The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Media Insider.
Recently, I talked about the planeload of social media influencers that managed to ruffle the half-frozen feathers of we normally phlegmatic Canadians. But that example got me thinking.
Outrage -- or, as the French say, “outre” -- sells. The more outrageous it is, the better it seems to work. James William Awad, the man behind the Plane of Shame, knew this. And we all just obligingly fell into his trap.
This all depends on understanding how social networks work. Let’s begin by admitting that humans love to gossip. Information gives us status. The more interesting the information, the higher its value -- and, accordingly, the higher our social status. The currency of social networks is curiosity, having something that people will pay attention to.
But there is also the element of tribal identification. We signal who we are by the information we share. To use Canadian sociologist Ervin Goffman’s analogy, we are all actors and what we share is part of the role we have built for ourselves.
But these roles are not permanent. They shift depending on what stage we’re on and who the audience is.
In today’s world, social media has given us a massive stage. And I suspect this might overload our normal social mechanisms. On this stage, we know that things that spread on social media tend to be in outlier territory, far from the boring middle ground of the everyday. They could be things we love or things that shock and outrage. Whether we love or hate the things we share depends on which tribe we identify with at the time.
Think of us humans as having a sharing thermostat where the trigger point is set depending on how strongly our emotions are triggered. If a post with new information doesn’t hit the threshold, it doesn’t get shared. Once that threshold is passed, the likelihood to share increases with the intensity of our emotions.
It’s true for us, and because we’re human, it’s also true for everyone else who sees our post. The benefits of sharing juicy information is immediately reinforced through the dopamine-releasing high of getting likes and shares. The higher the number, the bigger the natural high.
But even when they lie well out in outlier territory, good news and bad news are not created equal. In evolutionary terms, we are hardwired to pay more attention to bad news. Good news might make us temporarily feel better, but bad news might kill us. If we want to survive long enough to pass on our genes, we’d better pay attention to the things that threaten us. That’s why traditional broadcasters know, “if it bleeds, it leads.”
Harvard Business School professor Amit Goldenberg found the same is true for social networks. “Although people produce much more positive content on social media in general, negative content is much more likely to spread,” says Goldenberg.
This creates an interesting – and potentially dangerous – arena for social and influencer marketing. The example I used in my last post is a perfect example. If you can outrage people, you win. It will spread virally through social networks, creating so much noise that eventually, traditional media will pick it up. This then connects the story to a broader social media audience. You get an amplification feedback loop that keeps reaching more and more people. Yes, the majority of the people will be outraged, but your target market will be delighted. Again, it all depends on which tribe you identify with.
It's this appeal to the basest of human instincts that is troubling about this new spin on “earned” media. Savvy marketers have learned to game the system by pushing our hot buttons, leaving us in a perpetual state of pissed-off-edness.
The most frustrating thing is -- it works.