Here we are with part 8 of my cultural context series, where we explore some of the macro forces that guide the world within which we live and strategise.
You can find parts 1-7 here, with the most recent first:
ChatGPT, The Amish, and the friction deficit
The crushing tedium of excellence
The schizophrenia machine: how brands remake our identities
The post-cultural myth and how it permeates everything we do
Remapping the world: the rise of horizontal loyalty
Sugar, sex, and the supernormal
Concentration, the untold story of the 21st century
If you are a seasoned citizen of the internet, as I suspect many of you are, then you’re probably aware of the “I support the Current Thing” meme.
In case you’re not, it’s essentially a sardonic piss-take of people’s tendency to proclaim solidarity with whatever issue happens to be currently top of the news agenda. One day everyone cares passionately about X issue, and the next day everyone cares passionately about Y issue – guided not by any apparent connection to the topic beyond it happening to be what everyone’s currently talking about – hence “The Current Thing”.
The meme itself is fairly easy to dismiss, since on the surface it reflects little more than a reflexive contrarian impulse – plus, in the eyes of many, a callous dismissal of many genuinely important issues. Just because something is “The Current Thing”, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s trivial or overblown, nor that people’s interest is necessarily inauthentic.
However beneath the surface snark, there is an interesting question here that we should take seriously:
How do we decide which topics are important, and which aren’t?
For most of us going about our ordinary lives, this question rarely occurs to us. The answer seems to be self-evident: if people think it’s important, then it is. If something is top of the news agenda, then it “deserves” to be so. If something is a hot global political or social issue, that’s because it is objectively that much more important than everything else.
This is the intuitive reaction most of us have.
But, on inspection, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The truth is that what people are talking about and caring about at any given moment isn’t, in fact, a “natural” result of the inherent weight and urgency of the given topic, but rather the result of its “mental availability” – something marketers will be well-familiar with, and which can be influenced by people who want that topic to be top of the agenda.
This is the idea explained in a paper by Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein under the terminology of “availability cascades”, which they claim is the manner by which certain issues are “selected” to be important, at the expense of all others.
Basically it works something like this:
- Various agitators, activists, and lobbyists which they describe as “availability entrepreneurs” compete to increase the top-of-mindness (availability) of their particular issue, in the same way a founder or marketer seeks to maximise the mental availability of their brand.
- Those who are most successful manage to get their particular issue “seen” and “understood” by a critical mass of people, at which point a “cascade” is triggered whereby people begin talking about it purely because everyone else is talking about it (classic people-copying-people stuff).
- This propels it to the top of the news agenda, causes it trend on social media, encourages corporations to leverage it in their PR materials, etc.
- And thus the idea then takes on a weight and gravity that makes its dominance in the public discourse seem natural and inevitable, when in fact it is just one of many equally worthy topics which just so happened be more successfully “marketed”
You can think about it simply in terms of the news:
- Why do some things become front page stories, and others don’t?
- Who decides what gets elevated and what gets ignored?
We act as if the people running the newspapers have some sort of magical sixth sense for what is important and what isn’t – but in reality they’re normal people just like everyone else, and as such are equally subject to the availability bias:
“The thing I keep on seeing is important because I keep on seeing it”.
And as any marketer could tell you, such visibility is a totally manipulable and human-controlled phenomenon.
Now there are a couple of important facts to flag here before we go on:
- Just because the attention paid a given topic is “engineered”, that doesn’t make it totally fake or unimportant.
- The existence of availability cascades doesn’t make everything a conspiracy or some sort of nefarious “psy-op”.
No, the “organic” weight of an issue is definitely an important ingredient in its capacity to trigger an availability cascade. It’s just that it isn’t as important an ingredient as we, the general public, tend to think it is.
Understandably I am extremely hesitant to give you a specific example of this phenomenon, as by definition anything I say will be read as me “downplaying” or “debunking” an issue people feel passionate about – since after all, availability cascades are all about building passion.
