you can learn a lot when people hate you
Not too long ago, I went to a party being thrown by Rob, a sociology graduate student and friend of mine in Madison. Soon after I arrived at the party, he introduced me to a fellow sociology grad student “Peter”, who he thought I would like to meet.
Before I could say anything, Rob tried to connect us: “Peter, this is my friend Rahul— he’s a marketer. Rahul, this is Peter. Peter is a socialist.”
A socialist? “You mean like Barack Obama?” I cracked, trying to break the ice. For the record, what Rob said— quite possibly among the most awkward introductions of all time— was not intended as a joke. Peter actually was a card-carrying socialist.
“Oh, you mean like Barack Obama?” I cracked, trying to break the ice.
Peter did not laugh at my Obama joke, which was intended to point out the ridiculousness of trying to label a US President a socialist when real dyed-in-the-wool socialists see him as nothing of the sort. Instead, Peter tilted his head and gawked at me inquisitively, perhaps as if I had just descended from an alien planet or if I was a bizarre, mythical object he had previously only read about.
I suspect that Peter thought my comment was in earnest. I suspected that despite the fact that we had just met, Peter had a lot of prejudices about me, and I probably had a few about him (though less than he probably thought).
Despite this most auspicious of beginnings, Peter and I didn’t actually talk at all. Though he showed few outward signs of contempt, I knew that there was far too much baggage associated with being a marketer even for normal people, much less for a guy who genuinely believed that the entire capitalist system was perverse and corrupt (or is that just a stereotype of a socialist view of capitalism?). I really wanted to have a chat with the guy, but there was already too much between us, and we melted back into the crowds around us.
Over the years, I’ve had any number of encounters like this. Like:
- The fellow who was buying a bookshelf I was selling, and was about the most chipper man you could ever possibly hope to meet— until I told him I was selling it because I was going away to business school, upon which he morphed into a frothing attack dog whose demeanor literally frightened me. He dropped the price he was offering me from $20 to $5 and growled as he drove away.
- The guy who refused to talk to me like a normal person because I suggested that Wal-Mart was not “evil.” I gave examples of positive things Wal-Mart has done, and gently suggested that consumers are also responsible for American consumption habits. At this point, he basically deemed me a subhuman and just barked out a barrage of anti-corporate warhorses at me without allowing me to respond to them.
I have a lot more stories like this that I’ve compiled over the years, and I sense that these stories are not unusual for people who do what I do, particularly if you run in the circles that I run in. I don’t see this as an entirely bad thing. I try to be an ambassador for the “dark side,” as some have dubbed my line of work. Sometimes you can reach people just by being civil, thoughtful, and responsive to their concerns. Other times, people have already made up their minds and choose not to view you as a human anymore.
Regardless, I value these experiences because time has revealed to me that the world advances not as a monolithic block of people who all think the same thing, but as an evolution of cultural tensions that, while frustrating, keep the world in check and prevents society from changing too radically too quickly. And these tensions from the front line of the culture wars make for good stories too.
why revealing your true identity will be the next tectonic shift in the virtual space
The role of anonymity is a topic that comes up often about the increasingly unpleasant tenor of discourse on the internet. It’s getting harder and harder for websites and content providers to deal with the incivility, abusiveness, and venomous anger that is constantly being spewed out on their forums— almost all stemming from users who never reveal their real names or identities. As I mentioned in a previous article, as the internet has moved from obscurity into the mainstream, civil and thoughtful conversation has become increasingly rare. We’re finding that it’s easy for the public to sling mud on the internet when they can hide behind their monitors. It’s common for vigilante internet mobs to form and harass their enemies. Namecalling and insults abound.
As a thought experiment, think about this for a minute: how would behavior on the internet change if you had to use your real name?
As I see it, changing this one aspect of the internet would radically reduce the level of unseemly activity in the virtual environment. In “real life”, norms of civility and politeness help us maintain our positive appearances in the eyes of others, which to most of us is pretty important; on the the internet, anonymity allows us to largely avoid consequences of bad behavior, essentially giving us license to abandon self-control. But when your name and identity is forever linked to the comments you make, you must maintain a certain level of comportment fit for someone interacting in polite society, lest you earn a permanent mark against your character. And, as a friend of mine once said, the internet never forgets.
Thus, I predict that some day, the internet will undergo a radical transformation into a dichotomized space: there will be one portion that is anonymous; its qualities will be generally seen as chaotic, unreliable, and unstructured. This anonymous internet will not be taken very seriously by anyone— even the people who use it; it will probably not be regarded very well, and people will use it either just to let off steam or to just mess around.
And then there will be the other portion, demarcated by the use of users’ real identities in communications. This latter internet will be regarded as civil, purposeful, and reliable in its information; it will be a place where reputations and communities can be built, meaningful and polite interaction can take place, and where comments are helpful and constructive rather than snarky, dismissive, and hostile. Though it may come off initially as a somewhat sterile space, as its userbase expands, it will evolve to be as the primary virtual complement to “real life” interaction. The anonymous forums of the ‘other web’ will simply be too unstructured by comparison for long-term investment of time. A company will probably make a lot of money selling you an official identity that you will use as a login for all the websites that subscribe to this part of the internet; this will prevent you from making up an identity and ruining it for everyone.
Privacy advocates will worry about this evolution of the internet into a sphere in which we give out our real names and are forever linked to our comments, but the dystopian reality of the current internet “community” and commenting as a whole is one that both the public and those privacy advocates simply must acknowledge, as the current state of affairs threatens to undermine the internet as a whole. Currently, websites are having to employ increasingly heavy moderation to weed out bad behavior, but ultimately, content providers will find that they lack the resources and manpower to corral human nature in an atmosphere where there are no rules. However, they can avoid having to deal with this problematic behavior when they understand how the presence of social norms can suppress incivility from the get-go.
