“Should I kill myself or read another Twitter message?”: Camus’ question for the social media generation

The above quote is a reworking of Albert “The Outsider” Camus’ existentialist poser: “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” It is referred to in Barry Schwartz’s highly insightful cult classic, The Paradox of Choice to stress the point that everything in life is a choice. One of the key themes in Schwartz’s book is that although having no choice at all is a bad thing, having an ever expanding growth in choice isn’t leading us to the promised land either.

In other words, choice overload is an even more serious problem them information overload. And choice overload is clearly in abundance in the world of PR, marketing and social media – whether it is the range of marketing channels available (and ways in which these can be combined), or the number of 3rd party agencies and suppliers queuing up to offer their services to the deluged client side buyers.

As Schwartz says: “Filtering out extraneous information is one of the basic functions of consciousness. If everything available to our senses demanded our attention at all times, we wouldn’t be able to get through the day.” (He has clearly never used Twitter).

We are becoming trapped by what economist Fred Hirch has referred to as “the tyranny of small decisions” (or in social media terms, the Tyranny of the Twitter Stream or the infinitely expanding Google Reader RSS subscription list). According to Clay Shirky, there is no such thing as information overload, merely “filter failure.” If that is true, then we just need to build better filters. But presumably building better filters requires us to be more clear and decisive about our goals. And as Schwartz fascinatingly points out: “Goal setting and decision making begins with the question, ‘What do I want?”. But knowing what we want means being able to anticipate accurately how one choice or another will make us feel, and that is no easy task.” A number of experiments cited show that our predictions about how we will feel about our goal making decisions are usually wrong. “Susceptibility to error can only get worse as the number and complexity of decisions increase, which in general describes the conditions of daily life. The growth of options and opportunities for choice has three, related unfortunate effects:

It means that decisions require more effort

It makes mistakes more likely

It makes the psychological consequences of mistakes more severe

Another key element of the book is the distinction between people who are maximisers and satisficers. “Choosing wisely begins with developing a clear understanding of your goals. And the first choice you must make is between the goal of choosing the absolute best and the goal of choosing something that is good enough”.

If you seek and accept only the best, you are a maximiser. Maximisers need to be “assured that every decision was the best that could be made. Yet how can anyone truly know that any given option is absolutely the best possible? The only way is to check out all the alternatives. As a decision strategy, maximising creates a daunting task, which becomes all the more daunting as the number of options increases.”

Take some social media examples. A Twitter maximiser will presumably keep following more people and reading more Tweets in order to reassure themselves they have found the absolute best in terms of Twitterers and material. They will click every link they can to make sure they haven’t missed that vital blog post or news story. Or what about a client side PR director who in order to reassure themselves they have chosen the right agency will keep adding to the pitch list until they have 20 agencies lined up (as Schwartz points out, the more alternatives you consider the more likely you are to suffer from buyer’s remorse and still feel disatisfied with your decision – he cites a number of experiments which seem to verify this principle – at last, scientific proof of the ineffectiveness of lengthy pitch lists!) He has a lot more to say on maximisers, but one of the key conclusions is that maximisers tend to be unhappier people – and unhappy people tend to be poor decision makers.

Contrast this with “satisficers”. To satisfice is to settle for something that is “good enough” and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better. A satisficer has criteria and standards. He or she will search until they find the item (whatever it is) that meets those standards and at that point stop. They are not concerned that a better alternative might be just around the corner.

I could go on, but I’m making a decision to stop now and go and do something else instead. Suffice to say there is a lot be learnt from The Paradox of Choice – and I shall return to it again in later blog posts.

So. Should I follow yet another person on Twitter? Spend another few minutes on Tweetdeck? Or kill myself? Or go an re-read some Camus?

Less is Moore: the rise of “good enough” PR and technology

No, that isn’t a typo in the headline. Less is Moore is the title of an editorial leader column in today’s Economist.

In a timely piece, the article says that we are now seeing a rapid increase in interest in products and services that apply the flip side of Moore’s Law: namely, that instead of providing ever-increasing performance at a particular price, they provide a particular level of performance at an ever-lower price. The Economist describes this phenomenon as “good enough” computing. Examples cited include netbooks, virtualisation and software as a service (SaaS). Moore’s law hasn’t gone away, it’s simply that “more people are taking the dividend it provides in cash rather than processor cycles.

The whole “less is more” (normal spelling) principle is hardly new – but its application is being seen in a variety of perhaps novel areas. Take software development. I’m a big fan of 37Signals, the makers of low cost, SaaS software apps. A couple of years ago, they produced an excellent PDF book called Getting Real. Although ostensibly about software development, as the authors themselves say, the basic principles can be applied in a host of other areas – including PR and social media.

Taking some of the chapter headings as an example, Getting Real is about:

Small teams, rapid prototyping, expecting iterations, etc

Build less, focus on the problem, not your ideas about the problem.

Less features, less options, less people and corporate structure, less meetings and abstractions, less promises.

Constraints forcing creativity. Constraints force you to get your ideas out in to the wild sooner.

Less mass (the leaner you are, the easier it is to change). Lower Your Cost of Change. Be Yourself.

