Wednesday, February 3

‘We cannot be too earnest, too persistent, too determined, about living superior to the herd-instinct.’ Author Unknown (often attributed to Abraham Lincoln)

A couple things happened this week that made me think of this one, both of them while I was surfing around on Facebook, and both of them connected to the kind of viral diffusion that social networking is capable of. While that viral dynamic can be a powerful tool and is probably the last truly free form of expression and dissemination left to us, that same freedom carries with it potential for manipulation, desensitization, vapid distraction and the perpetuation of a continual state of irrational fear, even if said state is mild. In a closed environment it’s usually easy to filter out the crap, but in a free one we have to be more careful and discriminating or we can be overwhelmed by a combination of obtuse ignorance and intentional misdirection.

If we fall prey to the BS, we will end up just following the herd, and that’s both boring and disgusting. I mean, if you aren’t at the front of the pack, then your nose is crammed in someone else’s fuzzy butt. Who wants that?

Neither of the two catalysts for this rant was substantial or dramatic in nature, but both were potentially dramatically viral, commanding trends that were noticeable. The first was completely benign drivel, a viral marketing ploy dressed up to be a game in the form of a chain thread encouraging people to do a search on their name in a small, slang-style urban dictionary, and then re-post the directions, and the ostensibly humorous or felicitous result of the search, as their status. As I said: benign, possibly even funny except for the utter innocuousness of the ‘game’. I think, most often, that while these kinds of viral marketing campaigns are meant to drive site hits, they are also something that the marketers behind them take evil glee in, sitting back, watching the hit counters surge, and chuckling over the utter manipulability of the populace they are paid to dupe and coerce.

On those grounds alone, I object to the ploys and strategies and refuse to participate. In fact, I find that I enjoy the sardonic responses to these threads far more than the thread itself. For this one, as soon as I saw it start to trend, I posted a modified version encouraging people to follow the instructions and substitute ‘SHEEP’ for their name. The result describes exactly what this kind of viral marketing counts on: the behavior of a creature devoid of reason that follows the fuzzy ass in front of them just because, in all absence of self-possession or independent thought.

The second example involved a scare chain thread warning people that they should perform a search for a certain phrase in the security block section of their privacy settings. The entry brought up a list of names of people you would never have heard of and the post suggested that these people somehow had access to your profile and personal information. They didn’t. The privacy block field was just acting as a search engine, pulling up the names of people who had expressed association to a certain company on their profile. So tons of people were starting to block other people simply because someone told them to follow a few semi-arcane and techy instructions. The list of people to block, which started at around 20, was up to around 75 by the time I checked it out, growing because the search was starting to draw on the names of people that had posted the status warning and were subsequently associated by reference with the company mentioned. Yes, I checked it out, right after I Googled the topic and found out it was a farce.

This is a less benign form of viral dissemination. I can only make guesses regarding the intent of the original publisher, but I can’t see it being a positive one. Taken to an illogical extreme, everyone on Facebook could have eventually posted the status, become associated with the company in the search engine, and we’d all have to block everyone. Stupid. And all it took to find out that the scare was a farce was to do a one-minute search and read an article.

My point? I mean, really, neither of these examples was going to result in a complete collapse of society, and the first one even had the potential to be mildly diverting and entertaining, right? Okay, if you say so… Don’t get me wrong, I like having fun. And having fun in general, being occasionally diverted by a good movie, book, game, concert, whatever… can be a good thing. Hell, I want to be a novelist, so I hope I can be diverting enough to sell a few books. My point is that we need to be conscious of when attempts are being made to divert our attention. If we are being entertained, we need to make choices about how and when that happens.

If you do this, pursue your entertainment with a bit of conscious awareness, then you will be declaring open war on the marketers of the world, just so you know. Their intent is to keep you dumb and make your choices for you, manipulating your attention and usurping your freewill. And it’s not just about diversion either. This concept applies to politics, consumption, social conformity, religion, self-development, fashion, fitness, self-perception and body image… the list could go on and on.

Our time, our generation, has been called the Age of Persuasion by Terry O’Reilly. We are all about ‘getting to yes’ and learning how to ‘make friends and influence people’. What we rarely take the time to realize is that, while we’re running around increasing our influence, everyone else is doing it too. We’re all running around trying to get one up on the other guy, be smarter, sneakier, horde more. We’ve been duped into this self-defeating behavior by ideologies and marketing philosophies that treat people as demographic targets and potential revenue sources instead of, well, people. We are deep into the process, in a very real way, of abdicating our humanity in favor of ‘greater profits and mechanical amusements’.

I’m not saying that you should forgo all forms of amusement. I certainly don’t plan on doing that and I need every one of you to buy my book if and when it gets on the bookshelves. We need that diversion sometimes, a chance to decompress and laugh or sigh or cry. What I am suggesting is that you keep your eyes open. That’s right, open ‘em up. A bit more now. There. Keep them that way. You make your choices instead of letting them make your choices. You see through their lies instead of them leading you through the fog. Take control of your life and your mind and your decisions. It’s empowering, trust me.

You may not always like what you see when you stick your head up out of the herd, but it has to be better than the fuzzy butt you would other wise be staring at.