People will initially be reluctant to sign up for this idea—mainly for privacy reasons and the fact that they are accustomed to anonymity— but once they realize it’s the only ticket to entering a consistently constructive and civil society in the virtual world, I think they will understand the value, and eventually embrace it. They will see how it can be leveraged it to bolster their personal reputations, build their names, and create a lifelong history of their characters. They will appreciate how the internet will go from being a glorified anonymous chatroom to being a community of real people with valuable things to contribute. They will appreciate how having the discipline to maintain oneself will make conversations more pleasant, constructive, and intellectually satisfying. They will appreciate how knowing each others’ names will facilitate the transition from being online friends to being “real life” friends.
It will be interesting to see whether my prediction will come true, and if so, how long it will take. The level of moderation necessary on reputable sites that allow public commenting (like news sites) is reaching all-time highs, and younger generations who have grown up with the internet as a free-for-all are posting with increasing frequency. Why, even the middle-aged adults who were taught growing up to mind their Ps and Qs have, over time, been socialized by the rest of the web to drop their pretenses of civility.
Given all that, my bet is that the wheels will be in motion within the next 5 years.
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.
the potentially crippling problems inherent in the self-policing realms of Digg and Reddit
Social networking websites are the big thing right now, not just for armchair sociologists and online businesses, but also for academics. They serve as sort of a vacuum where you can observe interactive behavior from afar in a venue that didn’t even exist just a few years ago.
Two of the sites that get a lot of the attention are Reddit and Digg. These sites are not like Facebook or MySpace, in that they are not pages in which you create profiles for the purpose of having your peers come check you out and find out what music you like. They are essentially link portals that allow users to submit content (links) and allow users to comment on those submissions. They also give users the ability to “upmod” or “downmod” submissions to indicate, respectively, approval or disapproval of said submissions, comments, and links. It’s supposed to be an egalitarian means of aggregating a collective response of the userbase to a submission, and to show others how worthwhile a contribution might be, and to establish a feedback mechanism to the poster.
Keeping count of ups and downs encourages good comments and submissions, and can be seen as a preventative tool to keep out trolls, spammers, and people who say don’t make worthwhile contributions to the public discourse. And like the Roman gladiator battles of old, the idea is that a preponderance of upmods will spare the life of a well-written or interesting contribution, while downmods will effectively slay it, striking it from the viewing grounds.
In theory, it’s a very good thing. Over humanity’s existence, and particularly over the past 15 years, there has been a glut of information flooding into the public sphere at a rate that seems to only accelerate. It become increasingly necessary to more effectively filter what reaches our eyes in order to make our limited time more meaningful. In other words, there’s a lot of junk out there, and you don’t want to waste your time reading it; you want to get to the good stuff immediately (this attitude probably is problematic in its own way, but that’s a different story entirely). These social networking sites help you put mass consciousness to use in achieving that agenda.
For a while this was being considered as the way that private citizens were finally going to wrangle the big bad world wide web and all its anarchic tendencies; finally the masses would be able to collectively wrestle power away from the disproportionately powerful spammers and media corporations, and regain control of the discursive sphere that the internet was always meant to be.
Alas, the debilitating cracks have already formed in the foundations of this well-meaning institution.
Digg was working fine up to a certain point, where articles were being upmodded based on merit and interest, but this utopic system was eventually usurped by an organized network of users operating on a platform of quid pro quo, in which users would agree to upmod another’s comments and submissions in exchange for similar treatment to their own comments and submissions. These rogue networks expanded, using Digg’s proprietary “friend” system, in which a user can befriend other users and monitor each others’ activities with ease. Pretty soon, the entire front page of the site, which was once supposed to house an aggregated list of topics that the entire userbase considered important, was commandeered by people subverting the system through mutual backscratching, thereby annihilating the democratic ideals of the site.
To this day, despite 150,000,000 page views a month and thousands of content submissions per day, the same 20 people’s submissions make it to the front page every day. This, of course, basically makes Digg the equivalent of a mainstream media outlet that uses editorial discretion to filter content, except in this case, it is not exercising supposed meritocratic discretion (“what are the important issues of the day?”) so much as they basically just have a staff of 20 contributors who are going to automatically have their voices heard, while everyone else is basically forced into a consumption role.
So much for that.
It was then that we looked to Reddit to become the site that would cradle our highest democratic ideals. Many Digg users jumped ship to come to Reddit after being disgusted with the downward slide in content quality at Digg. But soon enough, Reddit too was destroyed— but not by the same system as Digg. It was leveled by a much more subtle and insidious form of cancer.
Reddit had always prided itself on being a more thoughtful and educated mass of users than Digg, always mocking Digg for its tendency towards childish humor and ad-hominem verbal sparring. Reddit, on the other hand, was a site that was sophisticated, and more prone to having mature dialogues about subjects that were served more by complex dialectics than verbal drive-bys. But ultimately, this user self-perception and self-selection, combined with the “modding” rights of all users created an ideological vacuum that threatened the very foundation of the site through its own exclusionary behavior.
To understand how this happened, it is relevant for us to first understand what happened in a more concrete sense.
