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Can Your Message Survive A Filtered View Of The Internet

The Promise of Information Freedom

Control was the Internet’s great promise when it went mainstream. I distinctly remember logging on for the first time in late 1995. I loaded one of the first search engines, Infoseek (this was pre-Google, of course), which aggregated popular content by subject and went click-happy exploring the ‘Word Wide Web.’

If you remember pre-Internet life, you certainly remember how thrilling this was. You felt like you were in the driver seat. You could explore topics and find whole websites dedicated to the same interests you had. You held the keys to an instant library curated by a community of freaks and geeks who shared your niche passions.

Within a year, our house had its first Internet-ready computer, and I would subsequently spend hours and hours after school, just ‘surfing’ this massive sea of information. It was freedom. When Google came along and archived the Internet so that you could search just about anything, it truly felt like information freedom. And until recently, that was always the frame I used when thinking about the Internet. It’s a place of uncensored, unrestricted, limitless information available to anyone who wants to find it.

Or is it?

The Reality of Information Overload

There is so much information on the Internet (in excess of 1.2 million terabytes, by some accounts), there’s simply no way to realistically navigate all it on our own. That’s why we have become so dependent on curators. The most popular platforms, of course, are Facebook, Twitter, and even Google.

Canadians cite Facebook as their number one destination for news. But Facebook gives us a distinct point of view on the world, one that is mostly removed from real-world realities. Its algorithm is designed to populate your news feed with content you are most likely to find engaging. If you start liking your best friend’s baby pics, you’ll start to see more baby pics. Start an instant messenger conversation with someone and suddenly you start seeing a lot more of their status updates in your timeline. The algorithm is designed to keep you hooked with constant doses of entertainment so you keep coming back. The more effective the algorithm, the more daily users it generates for Facebook, and the more advertising it can sell. It’s a symbiotic relationships that, for the most part, keeps everyone happy.

But, does that come at a cost? Freakonomics Radio has a fascinating episode on this issue earlier this month. The episode begins with a story by Zenep Tufekci who studies the social impact of technology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She recounts how she experienced the Ferguson Unrest of Aug 2014. When she logged to Twitter, her feed was consumed by this story—an unrelenting stream of tweets about police overreaction. When she switched to Facebook, she saw nothing about. It was as if she had a lense into two completely different universes. And in many ways, that’s each social platform: its own universe, with distinct user experiences that filter information in their own ways.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter has left its social feed largely unaltered since its inception 10 years ago; it remains an unfiltered stream of consciousness. Twitter’s most avid users love that feature, but for many, it’s overwhelming. Where Facebook has successfully grown its user base by finding more sophisticated ways displaying relevant content, Twitter has taken an approach that ‘Internet Freedom’ advocates would appreciate: it keeps the faucet open. What comes out of that faucet is largely unfiltered, which, of course, has caused Twitter grief on more than one occasion. Cyberbullying aside, Twitter has been struggling of late, and Wall Street wants it to adopt a Facebook-like algorithm. But even if it sticks to its guns and continues with its current feed format, it remains a biased view of the world. As a user, you can only diversify what you’re seeing in your feed by altering the list of people you follow.

The lense through which we see, use, and consume information on the Internet is increasingly—almost exclusively—a lense shaped by others, for our viewing pleasure. We let our social feeds tell us what matters, what news to read, what video clips to watch, or which Netflix series to get hooked on next. Precisely because there is so much information, it’s easier to embrace a socially-validated news feed. If our social networks, and the social platforms we use every day do all the hard work of finding the content that resonates most with us, who are we to stop them? It’s too convenient; it simplifies our life.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we’ve reverted to the passive consumption that the Internet was supposed to free us from. In 1995, I took delight in having complete control (or what felt like complete control) over what I consumed. In 2016, I’m so damn busy, and have so much information to sift through, I love having all that hard work done for me through a couple apps on my phone. But I concede that in embracing this reality, I’m letting others tell me what information to consume. And by doing so, I’ve given up control as a consumer of information.

As we consume an Internet that is curated by a small group of highly-influential companies, we should remember, the Internet looks the way it does because we want it to look that way. We can’t fault Facebook, Google, or Twitter for serving up content its users want to see. If we don’t like that idea, we should stop watching cat videos or opt out of the platforms altogether. Right — so that won’t happen any time soon — which means that as professional communicators, we need to crack the code and find ways to make our content pass the rigorous demands of Facebook’s algorithm, or Twitter’s finicky user base.

