Elusive Trust

The history of public relations as a field is deeply intertwined with the history of mass media. Post-War public relations in particular became very much a streamlined process of building relationships with publications and broadcast networks. This was what made the most sense under that technological paradigm–if organizations wanted to get a message or project an image to their relevant audiences, mass media were really the only available channels.

As with every communications institution that grew up in the mass media environment, public relations is currently in the painful process of redefining itself.

The more interested I grow in the subject, the more I think about an incident a couple of years ago that seems to me to be a microcosm of the challenges that new media poses to anyone stuck in a mass media mindset.


Back in April of 2009, a number of books with homosexual themes suddenly stopped appearing in Amazon’s search results. A number of bloggers made a call to arms against what they perceived as deliberate and systematic discrimination. The whole thing blew up on Twitter under the hashtag #amazonfail. Amazon was slow to respond, but eventually explained that there had been a glitch originating in Amazon France that permeated their system. A fuller summary of events can be found here.

What ended #amazonfail were not the efforts of Amazon’s PR team, however, but a single post by Clay Shirky. I was astonished at the time how Shirky’s post seemed to dispel the whole thing like so much smoke in the wind. After he published it, a huge number of people shared the link, flooding the hashtag search for #amazonfail. Then, after less than a day, the volume of tweets on the subject dropped dramatically.

There are several aspects of this incident which are instructive.

First, during the entire time this thing was blowing up, there were a group of people who seized the moment to draw attention to discrimination against homosexuals in general. In general, it is the case that one interest’s PR disaster is someone else’s PR opportunity, and that plays a part in how the PR disaster grew in the first place.

Second, one influential outsider–Clay Shirky–was able to accomplish what no one on Amazon’s PR team could possibly have done. Precisely because he was an outsider, who had no stake in the matter, his words were more credible. He had a large audience–particularly in those days, when he was blogging fairly regularly. Many of the people who tweeted the link to his post hadn’t tweeted anything else on the subject of #amazonfail. This was noted with frustration by this guy, who had been extremely active during the whole fiasco and did not buy Shirky’s argument. I watched him at the time as he went from being part of the unified angry hoarde to among a few lone voices in the woods left who were still outraged after Shirky’s piece went viral.

What was way more valuable than anything anyone at Amazon could have done at the time was Shirky’s trust. If Shirky believed that Amazon’s explanation was just trying to cover up something they didn’t expect would draw so much attention, things would have gone very differently. Since Amazon had credibility–at least in Shirky’s eyes–he took them at their word.

Laying a Foundation

PR is and has always been about trying to influence the story about a company, or individual, or government. That hasn’t changed, and never will. What the modern technological shift has done is made it much more important to build trust. Trust in general, and trust from people like Clay Shirky in particular. If you are caught in a lie, it isn’t going to help you the next time around. And if you establish a pattern of being dishonest, the Clay Shirkys of the world will definitely not give you the benefit of the doubt.

When Facebook PR gets caught trying to bribe bloggers into smearing their competition, that doesn’t exactly inspire trust.

When Apple replaces your iPhone or Macbook, no questions asked, even if your warranty just expired like a week ago–that builds trust. I have never had this experience, but I’ve heard it from a lot of people I know, and it definitely made me feel more confident about my choice to buy an iPhone.

Trust is elusive; it is hard to build and easily lost. There is no formula for winning it, other than the obvious ones–be honest, admit mistakes, and engage your critics. None of which is any guarantee.

I don’t think PR needs to be redefined. The goals are constant over time; it’s just the tools that have changed.

We Are All Storytellers

From early man painting on the walls of caves, to the Enlightenment’s Republic of Letters, to J. K. Rowling writing books that are read in every corner of the globe, humanity has always been a species of storytellers. We are so deeply embedded in our own stories that we often lose sight of this, thinking of ourselves as the rational animal, or the moral animal. But these are parts of larger stories about ourselves; the one thing that is fundamentally human is not rationality or morality. It is our propensity to tell stories.

Characters in an Ongoing Story

Human memories are not stored like computer memory; they are recreated every time we attempt to call upon them. Moreover, they are recreated from the context of our present challenges and perspective. This makes a certain sense from an evolutionary standpoint–the only reason for an animal to have memory at all is to help it solve the problems it faces now and will face in the future.