Many of these themes appear elsewhere in the world eg Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Week extolls the virtue of less is more ie cut down on the number of inputs to your life (e-mail, etc) and focus on quality output. This in turn is simply putting the 80/20 Principle into practice.

Charles Arthur at The Guardian has also pointed to a very timely interview with Clay “Here Comes Everybody” Shirky. In it, he makes some very good points about the fact that there is no such thing as “information overload, there’s only filter failure.” In other words, less is more.

Of course, you could argue that the “less is more” principle is related to the concept of “focus”. And just about every business book I have read in the last few years stresses the importance of focus. Trouble is, it’s easier to talk about focus than to do it. People generally don’t know what to focus on – or want some kind of reassurance that if they do focus on something, that it is the “right” thing to focus on.

Personally, I still stand by the late Sir Karl Popper when he said that we should give up the historicist notion of predicting the future and concentrate on solving problems. Choose the important problems to solve – personally and societally – and get on with it.

As management guru Peter Drucker once said: “The only advantage a corporation has over an individual is access to capital”. Of course, in today’s environment, even that advantage is removed.

The world of PR and social media thus has much to learn from the above. Perhaps the time of “good enough PR” has arrived. By far and away my most popular blog post of last year was How to Start A PR Company with Google and a Credit Card (I stand by everything I said in that post, other than to add a few more low cost tools to the list such as the excellent SaaS accounting package Xero).

So for all those folk in PR land who may be losing their job at the moment or worried about losing it, think of this as a great time to do your own thing. What’s the worst that could happen? (As Tim Ferriss would argue, it probably won’t so you’ve nothing to lose).

Yes, we are living in severely testing times – but as mentioned above, constraints force creativity. For all those working in social media and PR – stay small, lean, agile and focussed. Don’t pay lip service to listening. You know it makes sense.

Five tips for a healthier social network: New Scientist on “social contagion”

According to the latest issue of New Scientist, recent research shows that our moods are more strongly influenced by those around us than we tend to think. Not only that but we are also “beholden to the moods of friends of friends, and of friends of friends of friends – people three degrees of separation away from us who we have never met, but whose disposition can pass through our social network like a virus.” In short, we are who we hang out with.

No surprises there you may think. However, Michael Bond’s excellent article shows that maths and hard data are being deployed in a wide range of areas to reveal some curious aspects of how social networks of all varieties seem to work (it is well worth the effort to read the full feature).

According to Bond: “a whole range of phenomena are transmitted through networks of friends in ways that are not entirely understood: happiness and depression, obesity, drinking and smoking habits, ill-health, the inclination to turn out and vote in elections, a taste for certain music or food, a preference for online privacy, even the tendency to attempt or think about suicide. They ripple through networks “like pebbles thrown into a pond”, says Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who has pioneered much of the new work.”

Later in the piece he continues: “While the mechanism of social contagion varies depending on the phenomenon being spread, in many cases the dynamics are very similar. For example, Christakis has found that with happiness, obesity and smoking habits, the effect of other people’s behaviour carries to three degrees of separation and no further. He speculates that this could be the case with most or perhaps all transmissible traits. Why three degrees? One theory is that friendship networks are inherently unstable because peripheral friends tend to drop away. “While your friends are likely to be the same a year from now, your friends of friends of friends of friends are likely to be entirely different people,” says Christakis.

And perhaps in an even more telling section, Bond reveals that: “Sociologists and others are using mathematical models to test these dynamics to try to understand better what triggers the spread of behaviours. Duncan Watts at Columbia University has shown that seeding localised social groups with certain ideas or behaviours can lead to the ideas cascading across entire global networks. This contradicts the notion – promoted by the author Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point and others – that social epidemics depend on a few key influential individuals from whom everyone else takes their cue. It doesn’t ring true, argues Watts, because such “influentials” typically interact with only a few people. The key for the spread of anything, he says, from happiness to the preference for a particular song, is a critical mass of interconnected individuals who influence one another.”

All of this clearly has major implications for social media and online PR. It may be argued that most PR is an attempt to influence or “trigger” certain kinds of behaviour (ie buy my client’s message or product). I have to say I never ever did accept Gladwell’s theory of a few key individals acting as “gatekeepers.” And research now seems to be bearing this out. And what if three degrees of separation is shown to be a universal “influence limit?”

Having a greater understanding of the dynamics of social network behaviour and as well as what constitutes the “critical mass” of interconnected individuals for a given client goal or situation is surely going to be a key objective for any savvy digital PR specialist in 2009.

And on that note, have a look at Michael Bond’s top five tips for a healthier social network (applying this to the realm of social media, it offers a useful framework for who (and how much time) you spend with people…)

Michael Bond, New Scientist: Five tips for a healthier social network

1. Choose your friends carefully.

2. Choose which of your existing friends you spend the most time with. For example, hang out with people who are upbeat, or avoid couch potatoes.

3. Join a club whose members you would like to emulate (running, healthy cooking), and socialise with them.

4. If you are with people whose emotional state or behaviours you could do without, try to avoid the natural inclination to mimic their facial expressions and postures.

5. Be aware at all times of your susceptibility to social influence – and remember that being a social animal is mostly a good thing.

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