting to work or going to the grocery store, or whether that means psychological issues like self-esteem, self-worth, and being able to maintain social circles.
Another worrying side effect of this privileging of cars is the fact that communities and neighborhoods do not have public spaces. For example, think about your own neighborhood. If you wanted to have spontaneous chit-chat with your neighbors, where would you do this? If your children want to play with others, how can they do this without going either formal mechanisms like asking someone to play, or without stepping into someone’s else’s yard? In India, people and children hang out literally in the middle of the street in front of people’s houses. It’s an open and neutral space that isn’t on anyone’s property (think of the alleyway that Hank and his friends use on the TV show King of the Hill). No one owns it, and it’s no one’s home turf. The neutrality makes a difference; there’s a difference between hanging out at Bill’s house and hanging out in a neutral area in front of Bill’s house. There’s simply no place for this kind of impromptu and neutral-space interaction here in the U.S.
The lack of available space makes the conditions for getting to know your neighbors and for socializing with them hard. Occasionally, some neighborhoods have a block party. This involves someone from the neighborhood calling the city and asking them to block off the street to car traffic. Invariably, this creates a pretty lively space. As a thought experiment, just close your eyes and imagine for a moment what your street would look like if it was permanently blocked off from car traffic. Do you believe people would spend more time outside if it was?
Here is a Snuggy-like product that I came across at a local hobby store. See anything odd about it? Thanks to the shoddy production work on the box, the woman appears not to be wearing a comfortable robe, but a piece of military-issue MARPAT digital camouflage.
Incompetence of this caliber is hard to excuse in a competitive market— especially when the product you are trying to sell is clearly a shameless rip-off of another, more popular product.
on jumping the hurdles on the road of authenticity
I spent last weekend in a place called Door County. People from all over the upper Midwest travel to this area of Northern Wisconsin for its natural beauty, bucolic charm, and for something called “fish boils.” A fish boil is exactly what it sounds like— a dinner consisting primarily of two pieces of boiled whitefish, served alongside a couple boiled potatoes and a couple boiled onions. In the world of Door County, this remarkably simple set of unseasoned (with the exception of salt) ingredients dunked into hot water can run you upwards of $20 per person. What’s more remarkable is that people come in droves, cash in hand, to get a taste of the famous Door County fish boils, which in description does not sound all that appetizing.
It’s hard to understand why people are so eager to shell out what seems like a lot of money for inexpensive food that could easily be prepared at home. After all, it really does not require any level of culinary expertise to boil food. It’s also worth noting that despite the ease with which a total novice cook could boil a dinner, boiling is probably one of the least popular forms of cookery. And, I should add, I’ve met exactly zero people who have confessed that they crave eating whole onions cooked in any manner, much less boiled.
One of the first things people will tell you about fish boils is that it isn’t so much a meal as it is “an experience.” This is hard to dispute on account of the pre-dining ritual that occurs as a central part of the Door County fish boil. A large kettle filled with water is heated by fire as a group of diners stand around and watch. A so-called “boilmaster” ceremoniously dumps onions, potatoes, fish, and salt into the bubbling brew. After 10 minutes of heating, kerosene is thrown onto the fire, causing the fire to momentarily flare up in a visceral and visually arresting manner. The rapid increase in heat causes the mixture in the kettle to boil over. Apparently this flushes the fish of its oils (it’s unclear to me why eliminating the oils is a good thing, but the raging fire is fun to watch). The food is then taken out of the water and served.
When probed about it, an employee at a small town visitor bureau confessed to me that people who live in Door County area don’t eat fish boil, and many have never even tried it once despite the fact that outsiders came from hundreds of miles away to get it. Some locals who have eaten fish boil, I was told, did it under the pretense of “doing that touristy thing” in order to understand what the hubbub was about. These revelations do not come much as a surprise.1 Lots of places have things they are famous for that only outsiders appreciate. When I lived in the Bay Area, I found that hardly anyone who had lived there for any period of time had spent an afternoon riding cable cars, going to Fisherman’s Wharf, or riding the boat to Alcatraz. Consigned to being tourist elements, these things are almost entirely out of the psychic purview of the average Bay Area denizen (except when relatives come into town and want to see them!).
Nevertheless, there are good reasons why certain things become famous. Just as the cable cars of San Francisco are unique, the fish boils of Door County are also unique. And it’s not just that these things are unique; they actually factored into the traditional cultures of these places at one time. They are sold as authentic expressions of regional culture. The fish boil was a tradition of Scandinavian settlers of Northern Wisconsin, and as you might figure from a meal of boiled onions and fish, this tradition was born out of extreme poverty and lack of food availability. It had long fallen out of common practice in the area, except for events like church fundraising dinners (again, a context where frugality was a virtue). It was only after a businessman who owned a place called the Viking Grill decided to package it and market it to tourists in the early 1960s that it gained popularity, and moved from the province of outdated tradition to that of the tourist trap, entirely bypassing the possibility of being a normal food for normal people living in the region.
