I’ve been getting some really thoughtful comments lately, and the blog isn’t really set up to highlight them, so I thought I’d do so as posts. Here’s Jacob Wright on the simplicity debate:
One of the big problems with the idea of “simplicity” is that there is a difference between “simple idea” and “expressed simply”, or at least what’s commonly meant by “expressed simply”. Marketing is a low-attention activity, so marketers are right to demand ideas that can be conveyed quickly and efficiently to the audience, but this isn’t the same as what people usually mean by “simple”.
What marketers mistakenly have a predilection for is simple, linear logic. These ideas are often not good, but they are easy to express, and therefore easy to sell in to the organisation.
However some ideas are difficult to express simply using linear logic, but can be expressed simply through images or music or other forms in time-honored “worth a thousand words” style. These are often the most powerful ideas for marketing.
But because marketing courses teach people that a brand is something that is best encapsulated in a short sentence or a list of 4-5 adjectives, and because the industry is addicted to post-rationalisation, these kind of simple, but not verbally simple, ideas often fall by the wayside.
Furthermore because of the desire to decide the idea before it’s been developed linear logic is usually agreed upon before anyone has had a chance to do something lateral or assumptive to solve the problem.
This interests me not just because of the non-linear logic point - which as a music critic I absolutely agree with! - but because I’d honestly not been even thinking in terms of how marketers communicate ideas to the public, just about how ideas live within our own community (or “the business community”). Of course there’s nothing unique about our community so you’d expect to see the same kind of issues surfacing everywhere else, as indeed you do.
Much like last week’s ESOMAR gig, the Social Media Research conference suggested to me that social media research is in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment. People are doing it, case studies are starting to trickle in, the broad methodological outlines are accepted, nothing terribly radical is being said (or not by researchers - see later).
That’s OK! That’s healthy in fact. If there’s nothing really exciting to say and everyone’s just getting on with things that’s not a BAD state of affairs by any means. I was talking to Ray Poynter at ESOMAR and he remarked that a lot of the big debates on Twitter and LinkedIn aren’t really getting a lot of conference airtime - it was noticeable that at SMR 2010 there was hardly any talk of ethics and industry codes, for instance. But some things live better in the virtual coffeehouses of research’s chattering classes than on a conference stage where there wouldn’t be time to do them much justice anyhow.
I suspect this period of relative conference calm won’t last too much longer anyway. The case studies will get meatier (and have a bit more ROI information in them); the mobile applications will get sexier; the backlash will grow, and we’ll all be arguing like old times this time next year. For now, there’s bits and pieces to chew on, and pretty much every presentation I saw today had something that got me interested. The single statement which got most Twitter buzz was John Griffiths “unique is hopeless” - at the moment, with the category still tiny and getting established, we need to share with each other more than we need to compete.
I suspect the dynamics of business relationships also play a role here, and the preference for simple (or apparently simple) ideas is not always entirely sincere - it can be self-serving. I fear that businesspeople can become rather fond of the idea that they are Terribly Busy And Important and don’t have time for things that can’t be explained in a few bullet points. Rejecting complex ideas as not good enough can be a way to make oneself feel and look powerful and discerning. And if you’re in the position of power, no one’s going to say, “Perhaps you should spend a bit more time thinking about it,” or, “Perhaps you’re just not clever enough.”
I think there’s a fair bit of truth in this. And we as researchers are easily scared! I was in a meeting once where someone said, in their best special “common sense” voice: “Nobody has time for ten slides.”
If you don’t have time for ten slides, your problem wasn’t that important to begin with.
Every now and then I try to work out why I don’t like Facebook. It’s not the privacy stuff, or the ethics, or the user interface: back in the day I spent years hand-coding my site despite the fact that I could barely get my head round “IMG SRC” so frankly anything with buttons still seems halfway to a miracle. I just don’t like it.
So what? Well, obviously there’s no reason you should care about my not liking it. But I care: part of my job is to know things about social media, and I believe you learn things about social media by using the tools, and Facebook is the biggest social media tool in the world. Millions and millions of people DO like it. So every couple of months I sit down and say “RIGHT I will use Facebook MORE and come to love it.” But it never works. There’s no chemistry with me.
I had a couple of minor revelations recently though.
So in the last post I talked about how the notion of simplification as a way of explaining good ideas shifts into the belief that good ideas can always be simplified, and finally into simplicity as a sign of good ideas.
