I love to theorize about social behavior and how it relates to our behavior on the internet. But sometimes I get the urge to be just a little more practical about things. How can we actually use all this theory? Before we dig into what I call The Hang Glider Theory, let’s gossip a little.
The Anatomy of Gossip
It seems reasonable to me that gossip evolved as a tool to manage coordination of larger societies. It was a way to trade the social currency called reputation. Reputation, in turn, was a way to govern collaboration between individuals where you neither had a close enough common interest in genetic propagation, nor first hand knowledge of the individual’s contribution or withdrawal from the common pool of value (stash of nuts, Mammoth meat, whatever), nor a strong enough reason to hurt or kill the individual in question. Gossip was a more granular way to control behavior so that it wouldn’t become abusive. Killing individuals for stealing a banana makes society somewhat unstable, but so does letting banana theft run wild, right? Gossip and reputation worked really well here as a way to make societies more stable, to enable rudimentary trade over time and distances, and support larger scale collaboration in general. Societies using this tool prevailed and individuals mastering social behavior thrived. If this wasn’t true, we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing today. Apparently, those who stayed behind in their caves and didn’t interact perished. Maybe somebody should tell this to marketing execs who don’t think they need to engage in social media.
Positive and Negative Gossip
If this is how gossip evolved, one can imagine why negative gossip is so much more common than positive gossip. It was more valuable to know who not to trust than knowing who to trust, simply because it was more expensive to be ripped off or killed than to miss out on the benefit some good social interaction. This could explain our approach anxiety and also why our reflexes for spotting danger is so much quicker than the mental process of spotting something good.
To this day, negative gossip dominates. Even though I can’t show you any conclusive evidence, I think we know it intuitively from our everyday lives. Just look at a rack of gossip porn… sorry gossip magazines.
Gossip and Brands
This is also true for brands. It’s so much easier to go viral on some negative spin than on some positive one. There are tons of examples, the “Disgusting Domino’s Pizza Clip” being only one.
But wait a minute – if this is built in to our minds from thousands of years of evolution, and the internet makes this kind of gossip ultra efficient, will this not happen to us all the time? Yes, my dear Watson, it will. And for that reason, strategies to handle it will have to be part of our management models, but also part of our strategic communications thinking.
How to build it into our management models is crucially important, and includes things like corporate guidelines, empowerment of employees, etc. It is outside the scope of today’s post, but I promise discuss it further some other day.
Instead, today, I’ll propose a model for building it into our strategic thinking. I call it The Hang Glider Theory:
The Hang Glider Theory
If the domination of negative gossip is human nature, then we have a downward gravity of gossip on our scale from attraction to repulsion. So what if we could do what hang gliders do and use this force of gravity to gain speed and create lift again? To nurture warm upwinds and gain even more lift, eventually ending up turning negative momentum to positive lift?
What EA-Games did to handle a bug i their Tiger Woods ’08 game is an old but clear example of this strategy. The bug was that you could walk out on water in the game, which created quite a bit of buzz in the gaming community. But instead of doing something boring, like fixing the bug, or just keeping quite, EA put on their hang glider and used the momentum. This it what they came up with:
Now, I’m not saying that creating a funny film will solve your problem, make sure you hear me now. For Domino’s for example, that would probably have been disastrous. But this film is a clear example of the theory at work.
But even for the Domino’s case much could have been done. Cool campaigns could have been created for recruiting 2 new employees (implying that there were in fact only 2 people involved), or you could have taken these two individuals in to help out with improving working conditions at Domino’s (they were obviously the two most dissatisfied employees in the country), or you could have turned the restaurant in question into an institute for food freshness and employee care, making the incident a turn around symbol. Or whatever. Just not this:
…which is boring, and guilty sounding. It’s also very similar to the “a few bad apples”-defense used in the Abu Ghraib trials. It sounds like you throw out and indict two employees without changing anything in the system, thus leading us to wonder if there aren’t a thousand others just like them out there, being just as dissatisfied and disloyal, only waiting to sneeze on my mozzarella sandwich.
So – this is The Hang Glider Theory. Try it out. Tell me what you think of it. Have fun!