In practice this means that our vision of our life up until now is always influenced by the story we believe about ourselves at this moment. For all of us think about ourselves as characters in an ongoing story; our life is not just a series of unrelated events but a cohesive plot with threads that run throughout. These threads have implications which influence the choices that we make.

Most of us also see ourselves as part of a much larger story; the story of our family, the story of our community or culture or nation, the story of mankind–and for many, the story of God. I am not a believer in that sense, but it has been my limited experience that feeling as though you are a part of a story much larger than yourself is both humbling and one of the few true paths to satisfaction. Of course, there are also those who devote themselves to larger causes and leave nothing for themselves–my story of the good life requires avoiding too much myopia and at the same time making sure not to give away too much of yourself.

Coherence is not Correctness

If called upon to explain something, especially our own actions, we will come up with a story that makes sense to us even if it quantifiably has nothing to do with reality. The fact that a story appeals to us does not make it accurate, even if it is internally consistent.

The past year–never mind the rest of the current economic downturn–has seen an enormous amount of imaginative storytelling in the economics community. In January, Tyler Cowen came out with The Great Stagnation, in which he described the current state of our economy as in a slowdown after a period of tremendous innovation and before another such period. Though Cowen is a libertarian himself, much of the criticism has come from libertarians who feel that The Great Stagnation contradicts their Schumpeterian story of markets feverishly generating innovation.

More recently, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee came out with Race Against the Machine, in which they argue that innovation has actually been accelerating and the problem is that machines are replacing people in many low-skill occupations and entrepreneurs have yet to figure out what new tasks those people can be productively put back to work doing. Arnold Kling tells a similar story, calling it variously the Recalculation Model and Patterns of Sustainable Specialization and Trade.

This debate between Brynjolfsson and Cowen is an excellent example of the difficulty in making a case for one story over another. Both individuals are very smart and extremely well versed in the literature and the data on the subject under discussion. Both employ statistics from official and academic sources. But statistics in and of themselves mean nothing–unemployment, for instance, is simply a number that the Bureau of Labor Statistics arrives at by conducting a survey of a subset of the population and then plugging the results into their statistical models. For the number to have any meaning, we have to have a story about the process that generated it–a story based on assumptions about meaningful sample sizes and what exactly unemployment is–not to mention why we should care.

Cowen has a story that involves, among other things, median income. Brynjolfsson came prepared with a story about why median income did not make the point that Cowen believed it did. Cowen came prepared with a story about why Brynjolfsson’s productivity statistics did not mean what he argued that they did. Seen as a struggle between contradicting narratives, the whole thing is really fascinating.

I find Brynjolfsson’s story much more appealing than Cowen’s, but both are perfectly coherent. Neither their appeal nor their coherence is really any help in figuring out if either of them are true.

Science is Storytelling

Science is a body of theories, and a theory is just a story about some specific aspect of the world we live in.

I think people tend to bristle when I say this because they think the implication is that science is as subjective as aesthetic taste, but that is not what I am saying. There is such a thing as a true story, or at least stories that are more or less accurate than one another. The fact that something is a story does not automatically relegate it to the same status as Little Red Riding Hood and general make believe.

What sets science apart from other bodies of stories is the powerful processes it has for filtering the more accurate and testable theories from those that are inferior in either or both regards.

Of course there are those who argue that science really is no different from fictional storytelling; but I find it hard to take this point of view seriously. Call my crazy, but I don’t think airplanes or the computer I’m typing this on came from nowhere.

Social Media is Storytelling

As people increasingly cluster into shared digital spaces like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit, we are getting increasingly exposed to other people’s stories. This includes literally the ongoing stories of people’s lives–as they get married, graduate, or simply have breakfast–but also the stories that other people have invested in. From political ideologies to religious beliefs to celebrities’ lives, we are both connecting with others on the basis of which stories we have in common and getting exposed to the stories of people we’ve already connected with.

The idea that the internet would result in “daily me” or “filter bubble” silos where we’re only ever exposed to what we want to be exposed to is the complete opposite of what is actually happening. The reality is that it is getting harder to avoid being exposed to a family member’s politics, or a friend’s interest in subject matter we find boring or offensive, or any subject that we want to avoid, without avoiding the internet entirely.