However I’ll give you one example purely for the purposes of illustration, and enhancing your understanding of the general idea. It’s not a topic on which I have any expertise, so please don’t take my explanation as an argument – it’s simply a good mechanical demonstration of how availability cascades work in principle:
Some ecologists question why so much more attention is paid to CO2 levels than other environmental issues which are also critical (e.g. mass extinction, pollution, de-forestation, etc.). Why has this single issue “captured the airwaves” while the others are (relatively) ignored?
Based on the availability cascade thesis, the answer is simple: CO2 has much stronger mental availability than the other topics. This doesn’t mean that it’s more (or less) important; but simply that it’s better promoted and has higher visibility.
There is a logical reason for this when you think about it, which I’ve heard some cynics argue: CO2 levels are “corporate friendly”, meaning there are highly profitable means of mitigating the problem, whereas other issues only have unprofitable solutions. This means that big businesses become “availability entrepreneurs” for CO2 levels, leaving this issue much better “resourced” than the others that it’s competing with in the “marketplace of ideas”.
Would this mean it’s untrue? No.
Would this mean it’s not important? No.
But it would mean that there is a “finger on the scales” when it comes to what we are told is important. That things don’t end up as the focus of our attention purely by matter of chance, but because they are to some extent shepherded there by people who (for whatever reason) want it to be that way.
I think in our sober and detached moments we would all recognise this to be true – even common sensical. It’s just that in our daily goings on we tend to forget it. We tend to be swept along in the cascade, without considering what the trigger of the cascade might have been.
In terms of the consequences of this idea, I think there are two: one for us as individuals, and one for us as founders and marketers.
As individuals, I do think we need to mentally de-couple the “fame” of a topic from its importance. This doesn’t only mean“downplaying” popular topics. Indeed we should be careful about that, as in many cases the popularity of an issue dramatically increases its importance purely by virtue of it being popular (since it then starts to influence government policy, corporate decision making, etc. etc.). No, it’s perhaps more important to consider in the “up-playing” sense, in that just because something is not widely talked about, that doesn’t make it trivial or unimportant.
The fact is that the most important things happening today probably aren’t being talked about. They probably have low mental availability. They lack “sponsorship”.
Beyond that we might also consider reframing the way we analyse topical issues: away from a metric of “importance” and towards a metric of “popularity”.
This means not simply asking, as we naturally do, why the big issues of the day matter, but also why they are attractive. Why they are liked. We rarely think of news stories in this way, as being in a sense “brands” in their own right, but clearly they are. It’s self-evident that topics become talked about at least in part because they have attractive self-propagating qualities to them, and that some people benefit from their visibility – so we need to factor that into our evaluation.
Again, this doesn’t mean we reject them: it simply means that we have a more holistic understanding of their nature.
As for founders and marketers, well when we are wearing these hats there is a utilitarian quality to this idea too.
Availability cascades describe big topics as largely the result of mimetic social contagion: people caring about things simply because other people care about them. If you’re a cynic this means you can exploit these things for your advantage – as brands routinely do, aligning themselves with issues people care about but which are strategically outside of their wheelhouse. Of course most of them don’t do this cynically; they do it earnestly because they are swept up in the contagion like everyone else – but either way the acquisition of borrowed popularity and credibility is the same.
Naturally I don’t endorse this because it’s strategically incoherent, and prioritises short term traction over long term brand building. However in cases where your strategy aligns with a red-hot availability cascade, then naturally this is to your advantage. Indeed in such instances you and your brand number among the “availability entrepreneurs” for that issue – which is fine, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, that’s just how things work.
More broadly however I believe that availability cascades, and the reality of what happens to be “in” right now are incredibly revealing as to what are the underlying forces shaping the world as it is today.
If you start to see popular issues not only at face value, but also as winners of a “popularity contest”, then you start to glimpse the meta-game that’s going on.
This then enables you to slip into favourable cultural currents, and harness some of those same forces for yourself.
Everything we talk about here in these newsletters is ultimately about this. About this second layer of analysis into which most people rarely tread. It’s a habit which needs practice and cultivation. And the availability cascade, which surrounds us every day, is one of the best concepts I’ve come across for doing just that.