The Age of the Selfish Meme

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The times, they are a-changin’.

The image above (via Reddit) comes from an Australian store that has started charging $5 to customers who peruse the goods but don’t buy anything, assuming they are just looking around to buy elsewhere later (possibly online), a strategy known as showrooming.

That’s a difficult problem to face if you’re a brick and mortar store: Best Buy has famously solved it by price-matching any online deal on its merchandise. This store chose a very different approach, one that is sure to alienate many potential customers. We are going through a big transition phase in how we deal with technology. Online shopping is already a taken-for-granted habit for many, but other changes are more subtle and take the stage less ceremoniously. Think of voicemail, which almost no one uses anymore. If you leave someone a voicemail and believe they will listen to it, you’re talking a dead language. But nobody tells you: you just have to know. That’s maybe why Nick Bilton of the New York Times caused a stir when he blogged about current trends in digital etiquette, saying that people who reply to an email or a text just to say “thank you” are rude.

It’s a generational clash all right, with grownups blaming the kids for being unpolite, but it’s way more than that. It’s not the first time we go through these hurdles, only the tools are different. One of «the first crises of techno-etiquette», as the Times calls it, happened just after the telephone was invented: nobody knew what to say when they picked up a call. Ahoy! and What is wanted? were popular options before we eventually settled on Hello. That was a single problem related to a single piece of technology. Think of how many of these processes we are going through today. The difference is that there’s no concerted effort, because most of these problems have not been around long enough to create a definite distinction between right and wrong. So everyone gives it a shot and hopes for the best.

In evolutionary terms, when someone smarter that you is around, you’re in trouble. Even if you’re standing on a freshly killed gazelle, there’s always a sneaky scavenger lurking somewhere. People being born today are delivered to a full-digital world, and this creates a fracture as large as we’ve ever seen. Some folks, the older generations, will fade away before this becomes more than a nuisance for them, but others who are still relatively young are at risk of suffering.

Technology is mature enough for some companies to have become dinosaurs. Think of the difference between Microsoft and Google. They were founded just 23 years apart, but if feels like a century. Yahoo, another flailing tech company, just made headlines around the world for having bought Summly, a news reading app that sums up news stories through an algorythm, for $30 million. The app was made by a 17-year old who is being hired by Yahoo. There’s no media outlet in the world that hasn’t picked up the story, because a kid who makes millions with an app has just slightly less appeal than a litter of puppies: it’s irresistible. But Summly had been around for a year, very few people used it, and Yahoo has already killed it. Yet this has become the global talk of the day and it’s given the company a fresh coat of paint, not a bad deal for $30 million, or 0,75 percent of Yahoo’s cash reserves. There’s no right or wrong in this: you can either see it as a brilliantly cynical PR move or a genuine sign that there’s hope for humanity. Either way, I’m not sure this trick can be successfully pulled off for much longer.

The following image is floating around Facebook: 536319_321387391297312_836869227_n It’s a static image that appears to be moving because it tricks your brain a little bit. The image is shared with the encouragement to “type 1 in the comments to see the magic”. Of course all the “magic” is already there, and absolutely nothing happens if you type “1” in the comments. You should know that. And yet this has racked up over 200,000 comments, with most people sheepishly complying and inflating the comment counter (an empty endeavor at that, but that’s how the Internet works). Imagine if someone told you in the street to shout out «one» very loud to “see the magic”. You’d think they’re nuts. You would certainly not comply. But in technology, the weakest of nudges will make you do things without thinking.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who coined the term meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, saw it coming: just like genes use biological beings to propagate themselves, we are now slaves to memes as well. Most people don’t take these things seriously: they are not afraid to act like digital idiots. They still see this realm as something separate from reality, where the effort required to do stuff is minimal (one click) and so is the social cost of errors and mishaps. There’s an obvious detachment: people still use nicknames even where they’re not supposed to. There are companies that block off Facebook and other sites so that their employees do not slack off at work. In a few years (wether Facebook will still be around or not) that will be considered as outrageous as asking people to relinquish their phones before they sit at their desks.

For some, technology is not yet life, it’s something that still sits on top of it, separated. But it’s not. We are constantly going through sweeping social change, but it’s less apparent when you’re standing in the middle of it. And as with every social change, some people are on the forefront of it, some are puzzled by it, and some can’t even see it fly over their heads. It’s a very interesting time, but because transitions have uncertain boundaries it will be probably forgotten by history. Just like those times when we still hadn’t figured out what to say when we answered the phone.