At the moment I am typing this, the front page of Reddit is littered with anti-John McCain/Sarah Palin articles that seem to recite various sensational or seemingly biased positions against them. This is not in itself a problem, but as a supposedly non-partisan site, it has repeatedly been shown that anti-Obama submissions get downmodded into oblivion. Reddit is now essentially a clearinghouse for liberal rhetoric, where every single anti-Republican and anti-progressive screed on the world wide web can be found, being upmodded by users who are probably only reading descriptions of articles rather than full articles, and who are voting based on ideology rather than quality.
Spend a few minutes on the site, and you’ll see liberal comments regularly upmodded (or at least not downmodded), and you’ll see conservative comments downmodded like there’s no tomorrow— with no apparent value put on the complexity or discursive quality of the comment.
Remember, upmodding and downmodding are supposed to be reflections of user opinion on submissions. The issue here is that there are many reasons why users might not like an article, and without consistency in voting patterns, it descends into a meaningless mush of upmod/downmod numbers.
Therein lies the problem with this form of social networking. Upmods and downmods do not carry with them a single unique and transparent value. A downmod does not necessarily mean “I thought this comment was bad on the merits of its thesis”; it could mean “I disagree with you ideologically.” It could even mean “I don’t like this user,” or “I don’t like this user’s username.” All this tends to render whatever submissions are highly upmodded or highly downmodded to be of somewhat ambiguous import— which of course means that anything you are seeing (or not seeing) because of others’ value judgments is based on somewhat arbitrary rationale… which should, in turn, make you wonder why this is such a great medium for brokering dialogue. After all, what if you want to read well-written opinions of people whose ideas differ from the site’s mainstream?
An idealized situation would have separate measures for the any number of factors that might elicit someone’s approval or disapproval: well argued/poorly argued; convincing/not convincing; ideologically agree/disagree; spam/not spam; worthwhile contribution/not worthwhile contribution; stupid username/not stupid username, etc. With such a system, one could theoretically exhibit approval for a contribution on multiple levels but simultaneously disagree on other levels (and let others know it). In this manner, we could read an article that was well argued, but not convincing, that was largely ideologically disagreed with. But we can’t do that now. And that’s too bad, because it forces regular users into intellectual stagnancy. As sociologist Mark Granovetter suggests, it’s actually the people who aren’t in our immediate intellectual circle who are the ones who can teach us things. We already “know” what our ideological peers think.
Of course, this opens up a whole new can of worms because it relies on the ability of users to police themselves in what category of approval or disapproval they choose to give to submissions. Vindictive liberal users might angrily describe an eloquent and well-argued conservative post as “not worthwhile” simply because of their own parochial point of view. This is problematic, and unlikely to be resolved in any meaningful way.
Another reason why this is potentially troubling is because of intersubjective value judgments. What’s worthwhile for you does not match the threshold of what is worthwhile for me. Aggregated over a massive userbase, we’ll end up seeing a sort of middling effect that promotes submissions that basically hug the bottom rung of the ladder of quality. That is, we’ll end up elevating the sorts of things that the most people happen to agree are good. If you listen mainstream radio, read mainstream magazines, and watch mainstream television, you can see why this may not be such a great thing.
Will this ever see resolution? Will humanity’s mainstream be forever condemned to mediocrity in everything it engages in? Will our music, television, movies, literature, politicians, and now content portals all be mediocre? God, I hope not.
Unrealistic expectations, their limitations, and the dangers they promise
The New Reality
I wonder if there are going to be any viable candidates for anything in the future. The accessibility of information on the internet as well as the general ease for one to post information to it, especially at a young age, has led few curious and tech-savvy individuals from the internet generation to have clean, unsearchable online slates. If you’ve observed the behavior of 8-25 year olds recently, I think you will make the reasonable assumption that people of this age group comprise the lion’s share of Facebook’s 36 million users, and MySpace’s 73 million users, and have made their mark online in many other arenas.
And what kind of comments are these people posting on the internet, that would reassure potential employers of this person’s quality? Here’s one from a person I’ll call Ashley Pinsky, 15, from MySpace.
OMG i was so fukced up last nite lol!!!
Granted, this is an extreme example, but not an uncommon one. That offhand comment will probably prevent Ms. Pinsky from ever becoming president. And the nature of the internet is such that this comment may not be easy to find in the future, but it’s never going away. Someone who wanted to find dirt on Ashley Pinsky will find that comment 35 years later, no doubt. It’s not like it was in the good old days, where your exploits and comments could be geographically contained, or confined to the memory of a couple people who overheard your off-color joke in the privacy of your living room. We live in a world of YouTube, digital cameras, hidden recorders, live microphones, and ill-considered internet confessions.
The Problem with Vividness
But in the wise and out-of-context words of Marge Simpson, as long as everyone is videotaping everyone else, justice will be served. Right? Right?
One of the big concerns we should have is our tendency towards misleading vividness. The following is an example, and one that is intended intended as a convenient analogy, not a political screed.
Think about the difference between the respective presidential bids of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in particular the controversies. We only criticized George Bush for his long history of alcohol abuse and coke-snorting, but we skewered Barack Obama for attending a church that appeared to deliver hateful sermons. Aside from the respective gravity of these apparent violations of character (the weight of them essentially created by the media), there’s one thing that separates them significantly: one was documented on camera and the other was not. We could watch Jeremiah Wright on endless loop, in vivid detail, cementing our impressions of his “hateful” church and its link to Obama.
