Can Your Message Survive A Filtered View Of The Internet?

As originally published on Navigator's website.

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 griefon 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.