Future of Web Apps: Everything I Ever Need to Know About Social, I Learned from the Muppets

My talk from FOWA Las Vegas, June 29, 2011. Will post video as soon as I have it!

Let me just start out by saying that this was really all just a fantastic excuse to talk about the Muppets for the next thirty minutes. I love the Muppets. I mean, some people love the Muppets… but I looooooove the Muppets. I’ve seen all the movies about a billion times, Muppet jokes are a running gag in my family. (“I’ve got to catch a plane.” “With that tongue? No way.”) And much like any good addict, I can apply any life situation to a Muppet framework and come out with a reasonably good set of advice.

I’m curious who’s in the room here, too, before we get started. Who are the app developers? Who are the product dev folk? OK, what are the rest of you? Just shout it out. Who came here because they’re also completely obsessed with the Muppets and they CAN’T WAIT TILL THE NEW MOVIE COMES OUT THIS THANKSGIVING.

A little bit about me: I’m a media technologist and author of a fabulous book called “Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking.” I live in Brooklyn NY with a monkey of a little dog named Izzy Louise. I work with media and advocacy organizations, mostly of the do-gooding sort, and help them figure out just what the heck they should be doing online. My life has been a random compilation bits that led up to right now: I’ve been a nerd my whole life (first computer: TI994A in 1982). I studies honors linguistics, worked in telecommunications, advertising and finance. Eight years ago I decided I needed to spend more time making the world a slightly better place than how I found it, so I quit the 9-5 and became a consultant. When social technologies started to explode and go mainstream about five/six years ago, it was like the melding of all my professional worlds, and that became my primary focus. All that culminated into writing my first book, which came out last year, and here I am today. Viola.

What we’re going to cover today. You know that everything is upending itself. And you know that you’ve got to get on board with “social,” but God only knows what that actually means for your project or your business. I’m not going to ply you with “10 specific tools” to make your social business or app work. What I’m hoping to do is get you to think about social a little differently, away from what the smarmy marketing gurus and ninjas out there have seeding.

A lot of us have a very mistaken notion that we can create communities. We think that we can plant the flag and hope that people flock to it. Honestly, even if you have the COOLEST FLAG EVER, that’s just not going to work. Your job is not to create community; your job is to find passionate threads in people and weave them together. Solve the problems they didn’t know they had.

Notice I’m also not talking about “consumers.” I saw Doc Searls give a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum in NYC a few weeks ago, and he mentioned that the language we use for talking about constituencies — whether that’s users, consumers or voters — is the language of slavery. We talk about targeting and acquiring and retaining. Whoa. We HAVE to stop thinking like this. Now.

But: why the Muppets? Well, I want to take you back to the first movie for a second.

The whole premise of the movie is a fantastic metaphor for what it means to find communities of passion and develop them. And why on earth you’d want to do that in the first place.

Here’s what happens.

Kermit gets discovered by Dom Deluise, and decides to go to Hollywood and make it big. Here’s where our first clue is that things are going to be different.

The ad in Variety looks for frogs who want to be rich and famous. In the lingo of the social, those are those ninjas and rockstars and gurus. These are not the douchebags you are looking for.

What’s different? Kermit, as he’s pondering this there in the swamp, doesn’t even mention “rich and famous.” What does he mumble a couple times? “Millions of people happy.” The potential to make millions of people happy. That’s what hooks him into heading for Hollywood on his Schwinn.

Along the way, he meets Doc Hopper, who wants him to shill for his chain of frog leg restaurants. This dude is evil. He’s a BAD MAN. He ends up chasing Kermit across the country to get him to give in. When this doesn’t work, he hires a FROG ASSASSIN (!) to take Kermit out. Kermit confronts him towards the end of the movie. He says,

“Yeah, well, I’ve got a dream too. But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well, I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And, well, it kind of makes us like a family. You have anyone like that, Hopper? I mean, once you get all those restaurants, who are you gonna share it with? Who are your friends, Doc?”

Sharing! Dreams! Like a family!

(For those that don’t remember what happens next, this fails to move Hopper and he orders his gang to shoot the whole lot of Muppets that are standing there. Did I mention that he’s a BAD MAN?)

There are loads of lessons in the Muppet framework for how to do social right. Whether you’re working on developing a social app (shoutout to my nerdcore peeps) or you’re here to figure out how to socialize your business, the Muppets have a little something for everyone.

LESSON #1: UNDERSTAND YOUR COMMUNITY

This is the one time that I’m going to go meta and talk about the Muppet creators and what they understood from the get go about who they were dealing with. They wanted to work on a children’s show, sure, but they knew their secondary audience were going to be the parents of the kids watching. There are obvious business reasons for that, but if you look at what Henson and company were saying when they were working on these shows and movies is that they wanted to do things that made them laugh, that made them feel passionate about the work. Ding ding ding!

So you’ve got kids’ shows and movies, but they’re layered in with humor like this moment, from “Muppets from Space.” Gonzo wakes up from a nightmare (in which he’s left behind by Noah on the Ark, because he doesn’t know what animal he is), and tells his roommate, Rizzo the Rat, that he was having a crazy dream. Rizzo giggles a little and says, “It’s not the one with the goat and the peanut butter and the midget, is it?”

A little kid watches that and thinks, “Goats and peanut butter! That’s so silly and funny!” And then wonders why her parents are falling over themselves laughing. It wasn’t THAT funny. (But it was. There are tons of examples of “adult” humor layered into the Muppets– especially in the Muppet Show.)