Just look at what happens when one story blows up and overshadows another that some people care about. People get angry and frustrated because the fact that others do not share their priorities means that the story they care about gets a lot less attention.

Adapting to life after the great digital migration will require more of a tolerance for being exposed to stories we may have no interest in or have a reflexive hostility towards.

Confession of a Story Hoarder

Storytelling is as close as I come to having something like religion. I love people’s stories; the stories of their lives and the stories they tell to make sense of this crazy and confusing world that we live in. Though I do not believe in the divine, a part of me enjoys the idea of one great storyteller who is writing all of this as we go along. I have a terrible memory for just about everything, but I will always remember your story if you choose to share it with me.

Without being pushy about it, I don’t think anyone should be afraid to share their stories. That’s what human life is all about! It’s how we connect with one another, it’s how we find meaning.

That’s all I have for this particular story. Hope you found it worth the time it took to read it.

On Being Public

When I read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, or Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, I was confronted with some truly big think ideas that took me a few months to really digest and get my head around after I had finished them.

Reading Jeff Jarvis’ Public Parts, by contrast, felt more like continuing a conversation that had been going and would continue well after I finished the book. In part this is because I listen to This Week in Google every week, and watched as Jarvis formulated the idea for the book and gradually became chief publicness advocate on the show.

But I had also been having discussions on this subject on my own. When Google+ first launched on an invite-only basis, they were looking for all the feedback they could get. The whole concept behind circles was to give people maximum control over their privacy with the minimum possible effort, in response to concerns expressed about Facebook, not to mention Google itself. The debates that took place those first couple of weeks made me eager for Jarvis’ book to come out–so many people put so much stock on the importance of privacy, without taking into account the value of being public!

Jarvis has been practicing what he preaches for some time, talking openly about his prostate cancer and the unfortunate side effects of the treatment on his blog. One complaint that people have about this is that most of his readers subscribe to his blog to read his commentary on media, and don’t want to hear about his surgery-induced impotence. But Jarvis argues that he, personally, got value from being public, because he received a ton of feedback from people who had experience with what he was going through and were able to give him advice.

Morever, there is a social benefit to talking about such things in public–now, anyone who has prostate cancer can find Jarvis’ blog posts on the subject–as well as all the helpful comments on them–simply by searching on Google.

Jarvis doesn’t discount privacy, but he does think there is a dearth of publicness advocates relative to the big privacy advocacy industry that has cropped up. Since participating in those discussions on Google+, and reading his book, I have begun to look at things through the lens of the value of being public.

The recent Hyperbole and a Half, Adventures in Depression, is a perfect example. I have a lot of friends and family who have suffered through depression, but I haven’t lived it myself. The writer of H&H gave someone like me an insight into what it is like that I had never had. At the same time, the people I know who have experience with depression universally seemed glad that someone had so perfectly, and humorously, described what they have gone through.

For those of us who don’t command the kind of audiences that Hyperbole and a Half or Jeff Jarvis have, there is still plenty of reason to be public. You may not even realize who cares about the events in your life and is willing to make an effort to support and encourage you if you limit the people you share with. When my friend Kelly wrote this very brave and very honest post about what she’s been going through, she received some very wonderful feedback from an unexpected source, and it made her day.

This doesn’t mean that everything needs to be made public all the time. But it’s important to take the value of being public seriously, and to think hard about how you present yourself in public.

I created this site, under this domain, on a server I pay for, because as I was reading Jarvis’ book I started to rethink the way I was conducting my public life. I have no problem with my various social network profiles, and Blogger blogs, showing up when someone Googles me, but I wanted to have one site that I owned from beginning to end, under nothing but my own name. I don’t think everyone needs to do this, but I do think it’s something everyone should consider–and something schools should be informing students is an option.

So how could you benefit from being more public?

Innovation will Bubble Up from the Long Tail

I recently wrote that the long tail of digital content producers–that is, the vast majority–will make nearly nothing in revenue. This is especially true when compared to the head of the tail, the tiny fraction of content producers that will earn the vast majority of the revenue. By this I did not mean that the long tail was unimportant–in fact, I believe that the long tail is the most important segment, because that is where the future can be found.