The Wright tape was so visceral and immediate that it was hard for it to not make an impression somehow— even though it literally represented 2 minutes of the church’s decades-long history, and there was no further proof of similar activity. But all we heard about Bush’s years, possibly decades of hard partying and drug abuse was that he was reputed to be a former cokehead and alcoholic. We had didn’t have 2 minutes of videotape showing Bush snorting lines or stumbling around drunk or emotionally damaging his loved ones. For that, Bush didn’t have to own up to anything, while Obama had to do a lot of dancing around. Due to the vividness, the Wright issue seemed much more real and immediate than the other, so we pressed it much more, and it played a much larger role in our mental construction of Obama’s character.1
My point is not to get into whether these controversies themselves are important to examine in a presidential candidate; instead, I want to explore the economics of hiring techniques which involve the use of vividness and “dirt-digging” to establish character, and the lack of foresight that companies and our electorate may be unwittingly entering into by engaging in such practices that forcibly marry vividness with significance.
No One is Who They Appear to Be at Any Given Time
Our immediate instinct is to say when we find dirt on someone online, or in photographs, or in videos that we use these occurrences as evidence, testimonials to someone’s personality. Did you see that photo of him drunk at a bar? He’s a loose cannon. We can’t possibly trust him with our industrial equipment, or have our clients find out that (outside of work) he behaves in an unprofessional manner.
The problem is that we ascribe too much meaning to these words and images when they come from an unprofessional environment. First of all, it should not come to a surprise to anyone that people behave unprofessionally when they’re not at work. To expect that they don’t is an unrealistic and fairly ridiculous expectation that, when you think about it, demands far too much of someone who is only human. People are not their jobs. They behave themselves at work because they have to. At home and in their leisure time, they feel like they should be able to let loose and be themselves. After all, why should they be evaluated on behavior that does not directly and demonstrably affect the quality of their work?2
This leads me to wonder whether our apparent demands for a sparkling personal history is the result of us actually wanting to hire “clean” individuals for reasons of productivity or wanting to hire individuals who can at least appear clean so as to not horrify outsiders. The difference is that the latter acknowledges the imperfection of humans and settles for someone who can keep his indiscretions private, while the other wants us to be held to unmanageably high standards all the time.
In fact, I doubt seriously that there are completely clean people in this country, or the world. It’s just that much of our ‘dirty’ behavior occurs without documentation. I’m sure that if we all were being filmed all the time for everyone to see, there would be no one out there without some unsavory event connected to their name. If it wasn’t some frowned-upon activity like drug or alcohol use, it would be something else like violence, sexual indiscretion, off-color conversations and asides, shady business dealings, rude behavior, subtle racism, or anger management issues. And it’s not like these people are bad people; we’re talking about isolated moments that would appear damning if documented and replayed— moments that actually permeate all of our lives constantly.
Indeed, what man or woman would not appear foolish, controversial, unreasonable, or perverted if monitored 24/7 and edited to exaggerate the most sensational segments of his day (which is essentially what so-called HR background checks do)? Producers of reality television shows know this. They know how to work Final Cut Pro to make a normal girl seem like a raving bitch, a decent guy into an aggressive, misogynistic hothead, and a neurotic, socially-maladjusted lunatic into Simon Cowell.
Presidential candidates aren’t allowed the normal lapses of speech or judgment that the rest of us are afforded because everything they say is constantly being deconstructed by pundits and played 300 times in succession on news networks, giving every offhand comment a hyperreal, set-in-stone weight that the original probably didn’t have. Just imagine how you or someone you love might come off if every act or word uttered were subjected to the laws of television news overanalysis— every moment of frustration, giddy delight, or agitation there for the world to judge you with. People who have never met you are now basing their perceptions of you on a two second loop of you getting irate at the guy who cut you off on the highway, and it’s been playing all day and night, making you look increasingly psychotic with every repeat. It’s exactly what happened with Michael Jackson and Britney Spears and countless other celebrities, and it unsurprisingly drove them both to madness. It would most likely happen to you too.
Underlying this fundamentally unfair depiction of you is that while you may have lost your cool for that two seconds, you don’t get credit for the nearly 18 hours of collected calm that you exhibited. Nobody’s watching that part. Therefore, you are branded with the scarlet letter of being the psycho who flipped out when someone cut him off.
How HR’s Enthusiasm for Dirt-Digging is Going to Come Back to Bite It
So far, my point in describing all this is not to excuse occasional idiocy, bad judgment, or the appearance of foolishness, out-of-control behavior, or low ethical standards so much as to universalize it. Knowing that our past mistakes are out there and none of us are truly free from them, the only possible outcome from gross and commonplace hiring practices that seek to find our documented dirt is that candidates who are more undocumented (and therefore more unknown) than their competition are the ones who are more likely to get the job. How? Let’s look at these two potential candidates of equal qualification:
Mike — Online research finds that he admits to drinking and womanizing; is prone to occasional off-color jokes; was once arrested for indecent exposure 8 years ago.
Jeff — online research finds absolutely no information, damaging or otherwise.
In the split second you have to make this hiring decision, the chances are you want to hire Jeff. But consider this unsettling truth for a moment: After looking over their backgrounds, you feel more comfortable with the guy you know less about. In fact, it is the absence of information about Jeff that makes you feel unjustifiably secure about hiring him. You don’t know Jeff’s dirt, and therefore you mentally assume there is none. But as science teaches us, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The idea that ‘Jeff must be clean because we did not find any dirt on him’ is clearly false, but it does not stop our conscious mind from elevating him in comparison to Mike.
The problem is, you can almost never be sure whether that decision is justified or not because you simply do not have the information you need to make a legitimate comparison. As it turns out, Jeff might be a) a serial murderer that makes Mike seem like a great guy in comparison, b) an alcoholic with strikes against him just as bad as Mike, or c) a wonderful, clean-cut young man. You simply do not know which, and you continue to base your hiring practices on prejudices built on vividness: You read that Mike got arrested once and drinks a lot, so you now prefer Jeff.
