The Devil made me do it


Is there any human behavior older than making excuses?
My friends were all doing it. I ate too many Twinkies. And the list goes on. The fact is people often follow the leader, sometimes to terrible ends. To create a following is the goal of modern businesses and movements. Symbols, logos and jingles are all part of the toolkit for selling products and ideas. And as I suggested yesterday, the no-one-knows-if-you’re-a-dog nature of the Web makes that medium friendly to fictional characters or made-up events — though that tactic has its dangers, as will become evident below. The challenge facing us all, of course, at a time when everyone can become a publisher, is how to get attention when it isn’t possible to grab the world by both shoulders and shake it until its head starts nodding up and down.

The Web is replete with examples of little things that grew large overnight, YouTube being only the latest of these ideas to come out of nowhere. A great session at the AlwaysOn innovation summit at Stanford University recently put some of the instigators of these runaway successes on stage to share their tips for how to create what the seminar called “contagious behaviors.” Follow this link to a webcast of that session posted by Gen Kanai, and then click where he tells you — the webcast just played on my PC.

But, hell, I’m a word guy and I think the secret of gaining adherents is to find ways to get people involved even on the most subtle levels, as in triggering an emotional response from laughter to outrage to desire, and then providing some simple mechanism for them to do something on the basis of that impulse. That’s the essence of interactivity, and the Web is the best medium yet — other than a friend taunting us — to connect impulse with action.

But interactivity long predates the Web. I think we have to tip our hat here to Edgar Allen Poe who more or less invented the detective story ( among other innovations). That storytelling style virtually compels the reader to match wits with the detective. Today millions of people invest money and time in who-done-it books and movies.

In the realms of politics and social action, fear and outrage are all too common. For the philosophical treatise on this, consider “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” by Hannah Arendt. ( Wikipedian synopsis.)

But, truth be told, I’m not interested in becoming the absolute ruler of anything (with the possible exception of my teenaged sons). In fact, I’m sick and tired of being pushed and pulled by fears, and I think it’s high time we find other, friendlier motivating impulses, such as laughter and ridicule — who is more contagious these days than Jon ( Daily Show) Stewart?

And so I ask: does the Web invite spoofing and misdirection as an organizing tactic? This question arose the other night when I was brainstorming with a buddy who has even less good sense than me.

He suggested that we create a mythology around the business plan we were mulling — to the effect that it was discovered on the sidewalk by a person who had witnessed the assassination of the plan’s originator. Hmmmm. Effective or not. Ethical or not. Separate questions that, to some extent, depend on the nature of the plan and the nature of the fabrication — is it a tall tale such as Paul Bunyan or a Big Lie in the tradition of Joseph Goebbels?

But I think on the Internet every fake-dog may have its day.

Of course there are consequences to faking it, especially when you’re supposed to be a trusted brand and you get caught making it up, as was the case recently with a supposedly grassroots blog in support of WalMart that was exposed as a work for hire in which a newspaper photographer (ouch!) took part on a freelance basis. (See MediaPost for details.)

So in keeping with the devil image above, and my Catholic upbringing, let me pause this idea until tomorrow when I will think outloud about the continuum from mistakes to falsehoods to tall tales in the context of our wired world.