Social Trial and Error

Societies progress through continual and parallel processes of trial and error. Small groups adopt products or activities or norms, a subset of which are picked up by larger groups, and even smaller subset of which goes on to yet a larger group. This process continues until only a tiny fraction of the original products, activities, or norms go mainstream.

An enormous number of trials end up discarded before a single one makes it to even a middle level of adoption, much less the favored few that go mainstream–or stay there long.

This phenomena, well documented in the diffusion of innovations literature, is most familiar to people in the fast moving world of consumer technology, where phrases like “early adopters” are used in casual conversation. It applies to anything that could proliferate across groups–for example, art, and content more generally.

A Hotbed of New Ideas and Failure

An unknown, aspiring writer in today’s world faces the same problem as any unknown, aspiring writer did in generations past–obscurity. He has many more tools at his disposal than his equivalents in the past did–he can start a blog, podcast, and connect with others on social networks to promote his work. There are also many, many more places he can submit his work–there are still magazines in the traditional sense, but there are many more online outlets of widely varying audiences.

These tools are available to any aspiring writer, however–in fact, the barriers to putting out your writing in public are so low that huge swaths of people who wouldn’t have even tried in the past are also putting their stuff out there. If anything, the web and the new opportunities it affords have actually reduced the probability that any one aspiring author will make it big.

If they want to set themselves apart, they will have to innovate. Of course, as touched on above, most of these innovations will fail to gain any traction. The new and exciting things happening in writing, however, will come from the successful subset of these innovations.

Scott Sigler is an example of a successful innovator in digital writing. After losing his book deal ten years ago, he learned about podcasting and decided to record and serialize his book himself, and put it out for free. He continued to do this after the first book, and eventually had built up a big enough audience to catch the attention of Dragon Moon Press, a small independent publisher. On the strength of his online following–who helped not only with sales but with marketing the book–the book managed to rocket up Amazon’s bestseller list. This caught the attention of Random House, with whom he currently has a contract. His second book with them was a New York Times bestseller. He isn’t selling Harry Potter-level blockbusters, but he has definitely moved up out of the long tail and into the head.

Sigler wasn’t the sole creator of the podcast novel; others were trying it out at basically the same time. But Kevin Kelly has documented how innovations and ideas tend to occur in parallel in art, as well as in science, math, and technology.

The podcast novel is a great example of how this dynamic works, too, because while it helped launch the careers of Sigler and some of his peers, the form itself has yet to become anything like mainstream. It has grown over time, but Podiobooks.com, one of the largest repositories for podcast novels on the web, still boasts a mere 569 titles, and a registered audience of 83,000. If you asked a random individual, even a random book enthusiast, odds are extremely low that they would have even heard of podcast novels.

Most innovations never make it even this far–but there is still no guarantee that podcast novels will get to the level of mainstream adoption, or even mainstream awareness.

The Head of the Tail is Conservative

The big record labels, publishing houses, and movie studios will never try something truly new. I am confident on this point–anything that is celebrated as being new from these big institutions will in fact just be the first time that big money has been spent on a form that was tried out first by individuals in the long tail.

It makes sense–a lone writer, musician, or filmmaker is working with a very small budget. In a writer’s case, they may pay next to nothing and face an opportunity cost made up primarily of their time. If they try something new and different and it fails, they may be out a few months of work. A big publishing house, on the other hand, has to pay the salaries of its army of editors, not to mention the costs of promoting a work. In dollar terms at least, failure hurts a publishing house a lot more than it hurts the lone, unknown author.

And publishing houses still fail more often than they succeed. They just win really big when they do win, and that subsidizes the failures. Profitably depends on their ability to increase the fraction of the authors they sign on who end up being successes, and minimizing the failures.

For that reason, they are always going to stick to the tried and true. Innovations will have to gain widespread adoption in the long tail–and for a while–before they bubble up to the head.

Consider the movement towards ebooks. The formats that Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple are providing consumers are essentially nothing more than the digitization of the print versions. They do not offer the increased capabilities that digital technology makes possible–of including video and audio files mixed in with the text, for example, something commonly done on blogs. They optimize for the tried and true, because all the money is being invested in the tried and true.

