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It’s Google’s world and we’re just living in it

Google already won. As the most dominant search engine in the world it has unprecedented control over each individual’s access to information. While most people already knew that, some forget that Google is also among the world’s largest data brokers, listing services, and news providers. Google may now be too big to fail and too ubiquitous to worry about whether its actions anger users or bother legislators (many of whom still do not understand search engines’ role in contemporary communications). Two recent events—the company’s decision to essentially begin charging for accurate keyword data and a European Union proposal to charge search engines for news headlines indexed in their results pages—underscore how Google can do whatever it wants and nobody in power has any idea how to stop it.

Last week, Google changed how research is done in any field involving online communications, and specifically in SEO and digital marketing. The company significantly reduced the amount of free data available via its popular keyword planner tool. This is a big deal. In order to enjoy access to keyword planner you have to be a Google customer, which wasn’t the case before. Technically, full access to keyword planner now requires account holders to have active AdWords campaigns. Using the search engine, Gmail, or YouTube is not enough — you have to be paying Google every month to be considered enough of a customer to use its keyword planning service.

So why the outrage? First, because keyword planner has always been free. People will always resent having to pay for something when it previously cost nothing. Technically they can still use keyword planner without paying, but now the tool returns ranges instead of round numbers for each search term:

Before:

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After:

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As you can imagine, the difference between ‘2,900’ and ‘1k-10k’ is huge. That switch—from being able to pull precise search volume to an estimate that could be off by 10,000— has digital strategists fuming. Suddenly we’re planning campaigns using data points with massive ranges when we had been working with exact figures our entire careers. More importantly, how do we explain to clients why we aren’t so confident in next month’s projections beyond the nearest 10k, when we’ve previously provided much more precise estimates?

Thankfully—for now, at least—there are ways to bypass Google Keyword Planner’s recent restrictions by using reputable third-party software. Still, these tools rely on Google’s data, and the restrictions Google is implementing for individual users are having a trickle-down effect on these tools. One of these third-party providers recently sent its customers a letter explaining that it had no real idea what was going on, acknowledging the current situation is less than ideal, and asking for patience while it works on a solution. Most of these third-party providers have recovered from Google’s changes after a long four-day adjustment period. But, the problem for people working with this software everyday, is that in a more specialized sense they each serve a different function as part of a holistic keyword research strategy. For example, some programs are ideal for on-page SEO and competitor research on specific URLs or domains, while others are designed for ecommerce applications or to find specific ‘long tail keywords’. Most people that work with keyword data regularly consider Google’s Keyword Planner a primary source; it is by far the most trusted source for volume and competition levels, which can be applied in almost any SEO context. Making people pay for keyword planner honestly would not be worth writing about if it was only used for Adwords campaigns. If the tool was only used for ads on Google results pages, advertisers would be monthly customers by default. Even if that was not the case, the impact of less targeted ads within the search engine would only be felt because of Google’s near universal reach. It would not really impact people’s lives. Things are different because just as ‘Google’ has become shorthand for searching the internet, it’s Keyword Planner is behind just about any task that involves building audiences online, and Google knows this. In a world where users interact with far more than just ads, keyword research— which helps us understand the words people use to navigate between online entities—is incredibly important to any businesses’ digital marketing efforts, especially in helping companies study how customers talk about products.

Google likely annoyed just as many digital marketing professionals with its excuse for blocking Keyword Planner as it did with the block itself. Google explained that it revoked Keyword Planner to stop bots from accessing keyword data. There are voices in the SEO/digital marketing community who feel ‘bots’ has become standard Google nomenclature for so-called black hat SEO practices,some of which do involve robots. However, many more do not. These aggressive techniques attempt to expedite the long process of changing search results by catering exclusively to ‘technical’ or ‘computer’ algorithmic factors, instead of providing content of actual value to humans. Things get hazy when you remember keyword research is by no means a black hat tactic. The truth is, there are already a number of mechanisms in place to prevent these black hat techniques from undermining Google’s value as an information aggregator for real people. This is why practitioners are skeptical of Google’s rationale. Remember, Google’s Keyword Planner was considered the best primary source for search volume and some corresponding demographic data. While it was a tool originally developed for search advertisers, it has many applications way beyond advertising. Digital strategists have long relied on Google’s Keyword Planner for things like content optimization or technical SEO analysis. Most suspect Google made this decision to increase revenues, knowing nobody outside of the SEO community would raise an eyebrow if it blamed it on ‘bots’ or ‘black hats’. The argument that bots were using Keyword Planner to a serious extent is thin. Because it enjoys broad market dominance from a position of highly specialized knowledge, Google doesn’t have to care. There is simply no entity with the necessary combination of reach and authority that users could use instead. To someone working in the digital analytics business, the Keyword Planner decision is incredibly frustrating and a sure sign of Google using its influence to limit anyone’s ability to effect change within its platform without buying ads. That said, justifying what would otherwise be a very unpopular decision with ‘bots’, makes Google seem diligent and is a brilliant public messaging strategy.