How to crack the code

In truth, we shouldn’t even focus on cracking the code. Curated social feeds only work if they display content people want to consume. Our goal should be the same. Admittedly, this is no easy task when it comes to public affairs content. In this space, we’re typically dealing with matters that have some regulatory, legislative, or public administration concern to them. Snooze! Who wants their social feed experience disrupted by content that deals with such serious, and potentially boring issues? In a universe where people would rather watch clips from the Late Show, inserting ourselves in that space with a serious, cognitive, or alarmist message is jarring and typically off-putting to most people. That’s because they turn to their social channels for distraction or to connect with others, not to hear about why they should sign your petition demanding the government sets a renewable energy target of 100% by 2050. But we know that people will engage on these issues. However, it takes a thoughtful approach, and one that meets people’s expectations for what they will see on these platforms. So, how can we get people to respond to ‘boring’ issues that typically rely on the cognitive side of the brain to make the point?

1. Lead with motive and make it emotional

People are naturally cynical, which means we need to lead with motive and be completely transparent about it. But to make your message a one-two punch, you need to avoid cognitive arguments as much as humanly possible. Our brain is wired to ignore the boring and respond quickly to novel, concrete, visual, and high-contrast messages instead. Eventually, you can speak to the cognitive side of the brain with compelling facts and figures, but before getting to that point, the brain needs to be primed. After it’s primed, It will respond much more quickly and be motivated by emotion. When in doubt, remember, people care about people. Obviously, they care about themselves, but they also care about their identity – the tribe with which they associate. Appeal to both their self-interests and the interests of the communities they align with.

2. Make it enjoyable

Even if you’re campaigning on an issue that will get people worked up, present yourself as a happy warrior. Have a little bit of fun. People go online to have fun, and if you’re going to serve up your message in that context, make sure you fit in. If fun is completely off-brand for you, or if you worry about it backfiring—always a real possibility—then the rest of the user experience needs to be completely engaging. Even on serious issues, make your campaign video absolutely moving from the first frame to the last one. The creative should be beautiful, and any video should be immaculately composed. The copy should read flawlessly. All aspects of the campaign should have an attractive design aesthetic. We’re bombarded with facts and figures all day; we rarely come across quality content. So when quality appears in our feeds, we react.

3. Make it novel

When we’re scrolling through our social feeds, we’re looking for something different—something unexpected. We want something to grab our attention. As communicators, getting that attention is one of the most difficult assignments we could ask for. We literally have split seconds to grab someone’s attention. As Chip and Dan Heath taught us, ‘before your message can stick, your audience has to want it.’ So, spark their curiosity. Shine a light on your audience’s curiosity gap, then immediately fill it.

4. Keep it simple

This is an easy one to get wrong. When we think about keeping things simple, we often think about the KISS method, (Keep It Simple, Stupid), which actually takes us down the wrong path. It gives us the wrong impression that we need to dumb down a message. However, the problem with dumbing down the message is that we look like we don’t have anything to back up or point or that we have something to hide. We should never hide. For our message to have credibility, it needs to be complete. So rather than try to dumb it down, we should focus on the priority that matters most. What’s the core message? That’s what we communicate. Ah, if only it were that simple, right?

5. Use vivid imagery

People need to visualize our message. They need to see what a perfect world looks like. The best way to help them visualize that future is to paint a picture with language that is concrete. Don’t force the viewer to work hard to imagine the end-state. Show it to them immediately so that the cognition doesn’t get in the way of emotion. Help people ‘see’ what you’re saying.

The Final Deletion: What a backyard wrestling video reveals about the paradox of “the right to be forgotten”

For almost a month, wrestling fans have been buzzing over Total Non-Stop Action’s (TNA) online video, ‘The Final Deletion’. For whatever reason, not everyone sees the beauty in suplexes, power bombs, or watching grown men hitting each other in the face with trash cans. Even as an avid wrestling fan, parts of it are hard to get through. However, you need not worry, I watched it for you, several times, and can tell you why this match and its fallout in TNA storytelling is a perfect vehicle for explaining the difference between simply deleting content and actually changing public opinion in an online reputation campaign. In addition to possibly resurrecting Matt and Jeff Hardy’s careers, ‘The Final Deletion’ also brings to light an inherent contradiction in the ‘right to be forgotten’ concept, important to anyone working in online reputation management.

First, some context: This video is sports entertainment. Professional wrestling is an art-form. It has unique conventions or ways of conveying symbolic meaning. For example, in professional wrestling acting is judged like nachos: the cheesier the better. And ‘The Final Deletion’ is cheesy. The premise of the video is that ‘Broken’ Matt Hardy challenges ‘Brother Nero’ Jeff Hardy to a match for the right to the Hardy family legacy, with the loser being deleted from existence forever. Remember this is a professional wrestling storyline—a parallel fantasy universe from which we can draw lessons for the real-world. The threat of ‘deletion’ instead of a simple loss, and the deliberate choice to use digital vernacular and present it as a pre-recorded video instead of a traditional taping in front of a live audience, makes Matt’s attempt to remove Jeff from existence comparable to real-world efforts to displace unflattering articles in search engine results.

Despite winning the ‘Final Deletion’ match, when Matt subsequently goes on a live broadcast, he is greeted by fans cheering wildly for the supposedly deleted Jeff. These fans are much like real-world Internet users who create more content about an event even after the initial post is removed. Many politicians who have been caught deleting controversial tweets know this reality all too well. At this moment Matt realizes he can never truly delete Jeff so long as the audience remembers Jeff. This is a perfect demonstration of how digital content is not completely isolated from the physical world and removing it does not automatically cause the events leading to its creation to disappear from people’s heads. Since the audience will never forget about Jeff as long as Matt is around, Matt must create new content or extend the narrative in order to realize his ultimate goal of controlling the Hardy legacy. He needs to give people a chance to move on and accept the new status quo, instead of wondering where the guy from the last match disappeared to. So how does Matt deal with this reality? He changes the conditions of their match; Jeff will no longer be deleted. Instead, he’ll become Matt’s slave. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but it elegantly completes the metaphor—in the real world, we can’t delete content, but we can use new content to establish different front page results in search engines.

While this blog post gives me a convenient excuse to write about wrestling, the events surrounding this video do a better job of highlighting the difference between deleting content from the Internet and actually removing an issue from public conversation than any white paper could. In fact, ‘The Final Deletion’ deserves credit for three reasons, two of which matter in illustrating this point:

  • it’s responsible for the most attention TNA Wrestling has ever received;
  • it illustrates how to effectively manipulate search results in a reputational campaign by bringing to light a fundamental paradox in the much debated ‘right to be forgotten’ initiatives that concern anyone managing a brand with unfavourable search history;
  • and, of course,
    it features a frog splash from a very tall tree.

Last week, articles discussing ‘The Final Deletion’ were shared over 10,000 times on social media. Articles about ‘TNA Wrestling’ in general struggled to generate that kind of engagement during the entire month of June, and most of the content was about whether or not the company would be sold or file for bankruptcy. It’s hard to compare ‘The Final Deletion’ to other clips in TNA’s catalogue. Reaction segments are a good equalizer. The segment reacting to ‘The Final Deletion’ on TNA’s weekly broadcast was viewed more than 192,000 times since being uploaded on Thursday, while the next highest segment was hovering around 90,000. With one event, the online narrative about the TNA has shifted from one about financial difficulties to how amazingly crazy ‘Broken’ Matt Hardy is, increasing viewers on TNA broadcasts as wrestling fans look to see what sport’s entertainment’s new answer to Tommy Wiseau will do next.

Sure, people are debating whether ‘The Final Deletion’ is a piece of art or even an act of professional wrestling, but there’s no doubt that it is fantastic when considered as a piece of viral content. It’s a backyard wrestling video from a second tier promotion. The fact that it has more than 300,000 views (on just the official link) is incredible. Imagine if a second round playoff series in the QMJHL was generating more buzz than The Stanley Cup. Thanks to ‘The Final Deletion’, TNA was on the same level as WWE for a short time, going by general share of voice among people who care about such things. That really is an amazing achievement.

The match itself incorporates several spots (wrestling term for planned sequences) recalling famous matches in The Hardy Boys’ career going back to their time in WWE, which had never really been acknowledged in TNA storylines before. The audience is reminded of what it means to be a Hardy in the storyline world of professional wrestling as the two brothers symbolically rewrite history by performing new versions of the stunts that made them famous in the first place. Here too, we can draw lessons for online reputation recovery campaigns. Taking professional wrestling seriously for a moment, the fight is a violent and indirect way of redefining one’s past by repositioning key points in its foundational narrative. In terms of digital reputation, you can compare it to disavowing links to unfavourable articles while tweaking public-facing copy to meet the same communications objectives as before, without using words or phrases that might have been used in unflattering coverage.