The Darkness Around Suicide

The tragic death of the nurse who was the victim of a prank call at Kate Middleton’s hospital a few days ago highlights how little is known, or understood, about the complex issue of suicide.

After the news broke that Jacintha Saldanha had killed herself, the world was enraged. Twitter immediately turned into a violent storm of accusations and hatred, and the accounts of the culprits were quickly deleted. Many people stated that the two Australian DJs had «blood on their hands» and needed to be charged with manslaughter. They were to blame for what happened.

I am deeply sorry for the death of this woman, a married mother of two. But the pranksters cannot be blamed. While shame is a powerful motivator for suicide, a single event is almost never enough. Very few media outlets bothered to call a psychologist to comment on the events in their first round of reporting. Fox News, not a news source I normally admire, had the president of the American Psychologist Association correctly suggest that the call might have been «a final straw» that led Saldanha to take her own life.

No one is directly to blame. You could say that the hospital director should have know better than to put a vulnerable person in charge of the phone when he had the world’s most famous patient under his care. And you can question the taste, the timeliness and the motives of the pranksters, but those observations should stay the same regardless of what happened as a result. Prince Charles himself had a laugh about it, before tragedy struck of course, by saying «How do you know I’m not a radio station?».
If you listen to the call, the intentions of the hoaxers are pretty clear: «We thought a hundred people before us would have tried it, we just thought it was such a silly idea, and the accents were terrible», they explain in a video interview, «Not for a second we thought we would actually get to speak to anyone at the hospital. We wanted to be hung up on». The joke was stupid to start with, but it spiraled out of control.

Suicides only make the news under certain conditions, chiefly when they follow a murder, or when they are linked to fame. Not necessarily a celebrity: in 2010, Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, who builds tech gadgets for Apple and other leading brands, made magazine covers after a slew of suicides. There were 14 registered self-inflicted deaths among Foxconn’s 930,000 employees that year. Sadly, those were actually pretty good numbers compared to China’s national rate of over 22 suicides out of every 100,000 people each year (Foxconn only suffered 1,5). That didn’t stop the company from responding to the public outcry by installing nets in its dorms to discourage workers from jumping out of windows. Bad publicity kills good business.

What this shows is that not only suicide is questionably treated by the media, but that we are extremely unfamiliar with the numbers surrounding it. China has, admittedly, one of the world’s highest suicide rates: a staggering 287,000 people kill themselves each year, out of a population of 1,3 billion. That’s about 786 people a day, a figure that’s hard to swallow. You’d think that has mostly to do with China. But it doesn’t.

The United States have one of the highest rates of homicides among developed countries: in 2009, there were 16,500 deaths by murder. And how many deaths by suicide? Over 36,000. More than twice as many people kill themselves each year in the US than are killed by others. In the same year, 2009, suicide has surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of death by injury. And more American soldiers routinely die by taking their own lives than are killed in combat. In India, another country with elevated rates, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young people (15-29 years of age) after transportation accidents, with around 187,000 fatalities in 2010 alone.

The puzzling numbers are not the end of the story. One commonly held belief is that suicide rates peak around holidays, especially in the winter. But that’s hardly the case: people commit suicide far more frequently during springtime. Why? There are many theories, but increased social interaction may be a leading factor: it’s just when you hope that things might get better, like the weather outside, that you get depressed the most if they actually don’t. Also, it’s easier to feel socially disconnected when everybody else is out having fun. The intricate inner workings of suicidal tendencies are also based upon cultural or racial differences: African-americans are half as likely to kill themselves and six times more likely to be murdered. But some of those homicides may be suicides in disguise: psychologists say this is due to the fact that white and black people externalize their frustrations about life differently, because of cultural heritage. There’s a type of murder called “victim-precipitated homicide”, which happens when someone engages in violent or reckless behavior that gets them killed. An estimated 30 percent of urban homicides may belong to this variant, which is not recognized as a form of suicide.
A similar thing happens after news break that a celebrity has committed suicide:
not only you get a spike in actual suicides out of emulation, but the number of fatal car accidents involving a single person also spikes. Many of those are people killing themselves.

