In April 2015, comedian John Oliver travelled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden. What followed was an interesting discussion between the two about why regular people do not seem to give a damn about the truly frightening issues of citizen surveillance that Snowden revealed to the world – dooming himself to a lifetime of exile in the process.
Quite cleverly, Oliver asked whether the real issue was that the revelations were simply communicated in a manner that did not really resonate with your common John Doe. To elaborate, perhaps the biggest reason why things have largely stayed the same is that instead of falling into the trap of using technical jargon, the actions of NSA should be explained using real-life examples that anyone can relate with.
Oliver’s solution was to talk about an image of his penis.
Now let me take a moment to elaborate on why this was immensely important.
“If I took a picture of my dick, could the government see it?”
The silly question forced Snowden to explain the various technologies the NSA uses for surveillance in a way that anyone could not only understand them, but through humour, grasp the idea that this was something most everyone should be concerned about.
What Oliver’s interview highlighted was that it is often simply not enough to have the information available. It has to be presented in a form that makes people realise they should care.
For us academics, it is oftentimes difficult to phrase our ideas in a way that has true potential (or even an audience at all) outside the very narrow scholarly circles. Now listen, I enjoy intelligent wankery as much as the next guy but the fact of the matter is that such approach dramatically narrows down your audience. And no, I don’t believe that the only other option is to “dumb down” the message. The situation is simply that we need to pull our heads off our asses when discussing the issues of privacy and digital human rights.
The problem persists even in Citizen Four, the 2014 Oscar-winning documentary about Snowden. The movie plays like a technology conspiracy thriller (it even ends with a cliffhanger) that is exciting and troubling, but hardly addresses the question “what does this mean to each and every one of us” in a very concrete fashion. Again, this is clearly a movie that seeks to address the intelligentsia and thus mainly deals with the government vs. Snowden & his allies part of the story.
So what should we do?
The academic circles aren’t very good at selling their ideas to a wider audience, but you know who are?
The marketing people.
Yes, the guys and girls you’ve come to know from Mad Men who make a living influencing your purchasing decisions day in, day out. But it’s not just about being the evil advocates of corporate capitalism. The role of a marketer in any given project comes down to making the audience care about an idea. And as we’ve so blatantly had to witness with the Snowden case, what often matters most in terms of success is not the general importance of the idea, but the way it is presented so that it sticks and influences action.
In 2007, Dan & Chip Heath wrote a book called “Made to Stick”, still a classic in advertising and communications circles. The premise: to answer the question why some ideas spread like flu while others are forever forgotten. In his interview, Oliver seems to have done exactly what the Heath brothers suggest: for them, a message that will stick is first and foremost simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and story-driven.
Perhaps, judged by Heath brothers’ arguments, Snowden would have greatly benefitted from having a marketing team. Despite the global importance of his message, it seems to not have stuck with the general public. Heath brothers make an argument that in trying to communicate ideas, we get easily stuck with what is known as “the curse of knowledge”. What that means is simply that when we speak about most anything, we often have a vast amount information around the topic that we ourselves take for granted. Thus, the message might miss its target gloriously.
For me it seems that this has largely been the problem with the Snowden case — even the word “surveillance program” probably makes a large portion of the audience shiver spontaneously. We are therefore faced with a great challenge in making messages such as this heard. In Citizenfour, Snowden himself argues that his role as a whistleblower is to simply release the information and then the public itself has the power to decide what to do with it. While that may be a reasonable enough approach, the statement does not take into account the vast differences in education and media literacy.
In the following two posts, I will attempt to illuminate two ongoing debates inspired by the methods in Made to Stick. The first on being the Snowden scandal and the other one the recent debate around net neutrality. These two posts are first and foremost examples, by no means definitive and quite probably overshadowed by my own lack of deeper technical knowledge.
Above all, one should see these three posts as a call for action.
We cannot afford to continue having debates as important as these in the very narrow circles.
Change is only possible when we reach the masses.
Let’s start making things stick!