‘The Final Deletion’s’ aftermath and the fallout on TNA’s weekly broadcast cement it as a definitive metaphor for effective online reputation management. Matt eventually realizes a pinfall victory is like a running a digital reputation campaign without any offline support. Without something to replace whatever you are trying to delete or remove, people will still remember the original, and create more similar content to take its place. As long as other people remember Jeff and create content about him, he is never truly deleted. The crowd remembers Jeff and chant his name until he appears in the ring. In real-world campaigns, these chants are manifested in the form of new content that appears in search results in place of deleted content Removing results from search engine pages, without offline efforts to create equally prominent content in its place, makes those results harder to find, but they still exist. Users looking for information about major brands or high profile individuals will not be satisfied with mediocre placeholder content and will ultimately rediscover scandalous material, bringing it back to the forefront of search engine results. Why? Because as Google and European courts are starting to articulate, being forgotten is not a right. Privacy, within reasonable limits, is a right. But there is a very big difference between the two.

Google’s ‘right to be forgotten’ initiative is a program that, theoretically, allows individuals to remove web pages containing personal information from search engine results. A version is technically live in the US, it has been contested in European courts for years, and was recently rejected by a court in Japan. A version very similar to the American one was recently (and very quietly) made available to Canadians with lawyers already considering the possible implications. For major brands and people regularly in the headlines, the program is essentially meaningless. Google will not, nor is it under any obligation to, delete results that are a matter of public record and interest, regardless of how embarrassing those events may be for the people involved. Results related to crimes, politicians, or public figures are not eligible for deletion under ‘right to be forgotten’. This is not because Google engineers are especially fond of these things. Search engines aggregate information that already exists in some form so that it is easier to find digitally. They do not write negative content, yet they’re often blamed for its continued effect on a subject’s reputation.

When a crime or political scandal stops being covered by broadcast or television news, it is quickly forgotten because watching old news broadcasts is almost as pointless as saving old newspapers. People move on from a story, however, the physical copy of that news report still exists somewhere. Digital content related to a story will linger in search results for its main keyword because those results are not designed to reflect the general news, but an up-to-date understanding of a keyword, which often includes recent news headlines. Even if the general news cycle has moved on, negative results naturally stay relevant longer when eligible news stories are confined to one keyword, as they are in any Google search. Understanding this is part of the game. Successful reputation campaigns prepare clients to accept that negative content will be associated with their name for some time. First, campaigns need to address underlying digital metrics — like traffic — that have a more tangible effect on most businesses, before focussing entirely on removing unflattering content from search results. Though clients often disagree when it’s about them, people have a right to read about things that make the news. So in order to change the digital narrative, you need new content to establish a separate yet equally plausible story.

This is especially true for ‘public figures’. Search engines determine who is a public figure using an algorithm to calculate mentions by frequency and volume within a particular content type. Anyone with enough of a certain type of coverage can be considered a public figure in Google, even if they are far from a celebrity in real life. In a famous case from a few years ago, a Google leak revealed that 95% of “right to be forgotten” requests came from private individuals. Many of those requests were for news articles where victims’ names should never have been printed in the first place, but under the ‘right to be forgotten,’ the articles cannot be removed as they deal with a crime. Many other cases involved an original version of a story being indexed in Google results, despite a correction being issued in the print version. In both cases, the privacy violations were the news publishers’ fault, not the search engine’s. Google simply aggregated the content it was given. It is very rare that a result actually fits the criteria for deletion: roughly 75% of ‘right to be forgotten’ requests are denied. Requests are rejected because content with enough visibility to negatively affect someone’s reputation normally also makes it socially or historically relevant, and its omission in a search would reflect poorly on any search engine’s basic competency. Though legislators have begun to acknowledge the unprecedented power a company like Google has over people’s reputations, it is very unlikely any search engine will ever be asked to remove news articles from its results in a country paying even basic lip service to ideas of free press, speech, and access to information.

The problem is that while forgetting is not a right, we do acknowledge people are entitled to some element of privacy. However, the idea that anyone can remove knowledge or events from the public record because it embarrasses them is more ridiculous than anything in ‘The Final Deletion’ video. ‘Broken’ Matt Hardy comes to a version of this realization. After the crowd cheers for Jeff in his first live appearance since the video aired, Matt decides to redefine the terms of their match, much like we create more content when executing a reputation recovery campaign. In TNA storytelling, Matt quickly redesigns his plan so now Jeff will have to stay and work for him. This makes sense in the broader context of a match to determine the superior Hardy brother: like everything else about ‘The Final Deletion’, Matt’s reframing of the match is an excellent example of how one can change how an individual is perceived online by emphasizing different aspects of their background. Matt creates new content by changing the original narrative from ‘loser is deleted’ to ‘loser stays and lives’ in wrestling’s version of indentured servitude. This allows Matt to restore his desired reputation as the dominant Hardy and remove negative results (represented by his brother as a threat to whatever he plans on doing in TNA).