What is fascinating about all this to me is how easy it is to get people to implicitly believe they can’t have the “real” experience without consuming certain things:
If you didn’t see the Pyramids, you didn’t really go to Egypt. If you didn’t see the Eiffel Tower, you didn’t really go to Paris. If you didn’t experience a fish boil, you didn’t really go to Door County. These sorts of hurdles extend far beyond simple tourism in half-serious cultural truisms that we’ve heard repeatedly. Some examples:
- If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.
- If you’re not drinking Guinness, you aren’t drinking.
- If you don’t have children, you cannot fully experience the joys of life.
Here, specific acts of consumption, through various means (sometimes deliberate acts of marketing, sometimes through more obscure mechanisms), become socially-mandated pre-requisites for entry into an entire category of human experience. At that point, to partake in the consumption category without partaking in the specific consumption pre-requisite almost becomes an act of fraud, or perhaps worse, alarming ignorance.
As denizens of a post-modern world, seeking out authentic experiences is an all-consuming pastime, but what’s truly remarkable is how we’ve been trained to collect proof of our authentic experiences in the form of photographs, souvenirs, and artfully retold stories of our times spent doing things in these exotic environments. If you ask me, the reason why Door County visitors go to fish boils has nothing to do with people wanting to try boiled fish per se; it’s about wanting to experience an authentic tradition, which serves as an insurance policy against the possibility of doubts being raised (possibly by oneself) about whether one actually went to Door County. Not went, really— went went.
1 Something about the way this tradition has been marketed in Door County literature has the feel of a “tourist trap.” For starters, it seems awfully expensive for something that is supposedly a tradition actively practiced by locals— especially when the foods involved are inexpensive and cooked in a manner that should be incredibly cheap. Also the fish boil comes up way too frequently in literature about Door County, as if a concerted effort is being made to hype up the fish boil as something really special, a sort of anachronism whose bygone quality defines Door County as a whole. People talk about San Francisco sourdough and New England clam chowder and New Orleans Po’ Boy sandwiches, but despite the historic import of these foods in regional tradition, they aren’t employed as central metaphors in nearly every single piece of literature about these places. And then there’s the highly ritualistic aspect of the fish boil. The fact that it is an event that diners are specifically asked to make reservations for and told to come 25 minutes early to witness is unusual. It transforms a solitary meal into a community event, just another dinner into a highly photograph-able spectacle, one that is be easy for people to showcase to their friends at home. The roaring fire— itself a genuinely quaint symbol of an authentic retreat from modern life— couldn’t but help in this context.
how categorization holds us hostage
Sometimes the post-modern world is a weird place to be. The things we do are so pregnant with symbolism that it’s hard to do anything that doesn’t appear to say more about you than you’d mean for it to. My girlfriend Huan-Hua’s birthday was a couple months ago and we held a very enjoyable party at our house, where about 20 people showed up. What typically happens in situations like this is that I’m expected to be in charge of the music. I can’t stand being in charge of the music.
There’s too much scrutiny and expectation associated with that job, too much anxiety associated with failing to match the playlist with the crowd’s prevailing sense of aesthetics, or matching the music to the crowd’s mood. Some people love doing this because they can showcase their impeccable tastes and impress people with their musical knowledge. I envy these people for the unabashed way in which they are able to share their tastes without a neurotic fear of judgment. However, I am unfortunately not in this camp.
Ideally, what I’d like is to just put something on and walk away without having to worry about it. In a world of musical diversity and genre-fication, I feel that the act of putting on a track by [artist X] will have a symbolic social value that is necessarily greater than the value that I personally ascribe to the act of putting on [artist X]. For example, if I am playing DJ at a party, and I happen to put on something by, say, New Order (not a bad selection for a party, in my opinion) I see this act as primarily fulfilling a functional purpose— filling the air with something that is tonally aligned with a festive event. It will serve as suitable background music, and won’t get attract too much attention to itself. But in this post-modern era, a New Order song is not just music. It is part of a genre. That genre is attached to many symbolic meanings. Those symbolic meanings are then attached to the DJ. The DJ then is responsible for the “statement” that these meanings make.
On more than one occasion, I put on an album by John Zorn, who is one of my favorite jazz musicians. His band Masada makes music that is alternately pleasant Middle-Eastern/Klezmer-inflected jazz music and less frequently, crazy, off-the-wall free jazz that perhaps encapsulates the most ridiculous negative stereotypes of what jazz music is (e.g. “It’s just a bunch of people playing random noises without a beat! I could do that!”). When it’s the former, it’s very good, energetic, organic, and sophisticated party music. When it’s the latter, it’s chaotic, unnerving, and immensely distracting. I try to delete songs with avante-garde instrumental wailing from my playlists. Of course, one night I failed, and I felt rather sheepish amidst a crowd of befuddled 20- and 30-somethings being sonically battered by cacophonous screeches of atonal, arrhythmic saxophone. This, for having made a bizarre public statement that I had actually studiously avoided making.