Forcing people to pay for keyword planner will have noticeable consequences. Without reliable data, marketers are less likely to be able to craft strategies that legitimately increase their site’s positioning in Google. This will force them to spend more on ads to increase traffic, and decrease their ability to influence how their properties appear in what is, by far, the world’s largest source of information. Thus, Google has greater control over what appears online than ever before. This means marketers need to pay to play. It’s great news for Google shareholders, but troubling for people concerned about the level of influence one corporate entity yields over our access to information.

Google built its incredible market share on extreme competence and a vastly superior product compared to competitors like Bing, Yahoo, and Ask. It is a phenomenally successful company that doesn’t owe anyone anything. However, extra responsibility seems like a fair consequence for unprecedented success. The ideal time to seriously debate its place in the world and if we as a society should place restrictions on companies deciding how information is disseminated likely passed already. That conversation still needs to happen. Search engines should be required to disclose some details of how the general public interacts with its platform, so that businesses can plan accordingly. Though they are the ‘gateway’ to information, without content creators or publishers there would be no need for search engines. Working with them can create a better experience in the long run for developers, marketers, and even Google. That’s not to mention how the Internet is much more entrenched in daily life than when Google first started and especially for new technologies, some kind of regulation is required for the greater good, if they become as popular as Google. Unfortunately, most laws attempting to regulate Google, or almost anything to do with the Internet, rely on thinking from a pre digital age. In the past, implementing online regulations has done more harm than good in terms of access of information..

For example, Tim Worstall of Forbes magazine does a great job explaining how lawmakers have no understanding of the economic benefits search engines provide publishers. Consider the EU’s recent proposal to charge search engines for displaying news headlines. When Spanish regulators tried to force Google to pay publishers of the news headlines it indexes, Google refused and shut down Google News in the country. Now there is no Google News in Spain. As a result, publishers are suffering way more than Google, having lost referral traffic and the advertising revenues that come from said traffic. Now the proposed legislation could force search engines to choose between headlines, likely for monetary reasons. This effectively creates a scenario where digital news goes to the highest bidder, which seems like the opposite of what the law intended.

Beyond the publishing industry, these laws could have longer-term consequences. By forcing search engines to pay to list news results, lawmakers are creating barriers to competition and strengthening Google’s stranglehold on the search market. Now, any new search engine trying to establish itself has an expense Google did not have to account for when building its audience.

The EU’s proposal is the culmination of smaller attempts to give publishers more influence in Spain and Germany. These attempts did not work. The fact that European regulators have now tried three versions of the same arrangement between search engines and publishers, despite it failing twice, suggests they may not know how to strike the right balance between cracking down on powerful search engines and protecting domestic interests. This ignorance allows the current situation to continue, where Google can do things with far reaching applications without notice, discussion, or material consequence.

No entity exists to determine what information, if any, Google must freely disclose so the general public can best manage websites in an environment where it influences most of the relevant traffic. One is probably coming soon. People are noticing Google’s disproportionate influence and are growing wary. In the meantime, legislators struggling to make sense of search engines combined with everyone using them being made to pay for their best data source, the importance of applicable SEO knowledge has never been more apparent. Until the next major change, messaging online will be about accepting Google will do whatever it wants and learning how to leverage that towards your goal.

Risk and reward: expressing support online

The end of Gawker

Last week, Gawker Media announced that it was closing its doors after a protracted legal battle with multibillionaire Peter Thiel, who seems to have made it his mission to destroy the site.

Gawker was a website that pioneered much of the content form and style of online writing we see today. As noted in its closing statement, which included site data, Gawker predates today’s tracking tools, including Google Analytics. Along with its affiliate sites like Deadspin, Jezebel, and Gizmodo, the ‘Gawker Network’popularized the snark and the informal and incisive style that is now characteristic of online writing. As the network’s flagship website, gawker.com was the first to publish posts on topics and from people that, arguably, wouldn’t have found a home otherwise.