In the end, nearly all suicides go unnoticed and undiscussed, because this is a taboo topic across all cultures. But there’s another reason why so few are reported in newspapers: even common people committing suicide, for example subway jumpers, inspire emulators. Especially individuals demographically similar to the person who died, and who lived in the same geographical area. It’s called the Werther Effect, after Goethe’s novel. The result is that media outlets in many countries self-regulate against reporting suicides to deter copycats.

Suicide is not a rare thing, it’s a common thing. It can hardly be caused by a single event, however devastating: it’s a cumulative problem often linked to mental illness. There’s not nearly enough awareness around it, compared to other similarly life-threatening issues. All the time and effort that have been spent over the last few days chastising two hapless idiots who didn’t know what they were doing, could have been better spent exploring the real problem. Awareness can save lives. Ruining those of two additional people accomplishes nothing.

The 11 Most Annoying Things on Facebook

There are a number of things on Facebook that just rub me the wrong way. Here’s a list.

1. The Plea to stop unwanted requests.
Let me tell you how this works: those requests are automatic. When you play a game, it will generally try to spam your entire friends list so that it can propagate itself. There’s a simple way around this: go to your privacy settings and block the offending app. To think that someone will read your plea, make a note of it, and specifically opt you out the next time actually makes you sound more stupid than the very person you’ve been getting unsolicited requests from. But it does make you look like you are above these silly games, because hey, you’re on Facebook for the important, serious stuff. And it’ll also get you likes from other clueless recipients.

2. The Redundant Link
When you post a YouTube video, you first insert the URL in the box, and then Facebook creates a preview of that. That’s when you should remove the original YouTube link you just pasted, and either add your comment or leave it blank. I see so-called social media experts routinely making this mistake. This applies to any link type. It just looks ugly.

3. The Autolike
That’s just not allowed.

4. Vaguebooking
Urban Dictionary defines this as «An intentionally vague Facebook status update, that prompts friends to ask what’s going on, or is possibly a cry for help». You shouldn’t do it.

5. The Countdown

This is a variation on vaguebooking. It’s a very cheesy way of fishing for attention.

6. Addressing people who just gave you a like
This is the Facebook equivalent of calling someone back after they texted you. It’s intrusive. Plus it makes you look really dumb once the second like comes in, because then no one will know who the hell you’re talking to. And it slashes the chances of that person giving you a like in the future, fearing you’ll take the opportunity to start an unwanted conversation again.

7. Putting up fake cool places as your hometown

Judging by Facebook, New York City has a population of approximately 60 million.

8. Your newborn as a profile pic

There’s just no stopping people from forcing down your throat the fact that they can reproduce. Yet it’s probably less creepy than creating a whole new profile for the infant altogether.

9. The Reflex Selfie

This was cool for about 5 seconds the first time someone ever did it. Now it’s incredibly lame: if you’re a photographer, that’s a pretty desperate way of advertising that. If you’re not, then it’s probably a self-involved way of showing you’re artistic. What it really shows is that you own a reflex camera and you want to hide your face.

10. The shared profile
That’s so annoying even Facebook doesn’t like it. So they have launched a new ‘couples’ page, presumably to mitigate the problem. I don’t really know what that is, but you can look it up here.

11. The Feminist Support Group

Here’s how this works: some perfectly normal, average looking woman (possibly past her prime age-wise) posts a vaguely sexy looking picture of herself, often a selfie. At which point a good portion of her female friends feel obliged to comment on how gorgeous she looks. Often by using typically masculine remarks. The unwritten rule is that you should then do the same as the occasion arises. It’s a cheap way of distributing some hollow, feel-good compliments. You can tell when this dynamic is in effect because not a single guy either likes or comments.

Do you have any Facebook pet peeves?

Hello, Stranger!

You probably see them every day, yet you don’t know them. They are called familiar strangers.
They are the people you meet repeatedly on the bus, on the tube, at the gym or at the cafeteria, but you never talk to them. Nevertheless they are a part of your social circle, because you kind of notice if they’re missing. You establish a relationship of sorts with them, one that dictates no contact, but no hostility. And if you happen to stumble upon them outside the normal routine they are associated with, maybe on holiday, then the social curtain lifts, and you do actually talk to them. Your common background becomes a strong enough connection to engage in social contact.

You probably have a few of them as Facebook friends, too. Would you say ‘hello’ if you encountered them in the street?

Berkeley University launched a project about this a few years back. It stems from the research of great cognitive psychologist Stanley Milgram, famous for his Small World Experiment that spawned the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory. He has explored this in a paper called The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity.