“Should I kill myself or read another Twitter message?”: Camus’ question for the social media generation


The above quote is a reworking of Albert “The Outsider” Camus’ existentialist poser: “Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” It is referred to in Barry Schwartz’s highly insightful cult classic, The Paradox of Choice to stress the point that everything in life is a choice. One of the key themes in Schwartz’s book is that although having no choice at all is a bad thing, having an ever expanding growth in choice isn’t leading us to the promised land either.

In other words, choice overload is an even more serious problem them information overload. And choice overload is clearly in abundance in the world of PR, marketing and social media – whether it is the range of marketing channels available (and ways in which these can be combined), or the number of 3rd party agencies and suppliers queuing up to offer their services to the deluged client side buyers.

As Schwartz says: “Filtering out extraneous information is one of the basic functions of consciousness. If everything available to our senses demanded our attention at all times, we wouldn’t be able to get through the day.” (He has clearly never used Twitter).

We are becoming trapped by what economist Fred Hirch has referred to as “the tyranny of small decisions” (or in social media terms, the Tyranny of the Twitter Stream or the infinitely expanding Google Reader RSS subscription list). According to Clay Shirky, there is no such thing as information overload, merely “filter failure.” If that is true, then we just need to build better filters. But presumably building better filters requires us to be more clear and decisive about our goals. And as Schwartz fascinatingly points out: “Goal setting and decision making begins with the question, ‘What do I want?”. But knowing what we want means being able to anticipate accurately how one choice or another will make us feel, and that is no easy task.” A number of experiments cited show that our predictions about how we will feel about our goal making decisions are usually wrong. “Susceptibility to error can only get worse as the number and complexity of decisions increase, which in general describes the conditions of daily life. The growth of options and opportunities for choice has three, related unfortunate effects:

It means that decisions require more effort

It makes mistakes more likely

It makes the psychological consequences of mistakes more severe

Another key element of the book is the distinction between people who are maximisers and satisficers. “Choosing wisely begins with developing a clear understanding of your goals. And the first choice you must make is between the goal of choosing the absolute best and the goal of choosing something that is good enough”.

If you seek and accept only the best, you are a maximiser. Maximisers need to be “assured that every decision was the best that could be made. Yet how can anyone truly know that any given option is absolutely the best possible? The only way is to check out all the alternatives. As a decision strategy, maximising creates a daunting task, which becomes all the more daunting as the number of options increases.”

Take some social media examples. A Twitter maximiser will presumably keep following more people and reading more Tweets in order to reassure themselves they have found the absolute best in terms of Twitterers and material. They will click every link they can to make sure they haven’t missed that vital blog post or news story. Or what about a client side PR director who in order to reassure themselves they have chosen the right agency will keep adding to the pitch list until they have 20 agencies lined up (as Schwartz points out, the more alternatives you consider the more likely you are to suffer from buyer’s remorse and still feel disatisfied with your decision – he cites a number of experiments which seem to verify this principle – at last, scientific proof of the ineffectiveness of lengthy pitch lists!) He has a lot more to say on maximisers, but one of the key conclusions is that maximisers tend to be unhappier people – and unhappy people tend to be poor decision makers.

Contrast this with “satisficers”. To satisfice is to settle for something that is “good enough” and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better. A satisficer has criteria and standards. He or she will search until they find the item (whatever it is) that meets those standards and at that point stop. They are not concerned that a better alternative might be just around the corner.

I could go on, but I’m making a decision to stop now and go and do something else instead. Suffice to say there is a lot be learnt from The Paradox of Choice – and I shall return to it again in later blog posts.

So. Should I follow yet another person on Twitter? Spend another few minutes on Tweetdeck? Or kill myself? Or go an re-read some Camus?

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Comments

  1. The third option is of course to develop a drink/drug problem and develop a self-enforced abstinence. Blackout periods have been proven to work, so long as you’re a happy drunk/high : ) Takes dedication though…. Or maybe its all the same problem – knowing when to draw the line of a crack/RSS/Tweet addiction! You’re right though of course, it’s all about focusing on the goals, then going to bed when you’ve scored.

    Like

  2. Brilliant post, btw. One of the best I’ve read all week.

    Like

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