The world out of context

Did you see Ricky Gervais hosting the Golden Globes? No? Neither did I. Neither did about 98% of the population of North America, according to the ratings numbers. Yet I would bet in the past week that we all knew about it, and we all talked about it. But we’re basing our judgments, opinions and conversations on something we’ve, at best, read online, heard about through the network (virtual or otherwise) or seen on Youtube. We’re experiencing the simultaneous pleasure and pain of Ricky’s Golden Globe Roast through hearsay and sound bites.

This isn’t an isolated incident. More and more, our view of the world comes after the fact, often filtered through fragments found somewhere online. Most of our experience of the world is out of its original context. This phenomenon isn’t new. Gossip is as old as language. We all love to talk about what’s happened. But the prevalence of digital footprints throws a new spin on this inherently human tendency. The impact of that spin, I’m afraid, is still to be determined.

The World as I Remember It

Memories are funny things. We like to think of them as snapshots of the past, accurately recording where we’ve been. The truth is, memories aren’t all that reliable. We tend to remember high points and low points, removing much of the distracting noise in the middle that makes up the stuff of our everyday lives. It’s like a Reader’s Digest condensed version of our past, except we tend to rewrite the actual content to match our view of the world. And once we rewrite our memories to match our beliefs, we believe them to be true (see Danny Kahneman’s TED talk on remembered happiness). It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that helps maintain the consistency of our worldview, but it’s a far stretch from what actually happened. Even more disturbing, if you’re a fan of the truth, is that we can’t seem to resist tweaking the story to make it more interesting. We love to build memes that take on a life of their own, spreading virally across the social landscape.

I always maintain that technology doesn’t change behaviors; it allows behaviors to change. Technology can’t force us down a road we don’t want to go. This drive to tweak little tidbits of the past is something baked into the human psyche. But the vast tableau we now have available to share it on is something quite new. “Going viral” now raises gossip to a whole new level. Just ask a dorky little kid that goes by BeenerKeeKee 19952 online. His strangely compelling lip syncs to popular songs have turned him into an instant celebrity. His cover of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream has garnered close to 30 million views on YouTube, closing in on the popularity of the original video. He’s become so popular that 50 Cent popped into his bedroom to do a cameo recently. But we know nothing of the kid behind the webcam. We don’t know the context of his life. We don’t know if he is bullied at school, has a life outside his bedroom or is good at baseball. All we know is what we can see in 3 minutes and 48 seconds.

Fool’s Gold

One recent example of this problem of context is Ted Williams, the homeless man with the golden voice who was plucked from the streets of Columbus, Ohio and placed on a world stage. The world judged the situation based on a 1 minute and 14 second Youtube clip. We saw what appeared to be injustice, and rushed to right the wrong. Job offers poured in. Williams became a celebrity. But it all happened without the context of the 53 years of an undeniably checkered past that preceded the fateful video clip. As it is turning out, as we gain the context, the real story is not nearly as simple or straightforward as we would like. Williams is already in rehab.

Acting on hearsay and second hand information is nothing new. But as our communication abilities and our ability to archive history continue to expand, we get further and further from the true context of things. With the advent of online, word of mouth flows farther, faster and is more compelling than ever. More and more, we will act on little bits of information that are far removed from their true origins. We will pass judgment without the benefit of context. This will create more instant celebrities, basking in their 15 minutes of fame. And it will also create more viral sensations with self-destructive tendencies. There’s one thing about context – it may not lead to the instant gratification we crave, but it does tend to keep the egg off of one’s face.

Originally published in Mediapost’s Search Insider January 20, 2011