As Adrien Chen notes — Gawker was a unique place to become a journalist because it put writers in front of the masses to ‘express themselves how they wanted.’ The site was the birthplace of much of Internet culture. Despite the temporality of the net, and our tendency to valorize something and then dispose of it, Gawker will likely live on as a legend, if for no other reason than the fact that most of its writing staff have gone on to other sites and publications to continue publishing content that perpetuates, in some way shape or form, the style originated by the site.

Gawker was generally the first in any situation to point out when companies, publications, and people — particularly people of power or influence — were being self-congratulatory, smug, or overly-indulgent. Gawker was also a pioneer in the comments section, which was one of the draws to the site. It created the kinja discussion thread, which is pretty similar to how comments and replies currently work on Facebook posts. It was ahead of its time. You can still see it in action on Gawker’s affiliated sites. It really attempted to create an online discussion between bloggers, writers, journalists, and commenters and this worked (or didn’t) to varying degrees throughout the site’s history.

Online conversations and commentary on any given issue can feel circular, and we often feel like everyone on a particular social media platform is all talking about the same thing. Recently, NPR decided to shut down the comments section on its site for partly the same reason: in July, of the 22 million unique users to the site, they had 491,000 comments. Those comments came from 19,400 commenters, or 0.06% of users commenting. Whatever discussion its posts were generating; it was amongst the same group of people.

But, just as in life, not all social spaces are created equal. On Twitter, Gene Demby, a writer at PostBougie and NPR’s Code Switch explained the trouble with comments sections and why it’s difficult to make them resemble anything constructive:

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So in the wake of Gawker’s demise and NPR removing its comments section, it seems fitting to look at some of the trends of our particular social spaces. Public online spaces of interaction can be exhausting or potentially harmful for some people — mostly minority groups. But what about the areas we think of as being more ‘private’, or at the very least limited by permissions and friend requests?

Real friends — how many of us?

In June, Facebook retooled its algorithm to show more posts from your friends over media outlets in your news feed. Not only that, but it reportedly prioritizes the content from friends that you care about — aka the people you interact with most on the site. Facebook used to limit the number of posts you would see in a row from the same person. However, with this new update, this rule is less stringent, allowing your friends to dominate your news feed more than ever.

But, the truth is, Facebook is no longer an accurate representation of your social circle. Most of us don’t talk to 300 plus people a day, let alone probe them on their political and moral beliefs. However, it seems that more than any other platform, Facebook has become the platform for moralizing or politicizing. Facebook is at once, both personal and public, which means publicizing your views on topics that could be considered sensitive or controversial is safe and scary in equal measure.

Self-care

In many ways ‘Self-care’ is the Internet term of 2016. To be short about it — the year has felt bad. World-falling-apart-at-the-seams kind of bad. In case you’ve somehow forgotten, the year has been filled with terrorist attacks, police brutality, peaceful protests-turned-violent-attacks, unsavory politics, and a myriad of other now seemingly regular disasters. For many, social media has, if not perpetuated, at the least amplified, the feeling of constant bad news.

Self-care takes different forms. Some feel checking out from social media altogether is necessary — this is also become some face more discrimination and harassment online than others for sharing their views. And as for sharing your political views on Facebook — well, you can’t really make blanket statements for how this does or does not go, because the stakes are incredibly different, depending on who is doing the sharing.

Quartz published a (somewhat sketchy) article on data collected by Rantic, that suggested your political Facebook posts do not alter people’s behavior or views. The authenticity of the study can’t be verified, however, anecdotally, it feels true: most people who post political updates on Facebook are posting to an audience that, by-and-large, already agrees with them, and that these posts are not changing anyone’s political views.

On the flip side, The Ringer explored the mainstreaming of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and the role of social media. Looking at how the hashtag has spread generally, and then rapidly, following horrifying cases of brutality caught on camera, it compares online tipping points of adoption to when Facebook introduced the equals sign as a profile picture option to show support for marriage equality.

To be clear, there are vast differences between expressing your political views in a well-thought out and constructed post detailing your experience or beliefs and changing your profile picture to include a watermark filter that identifies you as an ally to a particular cause or issue. The chasm between replacing your photo with a Facebook-created-and-sanctioned filter and reaching a point of frustration and confusion at systemic and institutional marginalization is miles wide. The Ringer article makes this point, but also suggests that there are crossover lessons.

Based on a study Facebook conducted on the equals sign profile picture, the number of people posting about an issue does have an impact on whether or not you follow suit. The median number for people to change their photo is eight. Once something becomes popular, there’s less social risk associating yourself with the cause — you can change your photo and update your status with impunity, you don’t risk political backlash or losing friends who vehemently disagree with your viewpoint.

Over the past couple of years though, a performative element has become part of the Facebook post/status update/profile picture change. This doesn’t exclude people from posting about causes or social issues they genuinely care about, but the performance and identification are not mutually exclusive. You receive social recognition and validation for said posts, have warm and self-affirming feelings about your beliefs, and are encouraged to post more on a similar topic.

So there is some truth to both sides. Facebook posts may not alter behavior, but they can grant people who would not take the initiative to post of their own volition permission to enter a digital and social space. Depending on the issue, commenting on social media can be in direct opposition to someone’s sense of self-care — or to put it another way, posting your political views on social media requires you to assess your level of comfort and safety within your online network, the same way it does in a real-life social setting. Studies that look at whether or not issues are adopted are operating on the assumption that all issues are created equal — or can be responded to with equal weight. Depending on the topic, people discussing an issue might not be the ones who are impacted the most. For some of these people, the political and personal blowback you can experience from engaging online isn’t worth the trouble.

And also, from those who are discussing a politically or socially sensitive topic, there’s a line — sometimes, identifying yourself as an ally to a given cause can come off as more congratulatory than not. Like when someone feels the need to tell you about the nice thing they did or are planning on doing for you, rather than just simply doing it, it can feel like cashing in on social justice credit.

#woke

There’s a whole segment of the population that doesn’t know what being woke is — which is an interesting phenomenon, because woke is now common enough to start turning back, almost full circle, to perform double duty as both a positive and negative term. As The New York Times stated in April, ‘Think of ‘woke’ as the inverse of ‘politically correct.’ If ‘P.C.’ is a taunt from the right, a way of calling out hypersensitivity in political discourse, then ‘woke is a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive.’ More to the point than that even, ‘It means wanting to be considered correct, and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are.’

Although being woke is becoming a casualty of Internet performance, its origins are in black rights movements and essentially means being aware of the various complexities and problems which our society functions, the multiplicity of ways in which systematic racism and prejudice manifest, and refusing to accept them as the status quo. Its popularization is usually attributed to Erykah Badu, who urged people to ‘stay woke’ in her song ‘Master Teachers’ in 2008. Today, it can still mean that, but it can also mean that you’re so woke you haven’t slept in days, what with pointing out all the ways in which you are more awake to the various injustices in the world than everyone else. In the negative context, being woke is not only performative, but condescending and competitive.

Woke friends — in the negative sense — usually beget woke friends because woke users are generally very active on social media, in order to prove their wokeness, as public recognition is a core component. As an insult, woke is more popular on Twitter, but unaware woke behaviour is arguably more prominent on Facebook. Generally, Twitter is a more public forum: you’re interacting, or at least reading, tweets from people that are writing for a larger and more public audience than on Facebook. Therefore, Twitter users are quicker to point out this kind of behaviour in one another and you’re less likely to find the kind of affirmation you would from your friends.

The rules of engagement

Basically, this is all a word to the wise and consideration for your online objectives. If our social networks are generally comprised of people with similar political views and online discussions are usually dominated by a few, spreading messages and garnering support requires a tipping point for it to spread to a wider audience. But what that looks like and how that works is dependent on your audience and your issue. As the Facebook study on the equals sign found, the number of friends who adopted the photo played a role in whether or not someone would also choose to change their display picture, but so did demographic characteristics, such as age, gender, education, and factors relevant to marriage equality, such as religion.

As aforementioned, not all spaces are created equal. Assuming everyone has the same amount of political risk when adopting a given issue assumes that your entire audience is all on the same playing field. When you can have scenarios where one group needs to actively check out for self-care and the other has the luxury of becoming incredibly woke because the issue is for them, at most, performative, finding the tipping point is much more nuanced than simply attempting to get people onside.

This isn’t to say that you can’t use social media to do this — this is to say that you need to consider which group your message addresses, whether intentionally or not, the most: Performative support isn’t the kind that correlates to action, and worse, it’s the kind that can alienate real supporters from your efforts. If your issue is high-stakes for you, realizing that it could be high stakes for others is the minimum level of consideration you should give when using means to persuade them to publically support your cause. When people are actively avoiding engaging in issues to avoid being part of one group or to engage in a level of self-care, there’s an added level of sensitivity required in what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.

To take it back to Gawker — Gawker was unafraid to challenge the status quo, the powerful, and it took chances on content, sources, and the types of stories it ran. Much of its content was controversial, but it also gave a voice to a lot of people who wouldn’t have had one otherwise, and for that it will forever hold a place within the history of the Internet. And in the end, to the dismay of many, that level of confidence and brashness didn’t survive and it was forced out. Although it’s now bankrupt, Gawker Media as a whole will continue through its affiliate sites. But the brand and the ideals of gawker.com have been effectively shut down. The end of Gawker is bad for many reasons, implications for free speech being one of them. As much as the Internet seems like a free-for-all, it’s still worth asking who has room to participate and what’s at stake for them if they do.

Talking sense to the senseless: PR lessons from Alex Rodriguez’s retirement

As much as it pains me to admit, The New York Yankees did something good. If speaking truth to power takes courage, speaking truth to delusion takes creativity. In both cases, the source of the threat determines what one needs to avoid it. With power, the threat is some kind of punishment for challenging authority. You need to be brave to speak the truth knowing it will cause some kind of repercussion. It takes incredible creativity to get facts through to the truly deluded. Instead of simply relaying information, you have to make it fit into a crazy way of looking at the world without distorting whatever makes your information true in the first place.

Last weekend, the Yankees did just that. They announced Alex Rodriguez would retire. Nay, they convinced Alex Rodriguez to retire, effective Friday, so that next year he can be a ‘special advisor’ to the team. This is quite the feat. Baseball players do not retire in August. Especially not baseball players like Alex Rodriguez. Even more so when they are four home runs away from 700 for their career and due to make 21 million dollars the next season

Rodriguez or A-Rod, needs no introduction for even lapsed baseball fans. He’s been making headlines in the sport since the mid 90s. The once-in-a-generation prospect developed into one of the best players of his era, collecting MVP awards and breaking records on his way to a World Series championship and, eventually, plenty of controversy. Over his career, Rodriguez was paid more than any other baseball player— ever—and by a wide margin. But, despite his obvious greatness, fans often consider him overpaid. His distant and occasionally controversial personality did not help either. Nor did rumors, like the infamous centaur painting.

For most of his career, Rodriguez was described — if you were being nice — as controversial. He was more often labeled narcissistic or straight-up delusional. At one time, he was the undisputed best baseball player on the planet and people were willing to overlook, or at least tolerate, his personality. But, injuries and age have taken their toll. For the past few seasons it’s been pretty clear that stepping aside is the one way Rodriguez can help his team the most.

Rodriguez reached a new low with the Biogenesis scandal. Rodriguez was suspended for the entire 2014 season for using steroids. This was actually the second time he was busted for PEDs. A 2009 Sports Illustrated story revealed Rodriguez tested positive for banned substances in 2003. At the time, the drugs were forbidden yet the league did not have an official screening or suspension policy. Rodriguez was only tested as part of a study to determine if they needed to implement harsher drug penalties, which they did. Other stars have continued being beloved or at least saw no real change in how fans responded to them after one failed test from the same era. David Ortiz and Andy Pettittie and Bartolo Colon are great examples. Even Ryan Braun is getting his image on back on track. The same can’t be said for A-Rod. The second time around, Major League Baseball was ready to make an example of him. It says something about how far they went with that example that people eventually started feeling sorry for a guy who was routinely booed in almost every stadium he visited. Even though The Yankees were very clear that they did not want him back, Rodriguez decided to play another year. Credit where credit is due, A-Rod had a mini comeback season last year and had he retired earlier, the narrative would be very different.

This year, the Yankees needed A-Rod to retire. Unfortunately, for them, consistently declining statistics, no longer being a viable everyday fielder, having to take steroids in order to mask those last two things, and getting suspended all of 2014 for being caught, (what some would call objective logic) was not enough to convince A-Rod his playing days were over. The situation was looking grim. This season was by far his worst as a professional, yet before last weekend all signs pointed to Rodriguez at least finishing the season and potentially joining the Yankees for Spring Training 2017. Then the Yankees came up with something amazing: A way to fit retiring into Rodriguez’s uniquely A-Rodian way of understanding the universe.

