Category Archives: Frontier Scientist

Cause and Effect and the Gratification of Audiences

At the start of ’07 there was a little startup called Justin TV, offering live streaming services at a time when bandwidth and ubiquitous Internet were still scarcities. As a proof of concept, Justin strapped a webcam to his head and began streaming his life 24/7. At any given time a couple thousand strangers were tuned in, watching Justin eat, hang with friends, vegging in front of the television or sleeping. I happened to catch a particular moment in which Justin and his friends went out for a bite at a nearby restaurant. Within minutes the chat had ID’d where Justin was eating and had posted the phone number of the restaurant. People began phoning in repeatedly. Some were pranking, claiming they were the police and Justin was a criminal. Others were trying to get Justin on the phone. In the background of the live stream you could hear the continuous ringing.

That particular moment summed up a great deal of the power the Internet holds. Aside from the access to information and the ability to collaborate, people realized that they could impact what was happening on the screen in front of them, and jumped to take advantage of that.

Cause and effect is a powerful stimulant to our brains. Our brains are continually examining patterns of events looking to piece together the cause leading to the effect. When we have an opportunity to instigate the cause, and our brain laps it up. You push the button, it rings the bell. Our brain does a little happy dance over our ability to control the environment around us.

Internet trolling is all about pushing buttons. There is no ideology at play. No political agenda. They don’t have a vested interest in a side of an argument, they just want to get the argument going and then watch from the side, knowing they made this happen. Knowing the bell that tolls, tolls because of them.

As much as social media platforms are built to facilitate discourse and sharing of content, they are equally built as a button with a bell. Post an image you know will get a laugh. Hear the bing-bongs of Facebook notifications as your social circle like and share the image. Share an article you know will lead to the same outrage you felt. Count the retweets.

Push the button. Hear the bell. Happy dance.

The smart marketing and communications professional has always been adept at wrapping the button and bell into their work. Cause. Effect. Give your audience mastery over the world, even if it is just a ding of a bell.

Business, however, has been less effective at dealing when the bell ringing is damage to their trade. We’re slow to identify when the button pushing is directed towards us and we fail miserably by thinking, if we just ring the bell a little bit, maybe they’ll stop pushing that button. Of course, every ring of the bell just encourages more button pushing.

Take five minutes today and think really hard about what’s going on today with your business. What’s the button? What’s the bell? Whom is that bell tolling for? Then go and change things for the better.

Happy dance.

I Take Comfort in Kerfuffles


The culture of outrage is worrisome to me. We jump too quick without checking our facts, rally numbers in the hundreds or thousands in minutes, and react disproportionately to the offense. Calming voices tend to get shouted over, or worse turned upon in tribal cries of “if you’re not with us you’re against us.

The torches and pitchforks sail along my river-of-news at least a couple of times a day on Twitter and Facebook. Every brand manager worries about the day those torches and pitchforks are for them; because of an ill-chosen word or lapse in judgement in content selection or bizarre confluence of events that made your brand today’s target.

My understanding of the human brain*, is that it is wired to continually assess its environment and identify danger. The rustling in the bushes that either signifies a wolf is getting set to pounce upon you and yours or that there is a slight breeze. Our brains are great big pattern recognition devices continuously taking on information and throwing it through the safe/threat filter. We huddle around listening to negative gossip and reading the salacious headlines and tuning in to the breaking coverage, because anything unsettling and worisome satisfies your brain’s need to identify a threat in your environment.

But that deep down need to watch for danger doesn’t understand the difference between here and now vs elsewhere; it doesn’t understand statistical likelihood. The rare occurance of a shark attack off New Zealand becomes an uneasiness to take a dip off the shores of Jersey. We get nervous to fly after word of an airline disaster despite risking our lives a hundred times more so in the drive to the airport. We take a single adverse affect out of a million doses to be reason enough to avoid life saving treatment.

And in the lack of actual real danger, we hyper-inflate the smallest of concerns to be real and immediate threats. The rustling in the bushes may have been a mouse instead of a wolf, but we’ll sound the alarm and grab our torches and pitchforks all the same. And therein is where I take my comfort in the inane kerfuffle of the day.

When you’re struggling to feed yourself, when you’re in actual risk of bodily harm, when you honestly don’t know if your child will wake up tomorrow, you don’t have time to take offense over a misspoken word, or a logo redesign you interpret to be lewd, or a piece of content you interpret with ill-intent.

The parade of pitchforks and torches chasing after the mice up and down my newsfeeds serve as a constant reminder that the days of wolves are long past and that we actually have a pretty damn good life. Slim consolation if you’re the community manager having to fend off the mob today, but consolation, nevertheless.

*noteI am not a neuroscientist. Haven’t even played one on TV. But I take an interest in how the mind works with relation to storytelling and why people seek out certain narratives as opposed to others. This conjecture is based on my current understanding of why we think the way we think, but I welcome corrections, should there be doctor in the house.


