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The Attention Span. "Puppies and Con Artists."

After our bonkers Infinite Loops podcast and philosophical musings on Taoism, it’s back to something shorter and marginally more practical.

In a couple of weeks, we’re hosting Dan McMurtrie of Tyro on the Playbook for the Attention Economy. He’s going to say insightful, weird and wonderful things.

We’re all either creating or consuming information. How do we make sure it’s the highest quality possible?

"Puppies and Con Artists.”

[8 minute read]

A few weeks ago a reader and I were discussing my recent piece on Dunbar’s number. We disagreed on the degree to which trust can effectively be enhanced by technology. As we increasingly talked past each other over e-mail, eventually we picked up the phone and resolved the debate. The obviousness of the implication had me immediately laughing out loud.

I think part of the reason that Dunbar’s approximate limit of 150 friends has stayed constant, even in the social media age, is because authentic trust requires an accurate “theory of mind” of another person. Dunbar found that about 65% of human conversation is gossip. It’s so valuable because it helps us understand the others in our group and effectively punish betrayal and hypocrisy. It’s extremely cognitively demanding and time consuming, and therefore difficult to enhance technologically. Time is a hard limit on our bandwidth.

Untrained puppies can intuitively understand what it means when a human is pointing to something. Wolves cannot. Scientists think this is because thousands of generations of cooperation mean that dogs have evolved an accurate theory of mind of humans. They can intuit what we’re thinking. It’s the bedrock of trust. It’s the secret to critical hiring decisions (see Graham Duncan’s remarkable essay below). It’s why the most experienced asset allocators spend at least as much time understanding the mindset of an investor as their process itself. And trust is absolutely the most valuable currency on the internet, hence it’s the bedrock of exceptional content.

It’s an obvious statement that the capital markets’ foundations are increasingly based on digital intangibles. [See: Michael Mauboussin’s recent paper]. Thus brand power, user growth, capital costs, and share prices are being materially affected by the amount of attention you can attract online. [See: Packy McCormick on The Great Online Game]. Innovative companies and investors have had to rapidly pivot their playbooks to adjust to a new model of driving high quality online engagement.

Newsletters seem to be increasingly influencing stocks (See: Byrne Hobart’s recent piece). Formerly secretive investors are appearing on mainstream podcasts. CEOs are successfully optimizing for engagement on social media.

But what makes content high quality when generating trust? There are two traits that are staggeringly consistent across the best creators I’ve found: they are authentic and they follow their interests. Both sound obvious, even clichéd. Both are almost impossibly difficult in practice. You need to genuinely know who you are and what you’re truly interested in. A lot of us live out our whole lives without knowing the real answers to either of those questions.

The most effective writers and content producers give their audience insight into their own mind. By being willing to be genuinely open and vulnerable online people can understand them, and hence trust them more. On a long enough timeline, I believe we can intuitively detect insincerity. From shaking hands, to mixing your drinks together during a toast, myriad social conventions are based on gestures of vulnerability. Being able to demonstrate weakness can be a paradoxical form of strength. Even Warren Buffett famously opens his annual letters with his biggest mistakes (whether this is genuine is another discussion).

This approach can obviously be used nefariously. Several years ago my friends and I were targeted by an extremely talented con artist. The secret to her approach was to tell endless hilarious stories with the emphasis always being on her gullibility, naiveté, and vulnerability. She seemed so open and trusting, to a fault, it never occurred to us all that she was deliberately manipulating us. I didn’t give her any money, but I probably would have done so if asked.

The trust concept is threat to the traditional advertising and media model. The studies I’ve read confirm that most marketers obviously think their brand resonates as authentic, but most consumers don’t. Hence the move to user-generated content. Younger generations feel they understand an influencer because they have a more robust theory of mind of the promoter than the product. Online content is moving away from larger institutions towards individual creators with their own trusted voice. But I don’t need a survey or study to prove that I trust the people I think I understand the best.

Perhaps the clearest current example of this trend is Joe Rogan. In the news again this week, he’s now one of the most consumed media products on the planet, and Spotify’s most popular podcast. In 2019 he was averaging 190 million downloads a month. For comparison, Fox News draws around 100 million viewers a month. Like him or not, Rogan’s brand is built primarily on the premise of authenticity and openness to new perspectives. His questioning is driven by a tone of simple curiosity, rather than a desire to sound clever. He also defiantly follows his own interests: mixed martial arts, comedy, “alternative” viewpoints, and modern masculinity. His audience rewards him with fierce loyalty and the incomprehensible patience to listen to three-hour-long podcasts.

The bottom line is that managements, brands, and content producers need to strive for authenticity in their content. This requires genuine transparency and disclosure. Public company managements that are implementing the best strategies use their content to reinforce their core values both internally and externally. They also need to communicate what they are passionate about and why consumers should care. That’s harder than it sounds.

Finally - what would a menu of online content look like? Here are some ideas.

  • “Edgelords” or “memelords” that are just posting as much emotional or inflammatory content as they can to generate engagement. It’s the least personally authentic and least reflects their own interests. Hence it’s eventually an informational Ponzi scheme, a meringue with no center. You know who they are.
  • Using memes to draw attention to a brand. Wendy’s is a good example, there are LOTS of bad examples. A meme only works if it’s resonant with your brand identity. That’s a lot of communication in a small package.
  • Independent writers doing quality investment research, strategy, or idea synthesis. Example: Mostly Borrowed Ideas, Neckar Value, Liberty, Maria Popova, Sloww, Cedric Chin, Blas Moros.
  • Independent content generators that use high-quality work to attract VC capital and raise their own funds. Example: Packy McCormick, Harry Stebbings.
  • Public companies that employ high-quality writers to act as content draws, essayists, and podcast guests. Example: Alex Danco at Shopify.
  • Asset gatherers that use high-quality writers and podcasters to build engagement. Example: Morgan Housel at Collaborative Fund. Patrick O’Shaughnessy at OSAM.
  • Companies that generate content hubs. Example: Walker & Dunlop’s leadership interviews with other real estate pros. The new a16z content hub.
  • Company management that act as thought leaders themselves. Example: Warren Buffett, Patrick Collison, Marc Andreesen.

Please forgive me a disgustingly sentimental (some would say, cough, vulnerable), conclusion. There’s something weird about our cardiac nervous system being able to detect truth. I’ve read studies, and adamant rebuttals, that our hearts can anticipate a stimulus well in advance of our brains. People who have opened their hearts and are following their hearts are the most likely to reveal truth. And truth is the highest quality information possible.

Follow those people.

Additional reading:

  • Read: What’s going on here, with this human? By Graham Duncan (45min read).
  • Why read: A simply superb essay on the topic of deeply understanding your colleagues and hiring process. It’s all about how you achieve accurate theory of mind of another person. He also closes with some tremendous questions for interviews and reference calls.
  • “It can be useful, when interviewing someone, to take Rumelt’s cue and ask explicitly: what’s going on here with this person in front of me? The more I’ve done it, the more I realize that what most people think of as the hard parts of hiring—asking just the right question that catches the candidate off guard, defining the role correctly, assessing the person’s skills—are less important than a more basic task: how do you see someone, including yourself, clearly?”

Finally, for those of you that like focused working to dance music during WFH, Ben Bohmer's artist playlist on Spotify is spectacular. Except I keep having to throw my hands in the air off my keyboard.

Have a great weekend!


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