My friend Tim suggests that the best way to avoid this problem is to divest control: put on a radio station. But even then the selection of the station itself is an editorial process that could reflect back on you. Short of dumping the DJ job on someone else, it seems there are few escapes— though I can think of at least two ways out of it; 1) at the start of the party, choose a radio station through a transparently randomized process, or 2) profess total ignorance about anything related to music.
The first of these options, you have to admit, is pretty ridiculous. The statement that would result from you making a spectacle of randomly selecting a radio station is very likely more damaging to your image than you putting on a station representing any particular genre (though putting on a smooth jazz station— aka “quiet storm”— would be one genre that could potentially be even worse).
Professing total ignorance is a route that I’ve seen a lot of people do in the past. It’s a good escape hatch to use when necessary. The typical sophisticate has a strange tendency to want to be knowledgeable about everything. Or at least appear like they are, even if they’re not. It seems important to maintain one’s currency in certain matters (popular television programming, movies, music, politics, alcohol, current events, etc.); It keeps you in the conversation and demonstrates that your tastes mirror those of others— very important for maintaining social standing. However, sometimes the trump card is admitting ignorance.
Admitting ignorance basically does one of two things: either it suggests that the ignorant person is above the fray, or it suggests that they are an outsider who can be schooled. The first of these two leaves someone open for assault on their tastes since it implies that categorical dismissal of a topic (e.g. music) is the result of a selection of something else that’s superior (e.g. film). However, the second leaves one unassailable on grounds of taste. After all, how can you criticize someone’s consumption habits if they come clean upfront that they really don’t know what they’re talking about? Not even the most callous of record store employees would criticize on those grounds.
Playing ignorant is a great strategy to use if it’s true. But on the other hand, pleading ignorance can also be a dishonest way of preemptively truncating any line of questioning that might legitimately address issues of taste. That is, someone who actually knows something about music might, when questioned, demur on grounds that actually, er, they don’t know anything, huh huh. It’s almost a sort of nuclear war of cultural capital where you talk a good game until you see the stockpile of weapons the other guy has, and then you back down and pretend that you weren’t really planning to fight for real. It’s actually this strategy that I’ve seen a lot of. No matter how hollow it might ring to me, somehow I always find it kind of a charming tack.
One way that marketers have cracked the puzzle is not by defying the tenets of post-modernism through a refusal to play the game, but by actively embracing it. Take diversity to an extreme level. Jack radio has done pretty much this. Stations with this format don’t commit to a genre at all. They just play, in their words, “what we want,” which apparently means that they don’t pay particular attention to genre, they don’t pay attention to era. Everything is just thrown together into a blender and spat out over the radio. Jack radio has been gaining popularity since it started a few years back, and for good reason: kids of this generation are not as committed to genre as they once were. A couple decades ago, metal kids listened to metal, punk kids listened to punk, and rap kids listened to rap. I can remember a few years ago when the definitive “indie” music review site Pitchfork reviewed an Eminem album; it was the first non-indie album the site ever reviewed. The backlash was fierce. Its readers were incredibly upset that this site, which was ostensibly a champion of indie music was now reviewing a mainstream rap album. Accusations of selling-out were bandied around and emailed to the site with alarming frequency. It’s hard to imagine this happening now; indie rock kids now brag about listening to both indie music and top 40 radio. Many simply don’t make a hard distinction about the two. Music is music.
A Jack station might be a convenient ‘out’ for the situation I was describing. It both offloads the DJ’ing onto someone else (the station), and it’s hard to criticize on genre grounds. It would have been a good solution. But here’s the one I went with: I didn’t play music at all.
using marketing strategies to fix a mass transit system
Preliminary Comments on Observing the BART Transit System
Over the 10 years I spent in the Bay Area, I spent many hours using the BART mass transit system. As a result of my own experiences and my observations of others in BART trains and stations, I spent considerable time thinking about the goals of the system, and how rider experiences could be improved to make the system more effective, flexible, and in keeping with principles of usability.
I must admit that the reason I embarked on this article is that I find BART, from top to bottom, a frustrating transit system to use, and it in many ways is the perfect example of a wasted opportunity— so much so that it is really an embarrassment for an area of the country that prides itself on technological leadership and progressive thought. At every turn, the BART system is set up in a way that discourages ridership, and makes it ridiculously hard for passengers to do things that should be very simple. What follows are observations I have made about BART, culled from years of experience riding it, along with some marketing strategies that I think will help mitigate some of the frustrations of using BART.
Implications of BART Design and History
First off, it’s important to get some history. BART was constructed as a system that is unlike most mass transit systems. Unlike intra-city (within a single city) transport system like New York, Tokyo, or Hong Kong, BART is an inter-city (between cities) transport system. This has several implications for ridership: 1) station distribution of the BART system is geographically wide, but with low density; 2) because of the geographical coverage, rides can be quite lengthy; 3) riders are more likely to employ multiple forms of transport in their journeys, and 4) passengers traveling longer distances or going to airports may be carrying baggage. That means that while BART travels further than most other subway systems, it is also likely to be harder to get to a station, a trip is significantly more likely to involve several legs involving different types of transport, and riders will have to wait longer between the arrival of two trains. These facts already pose a psychological barrier to potential ridership, so it is important that if administrators want to encourage BART usage, that central and peripheral annoyances be minimized; after all, any excuse a rider can find not to take BART, they likely will employ.