We need to think on those same terms when conducting digital reputation recovery, especially with major brands and public figures. Instead of trying to ‘delete’ individual pieces of digital content, you need to understand that the content, or some mention of it, is going to be there for some time, and try to leverage that to your advantage instead. The crowd chanting for Jeff Hardy after he was ‘deleted’ is comparable to how in digital terms, stories live on as reposts, shares, or mentions in comments long after the original digital source is removed. Digital reputation recovery is about giving them a reason to forget. You can use the first wave of negative content to understand the exact reason people are upset, then leverage the public figure or brand’s prominence to inject new content into search engine results to address negative content, without mentioning it directly. It is not easy. But, if a backyard wrestling video can go viral, it’s proof that when it comes to the Internet, anything is possible – it just can’t be deleted.

When Marcel Met Cameron

French author Marcel Proust is famous for his gentle remembrance of things past, his eponymous character-revealing questionnaireナ and his love of madeleine cookies.
No word on his preferred biscuit, but since 2012, Cameron Bailey has been the Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). While brilliantly burnishing the Festival’s international reputation as THE place for glittering premieres and glittery celebrities, he still manages to keep it real: Cameron has confessed to a secret love for films that include car chases, gunfights, empty landscapes and family dinner scenes. That’s a wrap.

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? A perfect hotel suite in an unknown city.
2. What is your greatest fear? Irrelevance.
3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Fear.
4. What is the trait you most deplore in others? Arrogance.
5. ‘ ‘Which living person do you most admire? Agn’s Varda.
6. What is your greatest extravagance? Driving a car. Also eating meat.
7. What is your current state of mind? Triumphant.
8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Order.

9. On what occasion do you lie? Answering questionnaires.
10. What is the quality you most like in a person? Generosity.
11. When and where were you happiest? In Barbados, writing.
12. Which talent would you most like to have? Musicianship.
13. Who are your favourite writers? Samuel Beckett, James Baldwin, Kim Thuy, Elvis Costello, Bob Marley
14. Who is your hero of fiction? Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
15. Who are your heroes in real life? Nurses. My mother was one.
16. What is your motto? “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Book Club Confidential

Book clubs have undergone a resurgence and are no longer the exclusive space of Oprah-loving moms. Young adults are now forming books clubs to socialize, enjoy a glass of wine and, yes, talk about a book. It’s no coincidence that the book component is last on this list. While it is clearly the lynchpin of the social affair, it is often not the motivation. What’s even more fascinating is that for all the digital ephemera and iBook and Kobo ‘obsessions’ of the younger generation, many millennials admit to enjoying the nostalgic, anachronistic feeling of holding and owning a good book in hard copy. And it’s no surprise then that publishers’ statistics back this up.
So what happens at a millennial book club? How does a group choose a book without the guidance of Ms. Winfrey? And why are book clubs so popular among young Canadians?
There’s no scientific rigour to this explanation. It is, quite simply, my firsthand account of being a millennial book clubber.
The process
Choosing the books for the monthly gathering is often the hardest part. The book needs to be provocative, yet manageable; insightful, but light enough to enjoy with a couple glasses of Pinot. Whoever is hosting chooses the book. There’s not necessarily consensus. The books we have chosen have been the result of recommendations from family and friends, or based on what’s in the news, and sometimes just a Google search. While there are no rules to the process, each selection inevitably reflects the personality of the host. And to the surprise of most of us involved, each book club gathering produces a discussion that would make any English teacher proud.
The why?
Why is a book club so gratifying in the age of 140 character Tweets and wordless, worthless Instagram posts? The whole concept of spending significant face-to-face time discussing a book seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom about millennials. It’s a curious throwback, the book club: an opportunity to relive a bit of the high school and university experience without the homework and hassle; to read something with no strings attached; to think about something—critically—that isn’t tied to a deliverable or a bottom line. Perhaps for a generation that seems more connected to technology than to other people, it’s about creating a connection around a common, tangible element.
I also recognize that book clubs come with certain racial and socioeconomic baggage. Many argue that book clubs are still gatherings of the white educated elite who have too much time on their hands. I’m open to this debate. There is likely some truth to it. And while imperfect, most would agree that the more book clubbing millennials we have, the better off we are. When we are reading, thinking, questioning, challenging and, yes, having fun with a good read, it is a good thing.
‘Put down the smart phone and pick up a book.’ Every millennial has been chastised with this at one point. And while it may be hard for some baby boomers to believe, the millennial book club is indeed alive and well.