Watch last Sunday’s press conference. Rodriguez seems like he could pass a Turing test, hitting all the typical spots in the typical heartfelt athlete retirement speech. With over 30 years in the public eye, it’s fair to say he’s not that good of an actor, so the fact that he seems into it is probably genuine. This is not the same man who once justified using a banned substance with a disconnect that was equal parts Patrick Bateman and Sheldon Cooper. At this point in time, A-Rod isn’t retiring mid season because he’s a distraction in the clubhouse, a waste of a roster spot that could potentially give a prospect valuable big league at-bats, and simply not very good. He’s retiring now because he’s ‘accepting the end gracefully’ because it’s ‘part of being a great professional athlete’.

Now having your general manager beg you to retire mid season is probably not what most of us consider ‘accepting the end gracefully’, especially when that same general manager had been trying to get you to retire for years. Who cares? As great as A-Rod was as a player, is it the best idea for someone as notoriously hard to get along with as he is to be mentoring ‘the next generation of Yankees’? You can also question if someone with off the charts natural ability will be able to explain his process to people who are less skilled. But, the Yankees needed Rodriguez off their playing roster and they came up with an appealing offer for A-Rod that would allow him to accept a ‘graceful’ retirement. Money doesn’t matter to the Yankees like it does other teams; they still have to pay A-Rod, but his salary will no longer count against MLB’s luxury tax or be used by other superstars as an aggressive but technically within the realm of possibility number to start contract negotiations. It’s a win.

From a public relations perspective the win is even greater. Rodriguez’s last game becomes a national event. The Yankees get to do the history of baseball stuff they do so well. Since the team is in the middle of one of its worst seasons in recent memory, Friday’s game will be a much needed highlight in what looks like a depressing second half of the 2016 season. Convincing Rodriguez to retire now lets the Yankees focus their legacy machine on him for a few days, before pointing it on Mark Teixeira, their other, better behaved, superstar retiring at the end of the season. Now they get two special legacy nights in an otherwise disappointing season, when before there was only one. They also get to avoid all of the distracting press speculating about Rodriguez’s next move should he have remained active. Even just having him sit on the bench in recent weeks caused a small scene.

Thankfully, most public affairs campaigns don’t involve clients who are completely far-gone, like soon to be former Yankee Third Basemen. However, they do often require helping people confront perspectives outside of their own. One way to learn how to do that is to study extreme examples of speaking truth to delusion or talking sense to the senseless — when courses of action completely logical to the general public are explained in terms most would find crazy, in order to get a particularly removed individual back to acting like they share a consciousness with the rest of us.

Thinking about it now, Alex Rodriguez retiring on Friday makes too much sense for everyone involved. The only reason it wouldn’t have happened would have been because it involved Alex Rodriguez himself having to agree to it. Then The Yankees spoke truth to delusion. Being ‘special advisor to the next generation of Yankees’ because part of being a great player is ‘accepting the end gracefully’ was a bridge from our world to A-Rod’s. Even though those words probably mean slightly different things in each one. The Yankees made sense out of a senseless situation. They turned a potentially ugly, drawn-out issue into a much bigger and much cleaner PR win: getting Alex Rodriguez to accept a portion of his mortality, making conventional wisdom palpable for someone who built an image around defying it is something we can all learn from, even if the Yankees are teaching the lesson.

The tricks of the trade, how the sausage gets made

The title of this post is from a Hamilton song called ‘The Room Where It Happens.’ If you’re (I can only assume) somewhat against joy and music and are unfamiliar with Hamilton, here is the not-even-Cole’s-Notes-worthy synopsis: Hamilton is a Broadway musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton that incorporates both show tunes and hip hop. It also incorporates diversity and inclusion, casting people of colour in roles they would not normally be cast. ‘The Room Where It Happens’ is sung by Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton’s frenemy, and ultimately, the cause of his death. Throughout the story, Burr desperately wants to be involved with the top-most decision making with the innermost circles of government and power, but he never quite gets there.

Part of the explosive popularity of the musical is that, although a show about grand and momentous events, the characters, ideas, and sentiment expressed throughout are deeply human and relatable. ‘The Room Where It Happens’ is a great song because most people are not content to merely observe the happenings of process — whether that process is political, popular, or a play. One of the most popular Hamilton memorabilia is an annotated songbook, detailing from start to finish the development of the show and the thought process behind the lyrics.

