I relish the rush of caffeine lubricating my brain in the early morning hours. To my friends with EU passports, who richly enjoy the smell and taste of their morning brew, this delicious work of art is on me. Sugar?
My travels and travails in the social sciences started at an early age. My work began in 1980 in eastern Europe. Let’s not do the math. Age is just a number. At the feet of great and learned men and women, I found a simple model of awareness for my social craft predicated on this truth. “You can never step into the same river twice.” Norms and orthodoxies are always in flux. Even when we are not paying attention.
Allow me to illustrate my point with hard, historical facts. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) is constructed with the 30 largest and most highly capitalized (meaning richest) public companies in America. The best of the best. The DJIA began being tracked on May 26, 1896, at 40.94 with 12 companies. In 1928 the DJIA was revised to 30 companies. None of the 30 companies on the 1928 roster (see below) are on the list today. Many are out of business. Others, like General Motors Corporation, have been to the brink of disaster several times and came back. Never as strong, robust, and dominant as their 1928 incarnation.
Allied Chemical, American Can, American Smelting, American Sugar, American Tobacco, Atlantic Refining, Bethlehem Steel, Chrysler, General Electric, General Motors Corporation, General Railway Signal, Goodrich, International Harvester, International Nickel, Mack Truck, Nash Motors, North American, Paramount Publix, Postum Incorporated, Radio Corporation, Sears Roebuck & Company, Standard Oil (N.J.), Texas Company, Texas Gulf Sulphur, Union Carbide, U.S. Steel, Victor Talking Machine, Westinghouse Electric, Woolworth, Wright Aeronautical
How did many of the strongest companies go from the penthouse to the alleyway? Please note America’s first mass merchandising business “Sears Roebuck & Company” let a fledgling start-up selling books kick its butt, on that “internet” thing. Let us return to the how.
Simple. Sears stopped listening to its customers, observing their actions, asking why, and testing the theories they learned from client interaction. Sears had become an echo chamber unto itself. Tunnel vision ensued. Blindspots formed. Cracks in the foundation were ignored. Our answer is provided from the field of evolutionary biology.
In our evolution, humans formed small groups as a matter of survival numbering between 50-200. This observation led Robin Dunbar to formulate the Dunbar number. The notion of Dunbar’s Number theorizes that 150 is the upper-end number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships. Graphic #1 below depicts the average person’s circle of confidants, comforters, fun friends, useful contacts, and associates with that Dunbar Number as an upper-end constraint.
The material is from Paul Adams’ book “Grouped: How small groups of friends are the key to influence on the social web” (Voices That Matter). In 2010, while working for Facebook, Adams prepared a PowerPoint presentation that wowed the social media community. He made the scientifically complex ideas easy to understand. He and I met chatting on Twitter. Back then Twitter was an amazing place to collaborate with other industry professionals. In graphic #1 below, I break down an individual’s relationships according to the strength of the “ties” that bind them. Strong versus weak.
Graphic #1 – We have a much smaller number of people with strong ties in our lives than weak ties.
In our daily lives, the wider group becomes further segmented in categories such as work, church or synagogue, hobbies, interests, entertainment, and family. As most friendships are self-selecting, meaning “birds of a feather, flock together” our little groups are not very diverse. Novelty, uniqueness, and alternative opinions are actively discouraged. Or even chastised once presented. People like people who are like themselves. Minature echo chambers are formed and carefully curated. (see below graphic #2) Next comes tunnel vision and the inevitable blindspots. And, THAT, is why Sears let Amazon kick its butt. Echo chambers never challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Especially, at a particular moment in time, when the orthodoxy is firmly established as the status quo.
Graphic #2 – Our groups are largely independent. Our friends from college don’t know our friends from work. Work friends don’t necessarily know our families. Degrees of overlap do happen.
Sears stopped listening to its customers, observing their actions, asking why, and testing the theories they learned from client interaction. As I mentioned above, Sears had become an echo chamber unto itself. In 1942, the economist Joseph Schumpeter introduced the idea of creative destruction. The theory of creative destruction assumes that long-standing arrangements and assumptions are routinely destroyed to free up resources and energy to be deployed for innovation. The why of creative destruction is ushered in as echo chambered orthodoxies dominate established businesses run by managers, not innovators. The old makes way for the new.
Think for a moment about Steve Jobs at Apple. Innovators are always tinkering with reality. Listening. Observing. Asking why? And testing their ideas. It is in their nature. Innovators are not MBAs squeezing out a few percentage points of profitability, they are visionaries. Dreamers.
Back in the day, my social science career began in the studies and exploitation branch of Uncle Sam’s tree. I was a strategic thinker, researcher, and writer tinkering with reality. Way outside the box thinking was mandated, not just encouraged as a means of “exploiting” our opposition. Like a repetitive wash and rinse cycle, we listened, observed, asked why, and tested our big picture notions again, and again. Consequently, we found blindspots and weaknesses to exploit. Our macro conclusions were sought by the biggest decision-makers in our government’s hierarchy for almost a decade during a very turbulent time in America.
Fast forward to today. After poking around for a couple months on one of the social media platforms, I had a caffeine-induced epiphany. Most of the brands, influencers, and creators I interacted with or tried to interact with, had no idea of their evolutionary derived echo chambers. Nor the daunting implications of Dunbar’s Number on their business model. Social media wasn’t social for them. It was media. Brands, influencers, and creators were set on broadcast mode. A few listened and observed. Interacting on occasion. Others not. Certainly, no one ventured to ask the “why” question of their followers beyond carefully curated industry focus groups or internal debates with trusted colleagues.
Conversations with followers or customers were being ignored in the quest for bigger or more. The game had formed around a mass following as the tipping point for relevance and money.
Their industry had become its own ecosystem of communication and repetition inside a closed system, insulated from rebuttal. All the while, followers are quietly tuning out and turning off brands, influencers, or creators labeling the entire interaction as “fake or BS”, due to the lack of “social” in the media. The term “fake or BS” was used in a vast number of my conversations with everyday people. I didn’t coin the descriptions nor suggest them. My question was usually phrased, “What are your thoughts on social media? IG, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok?”
The creeping erosion of the social media business model with brands, influencers, and creators has already begun. The telltale signs of discontent were apparent in my conversations. Ask the heads of Sears Roebuck how ignoring the warning signs proffered by Walmart than Amazon worked out for them? At least Walmart is contending with Amazon’s quest for American supremacy.
I wonder if the folks at FedEx fully appreciate their situation? Maybe.
Ask yourself another question. Why is Facebook pushing groups so hard?
Obviously, the constraint of evolutionary biology in Dunbar’s “150” number and the “how” we naturally form groups around common interests is driving Facebook’s push. Joining groups is the social “glue” required to keep us signing in. No one misses connecting with 600 “friends” on Facebook. It is an unsustainable task to interact with 600 people, your feed is a blur of activity. Looking and clicking can be exhausting. But a handful of friends with a common interest in a group, that’s doable. And, we feel connected. Refer back to Graphic #2 above for a visual representation of group formation dynamics. Remember Paul Adams’ book “Grouped”. He worked for Facebook. Maybe they listened.
Listening, observing, asking why, and testing your theories against reality is what I call the art of thinking for yourself. The perspective created by asking why type questions can be vicious and unsettling, even in the best of times. “Why?” you ask. (Notice how I did that?) Because change or the whiff of change scares the crap out of most of us. And dismantling a prevailing orthodoxy that is paying your bills is beyond brutal. Most of us are far too invested in the status quo to venture into an open and thoughtful critique. But a rare few brands, influencers, and creators are doing a little soul searching in their years of plenty.
History records, the first time Steve Jobs attempted to confront his status quo managers at Apple, they ousted him from the company he founded. Jobs’ awareness and perspective on his creation proved to be dead on. He was re-hired once the company floundered. We have iPods and iPhones from Steve Jobs’s second tenure at Apple.
The Wall Street Journal reported on the morning of my post (12/14/21): Digital media companies Vox Media and Group Nine Media are planning a merger. The combined company would instantly become one of the largest digital media publishers in the U.S., helping it compete more effectively against the scale of social platforms for advertising budgets. The two publishers would reach a combined audience of 115 million unduplicated visitors monthly, according to Comscore data. The merger will make the digital landscape vastly more competitive.
The enhanced awareness gained by cycling through listening, observing, asking why, and testing your theories against reality is not just a business application. The process will elevate our awareness and perspective into the vastly bigger venture we call life.
In closing, I have intentionally not identified the brands, influencers, and creators I studied. They are all good, hardworking, and exceedingly talented people. These content kings and queens are on the frontlines scratching out a living. My intent is to add value to their journey not disparage them in any way. Mine is a gentle nudge to examine their model through a simple logic lens. I am not peddling myself as a consultant nor am I operating as a PR or ad agency. I am solely a researcher and writer sharing my recipes collected over a lifetime. My revenue stream will come from selling my book(s).
So, please buy my books when they hit the shelves in 2022 for more useful insights from my 40-year glimpse inside all too human machines of politics, economics, and culture. Until then, travel safely.