Observation #1 – Lack of Proper Maps, Signage, and Human Communication
- The BART system lacks an adequate number of maps, and also offers poor information quality on existing maps. At times, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a map; many platforms only contain one, and there is often only one on an entire BART train. In addition, if one is unfamiliar with subway maps, it is difficult time figuring out how to get from point A to point B. Numerous experiences I have had assisting disoriented BART patrons has shown me that the reading of existing BART subway maps requires the development of some intuition that visitors often do not have.
- The confusion of navigating is exacerbated if one not understand the geography of the Bay Area, or if one only has a limited understanding of it (ex. “Dublin is north of Fremont”). Not all trains go to all places, so it is important to understand which ones go where, and where transfers needs to happen.
- Given the general lack of signage, we might expect conductors to give helpful messages over the intercoms about where passengers should transfer and whether the train is currently at a transfer point. In fact, it is often impossible to understand what is being said on the intercom; conductors are inconsistent in their clarity and the speaker quality is generally quite poor.
- Too often, when one is in a train, it is hard to figure out what station the train is at if one is not actively keeping track, or if one does not have a visual sense for what particular stations look like. Often, the only indication is a small sign posted on the wall of the station if you look out the train window long enough to find it. These signs are surprisingly difficult to spot, and are likely be hard to see for those with poor eyesight.
Solutions to Observation #1:
- I propose that in addition to showing a geographical depiction of cities, BART’s map should be shown as a linear continuum to eliminate unnecessary or confusing information. Currently, it is confusing to know where to go when all the signs just say things like ‘Platform 1’ and ‘North-bound train.’ This presupposes the BART rider already has previous understanding of the station layout and geographical sense of the Bay Area. A simple linear map that displays how each location on the BART system is related to each other place would allow a rider to intuitively understand how one could get from point A to point B.
In the above picture (where numbers are used to represent cities), someone at point 7 on the map can easily see how he could get to 23, without having to process geographical information.
- At the various platforms within stations, patrons should have a clear understanding of the direction the train is traveling. This can be done by presenting maps where stations that the train will not be going to are grayed out:
Assuming that lines are not rotated on the same platform from day to day, the floor outside the platform or the train itself can be color-coded to ensure that patrons understand which line they are embarking upon.
- Dynamic information offered within the train should be employed to help passengers understand where they are currently, and where the train will be going next. This is illustrated in the graphic below, where the static yellow light in circle 15 indicates current location, while the flashing orange light in circle 16 indicates the next station the train will stop at:
- Instead of having conductors speak, an automated computer voice should broadcast the arrival at each station (ex. “This is the EMBARCADERO STATION.”). This will ensure consistency and audibility in the announcement.
Observation #2 – Inflexible Payment System and Intermodality Issues
- There are currently countless distinct public transit systems in the Bay Area: BART, CalTrain, MUNI, AC Transit, WestCAT, SamTrans, Golden Gate Transit, and the Oakland Ferry, to name a few. Interestingly, most of these have different payment forms. In the past I have had commutes involving AC Transit, BART, and MUNI in a single day; I have known people who have had even more complex daily routines. Not surprisingly, I have personally dealt with and watched others deal with innumerable transit cards, having to keep constant tabs on whether they have credit on those cards, and having to search around for these cards when the time comes to present them.
- The BART card, which gives a passenger access to the trains, is made of a flimsy piece of magnetic paper. They are easily bent, and will de-magnetize if one happens to place one next to one’s mobile phone. Bent or de-magnetized tickets are rejected by the turnstiles.
- BART attendants aren’t particularly concerned about helping passengers with problem cards (a friend once told an uninterested attendant that her card, which still had $5 on it, wasn’t working. The attendant took it, said that it was “too old” and then told her to buy a new one. Is 1.5 years a long time in BART years?
Solutions to Observation #2
- If a major goal of mass transit is to alleviate traffic congestion and reduce pollution, implementing a universal payment system across different modes of public transit is crucial. A large part of the problem with intermodal transport (i.e. multiple different forms of transport within a single trip) currently is the sense that the trip is not integrated. This creates a sensation of hassle and disconnectedness between different legs of the trip. Simplifying the process of intermodality through a single payment card that works for all systems encourages passengers to view the entire commute or transport process as interconnected and logical, rather than disparate and frustrating. This improvement would likely result in increased system throughput, reduced frustration, and greater levels of pre-payment. Admittedly, there are bureaucratic hurdles to jump, but they are ones worth jumping for the good of the system as a whole and for the goals of that system.
- If institution of a new payment system is possible, I would suggest an RFID system in which funds can deducted simply by flicking a sturdy card (or specially-enabled wristwatch) at a receiver. This would drastically reduce the incidence of lost or damaged cards, and would avoid issues created by finicky ticket machines.
- If it is technologically possible, being able to add funding to the card from a place other than the station, would alleviate the frustration of having to wait in line to add funding to the card, and would encourage patrons to purchase high-value tickets in advance in more convenient settings.
- It is worth noting that mass transit systems in other regions (Hong Kong, for example) is set up such that you can use tickets to purchase goods other than rides on the mass transit, like food at convenient stores. Having additional perks and functionality would render a customer more likely to keep a BART ticket around and in use.
Observation #3 – BART Material Construction Promotes Perception of Poor Sanitary Conditions and Visual Disorder
- In my own informal research, when asked about their opinions of BART, passengers’ comments often begin with a negative description of the visual aesthetic and olfactory experience of the trains. A large component of both complaints can be traced to the material construction of the trains. Namely, it is not advisable for a public transit system that carries about 2.5 million of passengers every week to be equipped with upholstered seats and carpeted floors. These materials retain dirt, sweat, and grime, and are near impossible to keep clean. These materials present an unnecessary maintenance expense, a sanitary concern, and unpleasant visual and olfactory experiences.
- Furthermore, it has become clear from recent events that fabrics such as those in BART trains can be vectors for unwanted pests as bedbugs, which poses a problem not only for BART itself, but for the entire region and beyond.
- In addition, the color pattern of the seats are somewhat dated, and easily show discoloration from dirt.
Solutions to Observation #3:
- Shallow as it may appear to be, initial sensory impressions (affective perception) are one of the strongest drivers of customer attitudes. Visually impressing patrons and preventing unpleasant odors will greatly encourage ridership at the aggregate level, and will create the climate for a more pleasurable BART experience. My advice is to abandon upholstery in favor of hard plastic or vinyl, and remove the carpet from the floor. While this may be an expensive overhaul, the cost savings of maintenance and the appreciation from passengers will ultimately pay off in the long run. It will be much cheaper to maintain, it will smell better after constant use, will not appear as dirty, and the selection of an appropriate color will be visually much more appealing than the current choice dirty teal.
Observation #4 – Suboptimal Seat Arrangement and Inflexibility towards Passenger Heterogeneity
- Current usage patterns on BART suggest that the arrangement of the seats in is awkward, inefficient, and inflexible. Some seats face forwards and others face backwards; some seats are placed perpendicular to the train, while others are parallel; and some seats face other seats, facilitating awkward views of strangers. The odd arrangement suggests some design rationale behind it, but observation suggests that it is an ineffective design.
- From my observations, the BART cars are neither convenient for regular passengers, nor accommodating for special situations. In fact, the heterogeneity of passengers needs on any given train upsets the order in such a way as to inconvenience all the passengers on the train. For example, a bicyclist’s awkward but logistically necessary position of standing in front of doorways with his bicycle jutting into the passageway is uncomfortable for both the bicyclist and disembarking passengers. A passenger returning from SFO airport is forced to place his/her baggage on seats or in aisles, making the patron feel self-conscious on crowded trains.
- While BART does allow passengers to bring bikes, it is prohibited at the times that one would most likely want to bring a bike on— during normal commuting hours. BART has been adding bicycle parking units outside some BART stations, where patrons can store bikes at the station in a special holding container for a nominal fee. Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem of those who need bikes on both ends of their daily commute.
Solutions to Observation #4:
- I suggest the rearrangement of seats to maximize seating capacity in most cars, but to set aside [a] special car[s] with different seating arrangements that better accommodates people with packages, baggage, and bicycles. This will account for the heterogeneity in passenger needs, and optimize the customer experience for all by creating designated areas for those whose needs are similar. Obviously, statistics on usage patterns involving means and standard deviations of customer types will need to be collected, but implementing a change based on these statistics will create a better customer experience once optimized for heterogeneity.
- The restriction of bikes during commuting hours is symptomatic of the poor design of BART cars. Because BART was designed to be an inter-city rather than intra-city transport method, stations are not geographically scattered around cities. Because of this, and given the rapid increase in bicycle popularity, BART should encourage patrons wishing to integrate bicycles into their commutes; doing so would encourage BART ridership for commutes, and discourage automobile usage. By designing and setting aside special cars for bicyclists, BART can better serve a segment that is currently not being served very well—a segment, it is worth noting, that is growing.
Observation #5 – Confusing Station Layout and Orientation
- BART stations’ post-modern aesthetic unfortunately thwarts usability and intuitiveness. Some BART stations are designed such that they seem to actively thwart passengers from catching trains. For example, in the 12th street / Oakland City Center station, for a passenger to switch trains, he must climb up one set of stairs to another level, and then climb down a different set of stairs to access the second BART platform. This is despite the fact that the first set of stairs actually passes by the other level; for some reason, access to that floor from the first set of stairs is blocked.
- In certain stations, the passenger standing areas are placed against the outer walls (Design A in the diagram below) rather than in the center between the two opposite train tracks (Design B). This means that if one selects the wrong platform upon entry—which is not unlikely given the poor signage— he/she will have to run back up the flight of stairs and run down another flight of stairs to get to the other platform; in Design B, passengers can access access either train from the contiguous standing area.
Solutions to Observation #5:
- Architectural issues like this are difficult to correct without incurring great expense and inconvenience to passengers. Ideally, investing time and money into creating optimal designs would have been implemented in the initial stages of creating the system; though the time has passed to employ this strategy for existing stations, it should be used for the construction of new stations.
- However, given that the time has passed for optimizing the architectural design, the next best solution is to creating signage that allows patrons entering the platform area to select the correct platform.
The observations and proposals I describe are methods that specifically attempt to create a more positive experience for riders on BART, which will not only create a more committed and loyal customer-base, but will contribute to other social goals within the Bay Area, such as reducing vehicular traffic, congestion, and air and noise pollution.
BART’s slogan is “BART… and you’re there!”, a phrase that sounds great on paper. Yet, anyone who’s ever ridden BART knows well that BART is anything but that simple. With its few stations positioned in San Francisco and Oakland, as well as places like Fruitvale and Bay Point, you can make a decent argument that BART’s geographical reaches are significant; still, what it means in that slogan to ‘be there’ is clearly up to debate. Sure, you can get from the town of Orinda to the city San Francisco relatively easily if you happen to already be at the originating BART station, but it’s rarely convenient to get either to your originating BART station or from the destination BART station to wherever it is that you’re trying to go. This often means that a range of transport is necessitated for a given trip. You might need to drive or walk to a BART station, take the BART, and hop on a bus to your final destination. Or you might need to get on CalTrain, catch the BART, and hail a taxi for the last leg of the trip. “BART… and you’re there!” is a phrase that not only rings untrue and hollow for the bulk of passengers, but serves mostly as a reminder for how long and tedious it is to get anywhere using BART and Bay Area mass transit in general (which probably explains in large part the ridiculous amount of traffic to be found on any given stretch of highway in the Bay Area during any given time, particularly around commute times). Better to improve the actual system than to send out hollow reminders of system’s technological prowess.
ever wonder why you can’t have a normal discussion online?
Try having a serious dialogue online. No really, try it. Not the breezy kind of conversation with a lot of ‘lols’ embedded in it; the kind where you actually have to debate ideological, conceptual, or socio-cultural points. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
How’d that go? If it’s anything like any of the thousands of conversations I’ve seen take place or have been personally involved in, it not only goes nowhere, but it breaks down into the basest forms of pettiness, cattiness, and personal degradation pretty darn quick, and at a rate that few “real life” conversations do. I’ve long noticed this perplexing and frustrating tendency, and I’ve tried for a long time to grapple with why this is. It’s important to look at, because we look to the internet to serve as some sort of nexus of minds, where finally all the limitations of geography, language, prejudice, and diffuse, unwieldy information sets can be pushed aside for high causes. There are some places, like Wikipedia, where it somehow comes together in a meaningful way, but even there, there are bitter and fiery debates raging behind the scenes, the kind where people actually would do physical harm to each other if they could.
It’s easy to say that people online are just jerks, and have the license to be jerks via their anonymity, but I noticed that it’s not always just a lack of civility that creates these trainwrecks. After analyzing and carefully considering a sample of 150 conversational disasters, I have amassed the following list of 13 unlucky reasons why online discussions get messy. This list might help you think about the level of productivity that online discussion offers, and perhaps will force you to consider whether it’s worth your time engaging in dialogue online.
1) limited information signal
Consider how you make sense of the people around you. It’s not just their language per se that helps you understand them. It’s also a function of many other pieces of information, including gestures and tones. A simple sentence can have hundreds of meanings; it’s the form and context that help us whittle down the plethora of meanings to a smaller consideration set. Without these additional fragments of data, it’s harder to create meta-order from just words. Perhaps to draw an analogy: it’s one thing to see a photo of Niagara Falls. It’s another thing entirely to see it in person, hear the water crashing, and smell its gentle aroma. The online environment does not well convey the weight of a real-life interpersonal dialgoue.
2) translation from aural (ephemeral) experience to visual (permanent) experience
There is permanence in the written word that the spoken word simply does not have. We can revisit the written word again and again, repeatedly absorbing meaning within words. Another thing that seems to happen is that the more we read something, the most we read into it as well. That is, in conversation that is of a more serious or non-trivial nature, it is easier to build layers of unwanted meaning within our conversations. It is easier to find hints of hostility, to find subtle attacks, to find backhanded insults. Often these hidden messages aren’t even there, but are the result of our need for order and meaning. As humans, we often look for patterns, and ascribe meaning to them when we find them— even when they aren’t real. By contrast, a spoken conversation does not have a high level of latency in the dialogue; there is little time to build new meanings into anything that isn’t understood the first time around.
3) inability to complete and translate each others’ thoughts in a dialectical fashion
One of the biggest differences I see between written and spoken communication between people is the loss of the dialectical back-and-forth in the former. In a conversation, the direction of the dialogue moves in a manner that is easily controlled by either party on short notice. There is a mutual shaping of the conversation in a metered manner.
Imagine that two people are standing next to a large block of marble. I imagine a conversation to be the process of making that block of marble into a sculpture. In a spoken dialogue, both parties are chipping away at the marble at the same time. In a written dialogue, it’s more like one guy working at a time, while the other guy waits for his turn. This latter case gives each person more control at certain points, and makes it harder for the other person to respond accordingly because the first person’s chipping largely narrows what the second person can do, and increases the amount of effort it takes to do it because the direction was not created mutually. That is, each conversation partner’s actions are more reactive rather than cooperative. As such, this leads to conversations turning into “arguments” rather than a mutually developed stream of thought.
4) latency of responses in bi-directional conversation leads to very little dialogue over a longer period of time, which leads to increasing gravity of each post and loss of patience
Because email and message board dialogues aren’t happening in real time, there are often large gaps between posts. This gives conversation partners increased opportunity to view each email in the slow trickle of dialogue as having increased importance. Contrast this with a face-to-face discussion, where the continuous nature of the conversation doesn’t allow us the time to think too hard about any single part in the discussion. Further, the latency issue makes what would be a 5 minute conversation in real life into a clumsy, protracted discussion that could take weeks! And because the written word is set in stone once an email is sent, some people spend hours carefully crafting a message that would be stated without any preparation in a real-life conversation, adding gravity to both the writing and to the reading.
5) online answers preclude knowledge of how much time went into responses
One of the primary cues we use in dialogue to determine sincerity, glibness, shallowness, profundity— and indeed the idea that someone is actually listening to us— is the duration of time between the end of a comment or question and the beginning of a comment, question, or answer by the other party. In the context of a dialogue, it tells us a lot about the quality of the conversation we’re having. For example, we’ve all been at parties where we finish saying something, and the other individual chimes in with no pause to say something. It usually irritates us because we know the person hasn’t heard a word we said. On the other hand, a long pause could signal either a lack of interest or careful consideration of the comment. The silence can be as valuable as the words.
6) differing nature of expectations about conversation (academic vs. conversational)
When you’re not sure what kind of conversation is typical in a certain forum, or when you don’t know the people you are talking to, it’s much harder to know how one should speak. Can you have a “normal” conversation, or do you need to back up your assertions with facts, citations, and research? Can you state opinions without having backup? Are your comments viewed as being arguments, or are they just thoughts that are being expressed? These can change dramatically depending on who you are talking to. A lack of alignment or mutual understanding on the fundamental expectations of the conversation will lead to frustration and annoyance.
7) differing expectations about forum being used (appropriate use)
You wouldn’t walk into board room meeting and scream at the top of your lungs. Just by certain cues, you can intuitively arrive at how to behave. The formality of the clothes, the lighting, the furnishings, the noise level— these all tell you things about how you’re supposed to act in this environment. But it’s not as clear what the behavioral constraints are in an online forum because you have very few meaningful cues. If you look around at conversations on this forum, you might get a sense for what people talk about, but you may not as easily come to conclusions about etiquette, the parameters of acceptable behavior, or the level of seriousness with which people take themselves.
8) anonymity means people can say what they want and not worry about losing face or thinking of how they appear to others
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that anonymity gives people license to act in ways that they wouldn’t dream of if people knew who they were. Think about places like 4chan and Something Awful. These places simply wouldn’t exist in the way we know them if every user had to post under their real name and location. The level of incivility, cruelty, and hostility would be erased if people actually had to stand by their comments and have all their neighbors, friends, and family know what they were saying.
9) more time to think of responses means insults are more powerful and labored over than the impotent off-the-cuff comebacks in real life
A well-known episode of Seinfeld features George Costanza getting flamed by a co-worker, and finding himself unable to respond with a withering put-down in the few seconds he has to tear the guy a new one. He finally comes up with a retort— hours too late. Well, formulating the killer response or amassing ridiculous levels of ammunition is now easier than ever, thanks to the internet. People don’t expect that you’re reading their comments right after they commit them, and no one expects a response immediately. In fact, no one knows whether you’ll ever read their comments in the first place. That’s why you have so much time to nail the guy you’re arguing with. The desire to do this only increases with your perception that a lot of people are watching, and it’s going to be written in cement for the world to see.
10) moods of other individuals not detected by posters
You’ve probably had the experience of walking into a room when someone is in a bad mood. You can tell instantly, without a word even being spoken. There’s a vibe. In a medium bereft of signals, there are no vibes. You get vibes after you’ve been flamed. Until then, it can sometimes be hard to tell if someone’s just being good-naturedly argumentative or is seething in their seat. Sometimes the SUDDEN USE OF CAPITAL LETTERS CAN BE YOUR ONLY SIGN!!!!!
11) time it takes to type out responses can lead to truncated stream of thoughts
The fact that it will take much, much longer to convey a thought in writing than it does in speech means that often, writers will lose patience in writing, and write something that’s far shorter, less nuanced, and more direct than what they might say in person. In person, it is easier to follow up comments, expand upon them, and elaborate as necessary in a quick manner.
12) jocularity/sarcasm/irony sometimes not easily understood unless explicitly stated
Because tone and pitch variance is stripped from conversation online, it’s much more difficult to pick up on jocularity, ribbing, and sarcasm. How do you take this statement: “I bet the new Sylvester Stallone movie is going to be great.” Even contextually, it’s hard to get a grip on this because often there aren’t environmental or syntactical cues that preface sarcastic or jocular comments. In person, we learn to detect them by behavioral and tonal cues. Unfortunately, it’s these sort of statements that, when misunderstood, have an inordinate tendency to create ill feelings.
13) lack of need for alignment in space-time
There is no physical location on the internet, and individuals are not situated in space-time the same way they are in person. A real-life argument necessitates that both parties be in the same place at the same time. Online, conversation participants can keep returning to the scene over and over, and it doesn’t require the other person to be there at the same time. Exacerbating this is the fact that the internet has both prompted and enabled our short attention spans, keeping us constantly surfing for emotional arousal and, perversely enough, sources of tension.
What’s the solution to all this? Personally, I think that people aren’t invested enough in the internet to worry about being constructive and productive with it. They’re more interested in the internet to serve as a complement— or perhaps a substitute— for TV or other forms of entertainment. The Straight Dope message board, which for a long time was the best place to go online for serious debates and interesting conversation, was regulated by a modest $15/year entry fee. As you may be aware, users of the internet are not typically used to paying for things. In fact, you might even say that they almost never pay for intangible or non-discrete products. But that’s what made the Straight Dope so good. No one went there just to troll or to create chaos. People who ended up there tended to be pretty self-aware, polite, and considerate; after all, they paid hard-earned money to be there. Of course, there were many times where it all turned into a mess of insults and personal attacks, but the financial filter seemed to do serve a beneficial function, even if it didn’t solve all the problems.
So what else is there? I’m not sure there is an easy answer, but for now, beyond training people to understand the pitfalls of online conversation, and to encourage them— perhaps through environmental cues and institutional constraints— to comport themselves in ways that make the internet something other than a glorified pro-wrestling tournament. Honestly though, short of revealing our identities for the world, I don’t have a lot of hope for it.
how the most progressive grocery store came in last for sustainability
Trader Joe’s, the much celebrated “progressive” grocery store is a favorite of those consumers who favor such adjectives as “green” and “eco-friendly.” Unfortunately, as I described in a previous article, the reality is that Trader Joe’s is nothing of the sort. Amazingly, they manage to maintain that undeserved image without promoting it or even living up to the standards that these values would suggest. Case in point: this article in the New York Times places Trader Joe’s dead last in a national survey of grocery store seafood sustainability. It really takes some doing to lose out to guys like Safeway and Kroger. But then, Trader Joe’s never claimed to be eco-friendly and green in the first place, so maybe it’s not that surprising.
As I mentioned in my previous article about TJ’s (see the update at bottom), I talked to a Trader Joe’s manager about this very issue about their fish last November when I noticed that almost all the fish they sell there were on the “AVOID” column of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium guide to sustainable fish). The manager told me that Trader Joe’s is a “democracy” and they stock things that people buy, and well, the people like unsustainable fish. I suppose he seemed somewhat apologetic about it, but at the same time he was able to take umbrage under this lofty ideology of populism.
Of course, by the same token we can view this democracy as a means by which we are able to use our buying power to promote our ideals through selective purchasing; that is, if we don’t believe a company is representing our values, we can avoid buying there. Being concerned about the state of our collapsing oceans, I did exactly that and stopped buying fish there. I also tried to share this information with friends, colleagues, and anyone who would listen. What I discovered about this is that it’s quite hard to gain credence with others regarding something when your statements directly contradict what others think they know; nearly everyone I told this to seemed to doubt my claims because of Trader Joe’s pervasive “progressive” reputation.
Earlier this year, I decided to write to Trader Joe’s headquarters about it. In my letter, I expressed that while I appreciated their apparent democratic ideals, Trader Joe’s could implement a “high road” approach on this, given the scientifically-validated reality that overfishing is destroying the world’s oceans. I attached a copy of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium guide to sustainable fish. Much to my surprise, soon after I sent it, they updated their website to add something about how they are now sourcing their fish based on the Monterrey Bay Aquarium guide. I’m not sure if it was my letter that elicited this, but the timing was pretty remarkable, and I was pleased that maybe one customer’s opinion did matter!
Well, it’s been several months or so since that update on their website. Since then, I’ve gone back numerous times and have not seen any change in their inventory of fish. I’m disappointed, especially since so many people are convinced that they are a company with “principles” and “ideals” relating to environmentalism, and thus do all their shopping there with the implicit understanding that their shopping list has already been filtered for eco-friendliness. Of course, to be fair, TJ’s never claimed that they serve this function.
But boy, they’ve shown that they can really cash in on this misconception.