Patrick Stewart and the Tralfamadorian Greeting

Patrick Stewart at Comicapalooza, Houston 2013 - photo by Randall Pugh
image by Randall Pugh

When the media was only a handful of channels, only the most significant of stories would find their way to us. Massive life changing events that could only be described with, “Oh the humanity.”

The everyday stories. The things that we tell each other over a drink or at the evening dinner. The little anecdotes that we experience. Those were always too small to reach the media save in drips and drabs. The disease of the week. The consumer advocacy tale. The plucky little kid that started a bottle drive. The elderly gent blowing out the candles on his hundredth birthday. But really they were just fillers. Noise to fill the air between commercial breaks because not every day was an “oh the humanity” day.

These stories and happenings would be just memories to the few people who witnessed, and those witnesses may share the tale when the context was right or when trying themselves to fill the time with a prior more interesting event. And once you’ve relayed the tale to those that you know and they’d heard it once, twice, a dozen times too many, it would simply become a memory. And then it would be gone.

Take a moment to watch this video.
And then read Heather Skye’s own words recounting the event. And then finally watch this last video.

The advent of digital media and the ability to distribute it through social channels is freeing these stories from their temporal and geographical and anecdotal limitations. You did not need to be in Houston last weekend in order to catch this particular moment. You did not have to be a friend of one of the people, and happen to have mentioned Star Trek or X-Men, sparking the “did I tell you about the time I saw Sir Patrick Stewart” story. I caught this tale on Facebook, from a friend Mike Wood. Mike had seen the story on Gawker and posted it. The author of the post on Gawker picked it up from GeekoSystem. None of these people were in Houston this weekend and none of them are friends of Heather. But the author on GeekoSystem found the YouTube video, shot by Oswald Vinueza and posted by Heather.

Through that video and Eugene Lee’s photos and Heather’s words the moment was preserved.

Heather was never at the book launch for ‘Created Equal’, where the actor spoke quite movingly about his own personal experience with domestic violence. But someone from Amnesty captured the moment on video and posted it to YouTube in 2009. Heather only came across the video a couple of months ago but says, “After seeing Patrick talk so personally about it I finally was able to correctly call it abuse, in my case sexual abuse that was going to quickly turn into physical abuse as well. I didn’t feel guilty or disgusting anymore. I finally didn’t feel responsible for the abuse that was put upon me. I was finally able to start my healing process and to put that part of my life behind me.

People opine about the disconnection that our devices and networks create. People talk about living the life through the viewscreen of a smartphone or tablet instead of in the moment. Would they really choose the world in which these were words and moments that none of us would have had the opportunity to share in? Too small for the evening news and unlikely for Heather’s words to find their way into any magazine or paper. Trapped in the minds and photo albums of the few who happened to have been there in that room, at that moment.  Would they be happier for these moments to be transient experiences, fleeting and then gone?

The people who tweet and instagram and film and live blog and check-in or status update aren’t missing out on the moment. They are preserving it and sharing it and making it more than just a memory.  I think that Heather’s life is better for having been able to share the moment from that book launch from 2009. I know that I’m glad to have been able to share in Heather’s moment with Sir Patrick Stewart. I hope that you’re all enriched a little bit from my having shared these moments and that you go on to share across your own platforms and networks.  Thanks to social media we are all of us unstuck in time and space and able to experience this together whether it was before, or now, or still to come.

Should Have Sent A Poet: A Word In Favour Of The Space Program

If you’re Canadian, you likely saw a clip of Commander Chris Hadfield’s cover of Space Oddity on the evening news. For the rest of the world it’s been bouncing about on social networks to the tune of several million views.

Even Bowie noticed and tipped his hat in the Commander’s direction. Praise indeed to catch the notice and approval of the artist you’re covering.

Now, obviously Hadfield wasn’t sent into space to jam. During his time on the station he engaged in 130 different experiments, and even helped set a station record for over 71 hours in a week devoted to scientific experimentation. During his free moments, Commander Hadfield was gracious enough to reach out to those of us on Earth and share what life is like in a little tin can floating far above the world. We got to learn how a zero gravity environment impacts simple biological aspects of life like crying, or trimming our nails or eating dinner. He shared his amazing view through hundreds of thousands of photographs. And in his offtime he played the guitar.

Now a brief word about the instrument. The guitar was a $100,000 payload, back when it was delivered into space in 2001, it’s purpose to provide a creative outlet for the astronauts to aid in their psychological well-being. All work and no play

But the Space Oddity video being the most publicised aspect of the Commander’s journey has raised the same questions that have dogged the space program since before President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University declared, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Why go to space? Why waste billions of dollars to dump new garbage up into orbit or learn that there are rocks on Mars? There is no shortage of problems on Earth that need our dollars to solve so why fritter those dollars away when there are so many in need? In short: what good is a space program when there are empty bellies and injustice here on Earth?

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