This tendency should bother you; you are favoring someone who has only earned preferential status by information omission rather than information addition. Your lack of knowledge about this individual, who you have chosen after making a faulty comparison with another candidate whose vivid background rubs you the wrong way, might very well result in a poor hiring match for your company, or even a very damaging personality getting the job.
All of which doesn’t mean a lick of difference to you if the only reason you are screening for dirt is to keep up your company’s appearance with outsiders, which in this context, makes your hiring focus seem awfully misguided. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I doubt outsiders give a damn about your employees unless they are dealing with them directly, which again comes back to the question of why you should care about anything your employee does as long as it doesn’t affect his work.
If I Shouldn’t Screen for Dirt, How the Heck Should I Be Hiring?
Hiring someone is a big decision. It can cost a large company between $80,000 to $1,000,000 in training and loss of productivity to bring in new people. It’s not easy. Yet, typical HR departments don’t invest much time or energy in hiring, and tend to do things in ways that are easy rather than effective. Really what they they need is something to judge character on. Ideally, they’d have all the same quantity and quality information about everyone so they could make accurate comparisons. But they don’t. Instead, they look at your resume, ask you some dumb questions, maybe call a couple references, and then search for dirt on you. This automatically— and unfairly— favors people who script their interview responses and who are either careful to hide their dirt, who haven’t gotten caught, or who are lucky enough to not have been documented. This is a very dangerous trend in hiring.
I think that the ideal, but definitely not the most convenient, means of hiring should involve the following:
- A large number of personal references that draw from a wide cross-section of relationships
- A series of real-world interactions in a variety of casual atmospheres conducted by professionals whose job it is to get to know people; this might involve going with the candidate to museums, coffee shops, baseball games, etc. but not really with the pretense of grilling the candidate so much as understanding them and gaining a sense of who they are
- Professional interviews that ask relevant and thought-provoking questions that would demonstrate knowledge, reasoning, critical thinking skills, etc.
- A series of open-ended questions that attempt to determine a candidate’s personal value system and life priorities, and the fit of that to the company
1. Of course, this wasn’t the only issue that separated the two. There were obvious divisions of racism, classism, and religious fears as well.
2. This is not to imply that we should allow bad behavior at work; order obviously needs to be maintained in a professional environment. It’s just that we need to accept that for most people, there’s a division between work and home, and one that hardly anyone wants bridged. After all, as I mentioned in a previous post, we are different people depending on our environment. Our receptivity to different stimuli differs in different places, which is why we don’t feel compelled to drink at work, but that same beer seems enormously inviting the second we step out the door.
Let’s not embrace stagnancy
Sometimes I feel like cell phone companies have no idea what they’re doing. I’ve thought of any number of simple concepts that would make phones so much more useful. Here are some ideas:
1) You know the routine; you spend 5 minutes typing out a text message on your cell phone for an idea that it would take you 2 seconds to say. There are times I want to tell someone something, but I don’t want to talk to them or spend time texting it out. I want to be able to call someone’s phone and immediately reach their voicemail, but bypass causing the person’s phone to ring; instead, it should be a system that allows the caller the option of going directly to voice mail as opposed to allowing the phone owner to be in charge of that decision.
2) Allow me to use the GPS to find out whether my friends are physically near me. Update: I found out that a third party company is developing technology to do this.
3) Let me input information regarding my interests into my phone, and let me know if there are any people near me who share my interests. This could also potentially be used as a dating tool.
4) A memo function that allows you to quickly store to-do’s, reminders, ideas, and whatever else you may want to leave for yourself.
Those are just some thoughts. But given the competitive sphere of the cell phone market, why aren’t companies being more imaginative about their products? We’re talking about Fortune 500 corporations with billions of dollars in R&D money in an innovation-driven, high-tech industry that for reasons unexplained, cannot be bothered to push the boundaries!
“What binds us is what we stand witness to”
This morning, I was about to go to the gym in the same shirt I had slept in, a white shirt with red hems with the word “KAHLUA” printed in big letters on the front. As I stepped before the bathroom mirror before exiting the house, I realized that I had to change. For some reason, I didn’t want to be seen as the type of person who would wear a shirt with a liquor brand emblazoned on it, even though I apparently am. I’m not a very fashion-focused person in general, which is why as I was later examining my behavior, I found it somewhat curious. Yet, it seemed to be indicative of something very basic in our society that is accepted without much thought: images are one of the primary building blocks of our collective inner world, and the way in which we parse the world around us.
In David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram,” found in the book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, he comments about how the common currency of interpersonal relationships used to be shared experience, but is now built on a foundation of the images that bombard us, and seep into our consciousness and now form the primary means of relating to others.
“Americans [seem] no longer united so much by common beliefs as by common images: what binds us [becomes] what we stand witness to. In fact, pop-cultural references have become such potent metaphors not only because of how united Americans are in our exposure to mass images but also because of our guilty indulgent psychology with respect to that exposure. Put simply, the pop reference works because 1) we all recognize such a reference, and 2) we’re all a little uneasy about how we all recognize such a reference. [I disagree with this second point — RK]
Today, the belief that pop images are basically just mimetic devices is one of the attitudes that separates most [people] under 40 from the generation that precedes us. We’re not different from our fathers in that [pop images] present and define our contemporary world. Where we are different is that we have no memory of a world without such electric definition.”
He goes on to remark about how he’s read books in which the author can instantly flesh out a character by describing the brand name on his shirt, a strategy that only works because the post-modern generation equates one’s brand loyalty with one’s character. An astute point, and one that I think is not so far divorced from what I had commented on earlier about the power of symbols to override our critical thinking about them, and how the associative meanings of symbols can form a feedback loop to constantly redefine and augment their meanings. Perhaps it is not so surprising then that the Western world is so defined by— and perhaps stifled by- its obsession with the images associated with consumer goods and brand labels, and the benefits these supposedly give us.
I would expand Wallace’s idea of our postmodern society being built on images to it being built on a foundation of media vignettes in general. But its not just that we like these images and shared media, we find communion in them. It’s not uncommon to meet people who speak in bursts of movie quotes, or who are so insular that the only way one can break through their thick shells is through a cavalcade of pop culture references. And it’s just as common to find people who are able to use this as a tool to gain in-roads with others, to build trust and friendship. In fact, this has become an expected means of relationship building.
There’s no faster way to be ostracized from a conversation than by admitting that you haven’t seen the movie everyone else is talking about. The problem is not that you literally haven’t seen the movie; it’s that you haven’t been indoctrinated into the set of images that the movie represents. At that moment, you are not in the same class as the people who have seen it; you are lacking a shared experience that the others have witnessed— even if they didn’t witness it together. And there simply isn’t a way anyone can bring you in. If someone was talking about anything in their personal life, you could be brought in because the conversation is no longer about the images, but about the human condition that we all share.
It’s for this reason that companies like Netflix can cash in on people who rent out movies they don’t really want to watch so that they can say they’ve seen them. Watching movies— particularly ones with social cachet— is a passport into conversations and acceptance with social groups. There’s a fear that if we don’t witness these images, we may be left behind somehow.
Nothing speaks more about our love for images and media than the popularity of the television show Family Guy. Based on the life of a bumbling, overweight suburbanite and his family, each half-hour episode is loosely bound by a rather flimsy plotline thickened up with an endless series of shared images from the collective pop consciousness. For example, the program might make sly references to a short-lived television program from the mid-80s, or a washed-up child actor, or a celebrity’s ongoing troubles with the law. Or even all of these in a single scene! The whole show is a composite of such images. These are not subjects that are thematically linked to viewers’ personal lives; nor are they rooted in humor that expounds on the human condition.
This is beyond a game of ‘spot the reference;’ these references are the new definition of shared experience. We all know about that washed up actor. We all know about that celebrity’s trouble with the law. It is part of the unwritten history of our lives. Except we didn’t live it. We, as Wallace says, were witnesses to the images, we integrated them into our own narratives, and they now make up the fabric of our experience.
I once witnessed a couple friends of mine reminiscing about a time they were driving along a beach together. They were throwing out all these minute details about their adventure, laughing and egging each other on about their behavior on this trip. This went on for 3-4 minutes, before I asked what beach they had gone to. They said they were talking about a time they were playing Gran Turismo on their Playstation console. My jaw hit the floor.
Something struck as deeply sad about this story, but I can’t really explain why. If these images are capable surrogates for “real life”, if a video game simulating driving on a beach can serve as an alternative for actually being on one, and if we can watch “Friends” instead of maintaining real ones, does it matter? Should it matter? There’s a feeling in my gut that there’s something terribly backwards about this trend, but I can’t really argue with it on any logical, non-conditioned level. We are humans, and we have choices to make; the choices of some would not be ones that I would make, but it does not make them wrong or backwards. Indeed, why shouldn’t we savor whatever we embrace? Perhaps it’s all we have.
One more way that the advance of technology has isolated us
I haven’t really spoken to my girlfriend’s father in a while, though I used to talk to him with some regularity. The reason for this is because we no longer have a landline. He would never ask to speak with me on the phone; instead, we would have ‘incidental’ conversations that stemmed from the fact that I just happened to pick up the landline phone when he was trying to reach his daughter.
Without these incidental conversations, I hardly ever get the chance to talk to him, unless I happen to see him in person, which is rare.
I wonder how the lack of these conversations will affect our social relationships. Now in-laws may have less of an excuse or opportunity to dialogue with their sons- or daughters-in-law. You may not get to talking to a friend’s roommate because they don’t pick up the house phone that no longer exists. Parents can’t screen their kids’ calls anymore, and keep their daughters away from Johnny, the neighborhood badboy.
Sometimes there are unexpected side effects of any technological phenomena, and these have a way of changing our lives in manners that weren’t really intended— sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. The way I see it, we’ve incurred collateral damage from the advances that have all but eradicated landlines, and have made cell phones the centerpieces of our telephonic communications.
Perhaps it is just another way that the advance of technology has, contrary to popular thought, isolated us from others and kept us from developing meaningful relationships with the people around us.
It probably doesn’t work, so don’t try it. Also, it’s something that Hitler would do.
Before I started B-school many people told me, rather matter-of-factly, that it was going to be 2 years of partying. This, as it turned out, was not at all the case. Of course, my rationale for joining had absolutely nothing to do with this alleged reality; in fact, I do not really consider myself the type of person who thrives in party environments (and the fact that I wrote the previous sentence in that fashion probably attests to that).
Regardless, I understood from the very beginning that networking was going to be a big part— perhaps the biggest part— of the whole experience, and in fact, the foundation on which my future career would lay. This was made clear to me in no uncertain terms by any number of the school faculty, and especially career counselors. I bristled against this thought; what did they mean, networking was the central component of B-school? Was this whole B-school deal really as shallow as outsiders probably think it is? Is it really just a loathsome amalgamation of entitled white dudes who look like the guy below (and act exactly the way you think he does), getting high-powered jobs by kissing ass and joining old boys’ clubs, and then expecting their followers to do the same?