We have always mined the yearning to be in-the-know. The late 90s and early 2000s produced a spate of ‘Making the Band’ shows that allowed us to witness the formation and progression of various pop groups. Singing and dance competitions such as American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance dig from the same source, purporting to show us what it takes to become a star, while also involving us in the process. There are whole series dedicated to watching people prepare food. We are fascinated by preparation itself, and we like to be involved, or at the very least, know what being involved looks like. Exclusives, back-stage interviews, and unguarded moments with politicians, bands, and other celebrity figures all occur in rooms where things happen and where most of us would like to, at least for a brief moment, hang out.

The added dimension — especially in relation to political and public affairs campaigns — is transparency. And in general, there’s a hesitation to stay away from process because we make the assumption that there are things no one wants to know, things they will find boring, and things they shouldn’t know. Understanding process means understanding, in Hamilton parlance, how ‘the parties get to yes/the pieces that are sacrificed in every game of chess.’ How much you reveal and how you do it, though, is difficult to determine. Watching the progression of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the public’s reaction to her, and her in comparison to Trump, can show the disconnect between process and person, political and personal. Rebecca Traister, who has been chronicling the campaign for New York Magazine, spent time with Clinton on the road and said ‘something about the candidate is being lost in translation,’ and that she has been ‘plagued by the ‘likeability’ question since she was first lady.’

The likeability issue exists on a smaller scale for issue-based campaigns and their leaders. In an endless challenge to appear accessible, but authoritative, intelligent, but digestible, indomitable, yet palatable, the game is to be genuine while juggling demands that seem both unrealistic and completely fair to ask of the people and procedures that govern.

Repeatedly, the assessment of some of the current political circumstances is that there is a push against traditional institutionalism in favour of grassroots movements — or more specifically, grassroots movements that rely on the halcyon glow of imagined better days. The attempts to dismantle entrenched power structures is becoming more raucous, such as siding with Trump. And this is how complicated the game can be. Ironically, the Trump faction who champions various throwbacks to outdated power structures can be considered anti-institutional, despite the fact that of the two candidates, Clinton is the only one who could make history by challenging the institutionalism of male leadership by becoming the first female president.

The fact that coming off genuine is often a practiced art is as old as politics, but the rooms where things happen are becoming less physical and more conceptual. Who’s in and out of the room depends on who you’re asking, and along with the loss of trust in institutions come informal concentrations of sway that often have a better idea of how to walk the line of disclosure between the seemingly private and public. But letting people into the metaphorical ‘room’ is, in fact, one way to do this. Struggle is inherently humanizing — perfection, alienating — but with all of the deconstructing and shifting of actual physical institutionalism, there’s also new gradations and realizations of struggle. Not all struggles are equal, and a challenge constantly put to Clinton is whether or not her struggles are relatable.

And then there’s the Internet. Grassroots movements benefit from the informal and widespread use of the Internet, as it’s enabling this shift from a physical room to a metaphorical one. And the Internet, and all of the various platforms by which we share and shape our identity on the Internet, has only helped to extend this fascination with behind-the-scenes exclusives into our personal lives, promoting a level of information, accessibility and narcissism that also makes us interested in how others conduct their own navel-gazing. We have come to expect that at some point, we will see a humanizing side to any larger than life figure with glimpses ‘beyond’ a public face — perhaps we want myths more if we can be part of their making. Successful strategies get imbued with importance ipso facto, reinforcing our desire to know the ‘exclusive’ details as campaigns and projects progress.

Basically, letting people in on some of the dirty details has its time and place. When brought down to a procedural level it’s not always boring: the daily grind of how things get done, insecurities on success, the setbacks that one experiences along the way, are shared experiences, similar to Burr’s frustration with ambition expressed in the song. In the song, Hamilton counsels Burr: ‘If you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game.’ In politics and in public affairs, removing some of the mystery is one way to make people feel invested. Revealing process has a role to play in increasing understanding of what’s at stake, making people feel important, and feeding our need to know some semblance of ‘truth’ behind what’s going on.

It’s not easy. You have to know when and how much to share, but within the context of shifting expectations, it’s become an integral part of how we determine the trustworthiness and likeability of a person, an organization, or an issue. Plus, for all the Hamilton fans out there, you have to remember Alexander Hamilton’s other piece of advice to Aaron Burr: ‘you don’t get a win unless you play in the game/You get love for it, you get hate for it/You get nothing if youナwait for it, wait for it.’