Forty years ago, Denis Norden a much-loved British presenter, first introduced what would eventually become a long-running annual staple of UK light entertainment TV: ‘It Will be Alright on the Night.’ The programme celebrated unplanned bloopers - often involving celebrities or household names.
Norden’s team took months uncovering reels of gaffes that otherwise would never have seen the light of day. Viewing a crisis with the benefit of hindsight and balanced context, Norden revealed that often on-screen plots were part of a much bigger story being played off-camera (especially when a broadcast was live).
Today, sealed film spools have been replaced by open-sourced debate driven by anyone irrespective of age, status or experience. Emerging information moves in and out of our mobile or fixed screen consciousness - altering world views by the nanosecond.
Each cliff-hanger moment is an invitation for the social media universe to RSVP: Rebuke, Slate, Vituperate and Probabilify – and in so doing, undergo an existential crisis. Social media feedback potentially turns every moment into a drama – and just as easily replenishes each apogee with a yet more salacious brand-crunch instant attracting a fresh slew of babble.
Unless you are either ‘time-rich’ or mainly use digital for in-depth research, journalism or academia, left to its normal everyday devices, social potentially transforms informed hindsight into a notion from a bygone age – and that’s dangerous.
Ever since its conception and early days of developments like LINUX, the web has been touted as the great democratiser. As part of the propaganda promoting the web as being “awesome”, “cool” and generally the centre of our existence, we are constantly told that social media is the latest iteration of egalitarianism. But is it really? Beyond on-screen quips, on closer examination it turns out that social commentary is often driven by personal or group commercial / cultural / religious / political / esteem or other ‘control’ agendas beyond the source of their revulsion. That makes it a powerful global psychotherapeutic catharsis instrument to vent frustrations, throw out aspersions and generally bellyache for everyone from President Trump, to sports fans, incensed former employees… jilted lovers… Brexiteers… and more…
Psychotherapeutically speaking “better out than in” – right?
Russell Geen, author of the book Human Aggression, says that while “blowing off steam” at somebody may provisionally calm an angry person, mid-term it is more likely to magnify underlying aggression and escalate retaliation. Add the anonymity of the web to the mix, and before too long, social media snap judgements become irons that stoke an even fiercer furnace.
James A. F. Stoner first identified the so-called “risky shift": faced with the same decision problem, individuals within a group make riskier decisions, compared with actions they would otherwise take outside the group.
Group Polarisation intensifies individual opinions. This is especially true online. Here’s why: Despite being addicted to the web, it increasingly (physically) isolates us. Next, the web’s psycho-eco system rewards attention seeking… Next, obsession with the digital-self has become a universal neurosis – routinely encouraged from early childhood to gnaw at the psyche. Throw in the promise of an empathetic digital social channel assuring strong virtual – and so relatively anonymous (and so low personal commitment) common ties, and people are more likely to act in ways that would be considered as reckless beyond the masking properties of the digital world.
As the web reaches ever more deeply into the human psyche, casual social media conversations and reflections become throw-away commodities; eventually leading (in my estimation - around twenty-years) to authentic ‘live’ direct human-to-human face conversation becoming treasured as a highly prized long-lost gem relics.
Currently each digitally broadcast misplaced step, awry look, stumble, slip of clothing, inappropriate word, forgotten cue or, in the case of the recent Oscars, wrong envelope opening - is potentially broadcast globally and instantly for all to share… comment upon and scorn.
Don’t get me wrong, freedom of speech is not only noble – but should be celebrated. However, with amateur bloggers insouciantly shooting off instinct-led rounds of rebuke from anywhere including the privacy of a toilet, to openness of a public park, too often in an effort be heard, a conversion’s velocity becomes dictated by the vehemence of tweets and posts rather than veracity of an argument.
The global village, helps ensure that every drama is no further than six connections of separation from becoming a crisis. Once developed, the crisis can be milked politically / commercially / socially / economically/ culturally for all it’s got – irrespective of any single person in the social chain even knowing first-hand the complete story behind the crisis.
The gasps of the audience are now more important than the events on the stage.
Remove Pavlovian knee-jerk tweet reactions to incidents and many otherwise relatively trivial slipups would remain just that - slipups. Of course, sometimes damage is serious – and justifiably deserves serious scrutiny. (That’s why we will always need investigative journalists).