Well, yes and no, as I found out. During the process of the internship search that occurs in the second semester of classes, which for me was unpleasant and protracted (despite my eventual success), I immediately noticed how little having actual business acumen was a component of the screening process.
Sure, recruiters would routinely ask questions that posited certain business scenarios and asked us to respond to them, but like every other interview question they would bombard us with, they were almost uniformly ones in which genuine, candid answers were far less productive for us than giving scripted responses that came directly from the lamest, most pathetic job-hunting play book. Outsiders would be stunned by the level of artifice that was given by students and expected by recruiters in internship interviews.
Since I was 12, I have always known that I wanted to be a brand manager at ABC Industrial Manufacturing Corporation. There’s nothing I like more than hard work. I am an excellent team player, and have sought out leadership roles on cross-functional teams working in competitive industries. In five years, I want to be Managing VP of Finance at ABC Industrial Manufacturing Corporation.
Seriously now, who the hell says that in real life? Who even thinks it? Certainly not me. When people asked me where I saw myself in five years, I often said that I tended not to have such expectations of myself because the things I wanted had a tendency to shift, and what I wanted from the bottom of my heart today could very well not be the same as what I wanted two years from now. I don’t think that is unreasonable in real life, and I highly doubt that you would judge it against your friends if they said that. That said, I can see how it might rub someone the wrong way in an interview setting, given that their only means of evaluating our apparent quality was to take everything we said (no matter how incredibly lame) at complete face value. But the flaw is that they should not be using our words alone to understand us; the quality of a person should be judged by their moral and ethical fiber, their standards, their priorities, the way they treat the people around them, their goals for themselves, and how they see their place in the world around them. These were issues that were never approached in any meaningful way in any interview.
I was even called into career counselor’s office at one point for telling a recruiter that my eventual career goal was to enjoy my job thoroughly and to feel like I was contributing to something that I really cared about. “You are not being paid $100,000 a year to ‘enjoy your job,’” the career counselor told me, exasperated by my conduct. In retrospect, it was, perhaps, too fundamental, too naked, a fact to tell a recruiter. It must have really jarred with the sorts of responses other gave.
Yet, there is little doubt that many of my peers either knowingly or unknowingly felt the way I did, but others didn’t articulate it, or had less compunction about bending the truth as they saw it for a job (I don’t judge them for it, despite the way I phrased that; really, it is an issue of how one places his priorities).
Nevertheless, I felt so awkward to give these bizarre, inhuman responses that I couldn’t bring myself to do it (though eventually, I did have to craft answers that while they did encompass my feelings, also melded them tactfully with standard responses that perhaps deflected their ‘sore-thumb’ quality). As a result, I suffered pretty badly in interview after unsuccessful interview.
The weird thing was that I thought my resume was quite impressive; I felt that my candidness in my successes and failures would give me a humanistic depth that the fakers couldn’t achieve; I thought that being truthful in my answers and not exaggerating my accomplishments would be valued; and most of all, I was under the impression that being dignified and not being blatantly sycophantic towards my recruiters would be held in my favor amidst all the obvious shenanigans going on from my peers. Seriously, how could any self-respecting recruiters not feel utterly and completely embarrassed by the way these overzealous ass-kissers were gushing all over them in a such a labored and frenzied manner?
It just goes to show you: I do not understand the psyches of recruiters, apparently.
It was clear from the first week of interviewing season that the coveted jobs were going to ass-kissers, networkers (who were like ass-kissers but over a longer period), and cute, bubbly girls. These groups, to a very large degree, excluded people in my classes who I had viewed as actually thoughtful or insightful. This in itself was utterly maddening— although not entirely unexpected given that those three groups tended to have another quality that was valuable: boundless, if contrived, enthusiasm; something that was almost definitely less visible in the intellectual group. Nevertheless, how is it that business knowledge and intellectual curiosity be such a negligible part of the process? Should they not have been a crucial component of the interviews?
It soon became clear that ‘company fit’ was one of the little remarked-upon details that could make or break your case in the eyes of recruiters. If they couldn’t envision you as ‘one of the gang,’ or otherwise seeming like ABC Corporation’s sort of guy, you simply weren’t up to snuff. Given this, it’s not surprising that ass-kissers, networkers, and cute, bubbly girls comprised the bulk of the immediate hires. They had proven that they could conform to the standards of corporate America. No one needed to say ‘jump’ for them to say ‘how high.’ It was an implicit dialogue, and they understood it, and could play the game without being told the rules.
I began to believe at one point that I could, theoretically, employ a completely different strategy in school than the one that most of us at least paid lip service to; you know, the one where you do homework, turn in assignments, and try to actually learn something?
Instead of slaving over books; working on tedious, semester-long projects; and crunching numbers, one could instead hold regular parties at his house, inviting the whole school and buying beer for everyone. This could be supplemented with any number of seemingly genuine efforts to win over the respect, admiration, and general positive sentiments of other students; a feat that can be accomplished by being generous to classmates in whatever way one can think of.
It might be an expensive endeavor to do this in the short term. We’re talking about maybe two $50 kegs once a week multiplied by, let’s say 34 weeks a year for 2 years. That’s nearly $7,000 dollars on beer alone.
Regardless, at the end of the program, you’d have 200+ well-wishers whose opinion of you might be good enough that they would be willing to return the favor of all those downed beers by bringing you aboard their companies once all their oily tentacles had expanded into the far reaches of corporate America. And it wouldn’t just be one company that you’d have connections with; it would be dozens.