Alison MacLeod has a typically excellent post today critiquing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and using it as an example of marketers’ uncritical attraction to a simple idea. I don’t know enough about psychology or Maslow to criticise this particular idea but I do recognise the phenomenon she’s talking about. The hierarchy of needs is seductive: it seems to have huge explanatory power, it looks good, it passes the “elevator pitch” test, it has direct appeal to its audience (who of course see themselves as self-actualisers)… whether it’s actually right or not seems secondary.
Maslow isn’t the only seductive idea to become part of marketers’ and researchers’ mental furniture, of course. In fact these days we can hardly move for them: the Tipping Point, the Long Tail, Six Degrees. the Dunbar Number. Bear in mind that I’m not saying any of these ideas are right or wrong, all have been challenged regularly, but to a greater or lesser degree they’ve become part of the intellectual currency of marketing - ideas which can generally be deployed with minimal dissent, and built on.
That “built on” is worth further consideration. But first I want to think about why we like simple ideas. You’re probably going "well, duh" at that, but I don’t think it’s quite so clear-cut. It’s obvious why we think simplicity is a good thing: we’re busy people, we like to understand things quickly, we like to be able to copy and pass on ideas. But there’s also a slippery chain of beliefs behind this love of simplicity.
Expressing an idea simply is a good thing. Here’s a reasonable starting point: if you have a good idea, then it’s great to be able to express that idea simply. I don’t think many people would disagree with that! But note that this doesn’t pass judgement on the worth of the idea, or assume that it’s possible to express all good ideas simply.
If an idea can’t be simply expressed, it’s no good. Here’s the next step. Now we ARE specifically excluding non-reducible, complex ideas from being good. Again, this isn’t totally unreasonable if the point of an idea is to inspire action and be easily transmitted: in business, this is often the case. Note that there’s still no inherent virtue in simplicity - simplicity is a latent property of all good ideas.
A simple idea is probably good. In this final stage the virtue IS in simplicity itself - a simple idea has an implicit virtue over a more complex or messy one. Do people actually believe this, in the worlds of marketing and business we’re looking at? Well.. kind of. You need to throw in some kind of explanatory ability or element of surprise, too, but given that we’re already used to making the link between goodness and simplicity in step two it doesn’t take much to flip the causality. Simple ideas are very appealing: this is where we started from, after all.
Isn’t this just Occam’s Razor, you might be thinking? Well, not quite: but Occam’s Razor is a pretty good example of a simplification process in action. What William of Occam says is that you should take the solution which introduces fewest “new entities” but that fits the evidence. This idea has itself been simplified to mean “the most obvious solution” or “the simplest”, where simplest has its elevator-pitch meaning of ‘easiest to explain’.
Next: The simplification process and the life of ideas.
“My point in writing the book is to say that at the moment businesses, organisations and politicians are putting a lot of faith in something that is extraordinarily haphazard as a tool,” says Graves. “Is market research always wrong? Of course not. Is your horoscope always wrong? No.”
If you ask a skeptic what Astrology is, he’ll probably say that it’s a means of predicting the future, but that it doesn’t work. Or else he’ll say that it’s a theory which ties people’s personality to the date and time of their birth, but that it certainly doesn’t work. He may even say that it’s a complex religious system in which the whole of the universe can be mapped onto a human individual (“as above, so below”) but that it quite definitely doesn’t work.
But this simply isn’t true.
We’ve all got friends who use Astrology, and this isn’t what they believe. Five minute of observation would have told us that Astrology was, in practice, a social ritual. Young people play Astrology because “What Star Sign are you?” is a good way of starting a conversation with a stranger at a party: by the time you’ve observed whether the stranger is a typical or atypical Libran (or, if you are advanced student, whether that pesky line up between Mars and Neptune has caused any health scares for Sagittarians this week) there’s a very good chance that you’ve found something more worthwhile to talk about. Older people play Astrology because reading out newspaper horoscopes is an amusing way to pass the time during your ten minute coffee break. It’s funny when they are spectacularly wrong, and it’s a good conversation starter when they are coincidentally right.
I’m hopefully going to do a few posts on the “gaming layer” on here next week. In the meantime, here’s a look at the cultural roots of one of gaming’s key concepts, which I put on my main site because it’s only tangentially related to the stuff I talk about here. But read it anyway! :)