Comparably to the invention of the printing press – where the means to disseminate information didn’t automatically make a story balanced or truthful - so even with the best intentions, in social media’s naïve effort to control wider media strategies frequently rather than setting agendas, social media users inadvertently become little more than noisy Extras fodder in a battle scene, egged on by Press troops, overviewed by commanding powers and endorsed by an entire battalion of ‘experts’ and consultants – with players ingenuously taking roles in the food-chain pecking order of hoop-la designed to turn tittle-tattle into battle cries which are collectively worse than individual bites.
Press fuelled controversy of Fake News and alternative facts encourages people to focus on moments – rather than minutes. “Misinformation overload” is the latest chip off a block of bed-rock called “information overload”.
Hurling rotten tomatoes at the social stocks
During these superficial, befuddling times, people clutch at virtual straws to create substantive meaning out of anything that ratifies a certain view and so provides a sense of self or group worth, esteem and purpose. For example, cropped, out of context footage from a blooper gets clamped on YouTube / Twitter/ Facebook social village stocks to draw abusive commentary from passing crowds. Before they…you …or anyone really knows the full truth, augmented by all the hearsay, footage and alternative agendas, thinly skinned tittle-tattle coalesces into air-pockets of ‘social bubbles’ containing empty opinions that bounce off each other to a samba of likeminded mutual beliefs and hollow sentiments.
Social bubbles have become components of ‘Butterfly communications’ distinguished by a succession of briefly lived periods of magnificent displays of social activity. At the core of its moment-by-moment ecosystem, casual, often uncorroborated scuttlebutt, shapes not just perceptions of how a ‘live’ gaffe is interpreted, but helps determine how long the gaffe remains at the top of the global digital psyche.
In a fraught attempt to hold more moments of interest from an increasingly attention deficit, existential cyber-crowdsource, many social platforms streaming ‘as it happens’ content, resort to gamification designed to encourage otherwise apathetic viewers to leave comments via binary quantitative feedback mechanisms such as childlike emojis. (“I either like something, or I don’t like something” – as opposed to qualitative feedback – “why I like or dislike something”). As a vital component of the unrelenting drive to dumb down society in ways that even Advertising’s greatest Mad Men could have only imagined in their wildest dreams, such crude pictographs make entry into gamification a ‘no-brainer’.
And what is good enough for social platforms becomes ‘pseudo-best practice’ for brands. Marketing departments email edicts to “cut-cut-cut” content from minutes to seconds and from pages to paragraphs. As with so many aspects of Groupthink, whenever in doubt – everything boils down to the lowest common denominator solution. Penetrating insights get circumcised into stubby soundbites. Before long, the thought of the average person being able to handle even basic insights become considered as simply too much for the human mind.
Giving the thumbs up to the five-star treatment
Related to all this, Netflix just replaced its standard five-star rating reviews with a dualistic Facebook-style ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ approach. (Reportedly Netflix’s own research showed a 200% increase in ratings received from ‘thumbs up/down’ vs. traditional one to five-star scales). However, the move may turn out to be disingenuous for Netflix. In its favour the simpler approach amasses even more customer data for Netflix. However, when brands simply draw larger data from plain binary reactions rather than more subtle nuances, big data tends to over shadow small but crucial human data – ultimately delivering shallower insights - leading to even more banal content.
In fact, returning to James A.F Stoner and Group Polarisation, the news for Netflix – along with any social platform boasting ‘no-brainer’ gamification, may be even more worrying.
For example, let’s take a pre-rating change Netflix critic. Maybe he or she wasn’t overly impressed by every aspect of a certain movie. Perhaps the plot was excellent - but acting just ‘so-so’. The critic scores the movie a three, or four out of five-star rating. Today the same critic can only score the movie a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’. With no middle ground, as in any groupthink behaviour offering a degree of anonymity, online social groups tend to err on the side of negative criticism. After all, it’s cooler to be part of a rebel clan than join ‘yes-men’ dweebs.
On balance, occasional bloopers – as opposed to serious mistakes - make everyone – including brands wishing to appear authentic - human. Should a gaffe occur, every reputable brand still deserves to be judged by more than any single moment in time.
With an ego-centric crowd leading the conversation, perhaps more than ever, brands have the right to tell a fuller story. If not, the chances of things that didn’t turn out right on the night being forgiven the morning after, are set to become slimmer than ever.