Now, theoretically you could leverage all these friendships to bounce around from company to company, pulling yourself ever higher up the corporate ladder. And because ‘fit’ is something that is something that is so integral to the hiring process, your company-internal buddies would no doubt pull strings for you to indicate that you were a good guy and should be brought into ABC Manufacturing Corporation. This was my thought after the first year.
Soon afterwards, I realized that this strategy probably would not work. Some— though certainly not all— of these first persons snatched up at the beginning of interviewing season returned to the second year of B-school with their tails between their legs, having embarrassed themselves somewhat on their jobs due to their collective lack of ability. Admittedly, I found some schadenfreude in this, but yet it irked me. Why would corporate hiring practices continue in this way despite what I could only presume was years of backfiring at least in some significant percentage of interns? No answer was forthcoming— short of the standard answer as to why corporate America continues to tread down misguided paths in every aspect of their businesses year after year: inertia.
However, I discovered that those who got jobs jealously sought to keep them, and made concerted efforts to build and preserve their reputations amongst co-workers. They would never do anything that might compromise their image, and would work hard at doing things that would strengthen it. For that reason, and that reason alone, the “party guy” strategy couldn’t possibly work. No one who had spent any time establishing their reputation in the eyes of others, or who was concerned about how others might view them would ever bring a party animal on board their company; it’s simply too risky. If the party employee doesn’t live up to the original employee’s recommendation, it’s the latter’s whose reputation at the company is damaged. And what could a friend possibly have to gain by bringing in party person, anyway?
It would be different with a close and respected friend, but there’s very little to gain by getting “party guy” into the company beyond doing him/her a personal favor. According to game theory, you have much to lose, very little to gain. Why bother?
I guess maybe it’s worth paying attention in class after all.
the connections between us
Recently, a friend of mine told me that he had been able to score a job interview with a company on the basis of having gone to the same alma mater as the interviewer. Judging from the context of this interaction, it is likely that there was at least a few of decades removal between their respective graduations, but that’s no matter. It’s easy to see the logic here: anyone who graduated from University of ABC, where you graduated from, must be a decent fellow. After all, that’s where you went, right? What else do you need to know?
In his 1963 book Cat’s Cradle, author Kurt Vonnegut coined a rather interesting term that might be applicable here: “granfalloon.” This odd expression describes a proud but meaningless connection between people.
An example: let’s say that you are thrust into a room full of strangers, and you know nothing about anyone except their birthdays— and amazingly, there’s a guy there who has the same birthday as you! Chances are, you will be able to form a more instantaneous bond with this individual than anyone else in the room on this basis alone. Surprising?
Based on my own observations, I don’t find it so surprising. When I think about this concept the first image that comes to my mind are Mac users.
Mac users make up a rather small percentage of computer users (between 5% and 8%). Perhaps it’s for this reason that I’ve noticed that Mac users tend to trust each other and form weird, superficial bonds based on their choice of computer brand. It’s really strange to observe, there’s a sense of ease that seems to develop when one Mac user meets another.
Finally. Another Mac user. You’re like me, a member of the elite coterie of beings who are devoted to high quality and aesthetics. An evolved individual who is light-years beyond those Windows-using plebians. Someone I can relate to!
I apologize if I came off as too mocking there; as a current Windows user, I have my own granfalloons to maintain.
You might have witnessed this same attitude when owners of the same car wave to each other on the street. Hey look, it’s another Blue 2007 BMW 5 Series. I’m going to wave now.
Often other bicyclists wave to me for no apparent reason. I return the wave out of courtesy. Interestingly, I’ve found that people wearing the spandex biking outfits wave at others who are wearing the outfits much more often than they do to cyclists who aren’t. I would wager that if the other individual’s colors were similar, there would be even more of a positive attitude.
The Minimum Group Paradigm
This is all due to to what social scientists call the minimum group paradigm, a manner in which people instinctively find ways to divide themselves into “us and thems” in social settings. This was initially noted by British psychologist Henri Tajfel. In a pretty stunning experiment, Tajfel ostensibly assigned subjects tags of whether they preferred paintings by Wassily Kandinsky or Paul Klee based on their supposed picture preferences beforehand. The subjects, incidentally, had never heard of these painters before. What followed was a bizarre situation in which the “Klee-lovers” treated other “Klee-lovers” like close friends, and “Kandinsky-lovers” treated “Kandinsky-lovers” like close friends. They even suggested that other people who shared their meaningless label were more likely to have a pleasant personality and be better workers. But here’s the kicker:
They also doled out rewards to fellow group members in a more generous and competitive manner. They preferred to give people who shared their labels $2 and give members of the “competing” group $1, instead of giving their own members $3 and members of the other group $4. Note that the latter of these two would have favored their group monetarily over the former, but also implicitly suggested that the “competing” group was somehow superior.
The meaningless label clouded judgment, and allowed people with nothing in common but an empty label to suddenly trust each other and connect.
The So-What Moment
Think about how marketers are constantly using this to get you to buy things. It happens much more than you realize.
Remember the Be Like Mike campaign, which suggested that you too could be the world’s greatest basketball player if only you drank Gatorade? Technically it’s true that if you drink Gatorade, you’re more like Michael Jordan than if you don’t (assuming he actually drinks it), but seriously— how obscure a connection are you willing to accept to be like Mike? If I really wanted to be like Mike, I’d think about working on my jump shot.
Interestingly, this particular marketing execution might not have worked in the somewhat distant past, if we are to believe what David Foster Wallace has to say about our fixation on images vs. belief systems. More on that here.
(1) Age of Propaganda, by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson. 2000.
(2) A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace. 1997.
(3) Names That Match Forge a Bond on the Internet, New York Times.