Mechanisms exist for making money from innovations–you could pitch an idea beforehand on Kickstarter, or make an app for smartphones and tablets and charge a price for it. Only after a respectable amount of money has been made by innovators will the institutions at the head of the tail start to take notice.

So while I don’t agree with Chris Anderson’s original hypothesis that the long tail will be of increasing monetary significance to businesses, I do think that it will be an even greater engine of innovation in the digital era than it was in the analog one.

Standing at the Tip of the Iceberg

Who Says What to Whom on Twitter is an absolutely fantastic piece of scholarship. It received a fair amount of visibility among the tech press for one of its findings–that 0.05 percent of Twitter users account for 50 percent of “tweets consumed”–IE, tweets that appear in people’s timelines. This was actually the least interesting finding of the study as far as I was concerned. Anyone who had read Clay Shirky’s essay on power laws would have anticipated that kind of disproportion.

What interested me about the study was first and foremost the methodology–the authors thought through very carefully how to go about gathering data, classifying the different users, and what the flaws of their approaches were. They then took measures to adjust for those flaws. For example, they used two separate methods for categorizing the most followed users in their sample. Each method had completely distinct biases, so the fact that they both yielded very similar results made a strong case that the authors were on the right track.

The study put the “elite” (highly followed) Twitter accounts into four categories–celebrities, media, organizations, and bloggers. Interestingly, they found that each category mostly followed and retweeted members of their own category. I immediately began to think of the economics blogosphere, which involves a handful of very widely read bloggers who all read and engage with one another. As Paul Krugman recently put it:

Twenty years ago it was possible and even normal to get research into circulation and have everyone talking about it without having gone through the refereeing process – but you had to be part of a certain circle, and basically had to have graduated from a prestigious department, to be part of that game. Now you can break in from anywhere; although there’s still at any given time a sort of magic circle that’s hard to get into, it’s less formal and less defined by where you sit or where you went to school.

Emphasis added by me.

Most bloggers these days also have Twitter accounts–this pattern also holds for the economics blogosphere. I would love to use the methodology adopted by the authors of “Who Says What to Whom on Twitter” in order to find and categorize the members of Krugman’s “magic circle” in order to more closely study the dynamics of that circle. The economics blogosphere is a microcommunity, a subset of the larger web and Twitter community–and within that microcommunity are people who more closely follow specific members of the circle than others, who are into Austrian economics, or monetary economics, or development economics. Observing how the online economics microcommunity coheres and fragments, in comparison to the larger view that the paper takes, would be very interesting indeed.

Part of what is so exciting about reading a paper like “Who Says What to Whom on Twitter” is both the sense of a larger media literature that spans decades, and the sheer newness of the field of social media research in particular. There is still so much unexplored territory. In attempting to answer the “what” of the titular question, the authors are forced to limit their focus to the New York Times‘ Twitter account, since the content that they tweet has been categorized already by what section of the newspaper it is in. This is a novel approach, but one the authors admit is quite limited.

How could one possibly categorize content on a larger scale? The authors mention another study that uses Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to this end, but argue that this approach does not scale well. I think that the companies in a position to do this right are the big search engines. Google and Microsoft get millions and billions and queries a day, and they record the specifics of what keywords people put in and what links they subsequently clicked. Moreover, they have methods for determining whether the websites they clicked were actually looking for.

Someone working in the Google or Microsoft research departments could take the data from Twitter and categorize the content being linked to by looking at what terms people used when clicking to that content from their search engines (and being satisfied with the result).

The breadth of the knowledge represented by the existing literature on media generally, and social media and the web in particular, is far larger than any one individual could possibly cover comprehensively. And yet, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what can be known in these areas.

I urge those of you reading the sea of blogs on social media out there to take the time, every so often, to read a paper like Who Says What to Whom on Twitter. As Tyler Cowen once said of the economics blogosphere, “We’re just a small number of apes sitting at computers, relative to the overall literature.” There are people out there, like Duncan Watts and his co-authors, who are thinking very hard about the challenges of trying to understand social media and investing time and resources into tackling them.