They got something that’s desperately missing from our cultural vocabulary right now: nuance. They understood that people, in general, are complicated creatures, and they didn’t try to dumb things down for them. They handed nuanced, complicated things right back and said, “Here, deal with this. It’s funny, it’ll make your kid laugh, and we snarfed our coffee while we were writing it.”

Trust that your community gets nuance. Not even that they get it, but that they crave it. Listen to them– not just what they’re saying, but find the threads that they’re not saying and weave them up into something amazing for them.

Time to go back inside the Muppet universe. Come along, now.

LESSON #2: FIND PEOPLE THAT AREN’T LIKE YOU
AKA, “THEY DON’T LOOK LIKE PRESBYTERIANS TO ME.”

This is key! Kermit knew he couldn’t be the only one out there with dreams of Hollywood, but do you think he really planned on picking up a bear, a Gonzo, a chicken, a pig, and dog and a rock band? But hey, his dream was all the better for it! How interesting would it have been to have a bunch of banjo-playing frogs out there trying to make a go of it? Instead, this rag-tag crew gets together and creates a whole movement where no idea is too silly, no goal too high.

If you’re going to rock the world with your service, it’s key that you don’t just surround yourselves completely with people that look like you, or come from the same ideological background. Sure, birds of a feather flock together (that’s called “homophily” for you smartypants out there), but when you get a bunch of the same DNA mixing around together, the species mutates poorly and dies off. NO GOOD.

We’ve got to infuse new voices into our spheres of development before things get stale. That’s going to require intentional cross-pollination of ideas across social boundaries. Who’s going to be your Gonzo? In “Muppets Take Manhattan,” know what Kermit decides his failing Broadway script needs?

More “frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and whatever.” MOAR.

If you don’t, you end up with gigantic piles of fail like Google Buzz. Anyone ever see their launch team? God bless ‘em, such enterprising kids, but they ALL looked exactly alike! And from their own experiences mirroring each others’, they couldn’t see the giant blind spots of service failure like the massive privacy issues. Don’t do it!

LESSON #3: TRUST EVERYONE

On paper, it doesn’t seem like a great idea to get into a Studebaker with a bear that has a questionable stand-up routine. But Kermit knows better than to just look on paper– he knew Fozzie was a good guy in a rough spot at the El Sleazo Cafe. And he kept trusting more and more folks along his journey. Why? How?

A big part of it was because they were authentic with one another right from the get-go. Every time Kermit met a new character, they shared their story with one another. Gonzo wanted to go to Bombay to become a movie star, Piggy was already on her track to modeling and acting stardom, Dr Teeth & the Electric Mayhem were opening up a coffee shop in a church. That kind of sharing and storytelling builds trust. Kermit didn’t worry if it sounded silly that he wanted to go to Hollywood to audition for Orson Welles.

Making trust an integral experience to your service, and your organizational culture, is key. It’s your foundation. It’s what you’ll build everything else from the final two lessons on. Without trust — you trusting your community, them trusting you AND each other — you’ll just have little barely connected or unconnected nodes in your network.

LESSON #4: CREATE SERENDIPITY

Kermit meets Fozzie at a club. They crash into Gonzo’s truck. They decide to stop at a country fair, where they meet Miss Piggy. Yes, they’re all major plot points of the film, but they’re more than just coincidence. They’re serendipitous. They connected each of the Muppets with flow. Flow is what you feel when you hit the sweet spot of any activity that you’re passionate about. It can be fleeting or extended, but serendipity (whether causal or accidental) brings us into it.

The search for serendipity is a key driver in human behavior. It reminds me a little bit of dog training. After a dog’s kind of gotten the hang of how a trick is supposed to go, you don’t give them a treat every single time. You start randomizing when the dog gets a treat. You’d think this would make them mad and they’d go away, but no! It actually makes them work harder at doing exactly what you want. They don’t know when exactly they’re going to get the treat, so they want to do whatever they can to control it. You’re thinking, “Ah, but that’s dogs. Humans would walk away.” Nope. Know how I know? Just look around this city. GAMBLING, people! Slot machines! Blackjack! Humans LOVE serendipity.

You can be an absolute dispenser of it, too. Make people crave your app, or your curation on social networks. Serendipity isn’t just about being open to magical things happening, it’s also about setting the circumstances in place. Surprise people. Studies show that for example the hormones that we feel with affection & cuddling (oxytocin) are also released when we’re active on social networks. Hello! Cuddling and affection! What are you doing to dose your communities’ brains?

LESSON #5: EMPLOY EMPATHY

After people start trusting each other, and random cool shit is happening to them on a regular enough basis, the next level in the video game version of social is the empathetic level.

When people share little bits of themselves with one another, over time they start to become what Clive Thompson called “ambiently aware” of one another. And once that happens, they start to empathize with each other.

Note that I’m not talking about sympathy. That’s where you feel bad about something bad that’s happened to someone else. Empathy is where you actually share in the emotions that others are experiencing. Kermit’s empathy — rescuing Fozzie from a bad gig, commiserating with Ralph the Dog when Piggy leaves him, what have you — is based on the trust he’s built in his friendships.

We like to think that Darwin is king when it comes to our evolution as species– survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, I got mine. But in reality, neuroscience shows us that we’re actually hardwired to empathize with one another. There’s a really cool TED talk about this—just go to TED.com and look for “mirror neurons.” Mirror neurons are subsets of other more main neurons that fire when we see another person doing a particular action. Part of our brain actually puts itself in the other person’s place and sends signals and messages to the rest of the body based on that empathic experience. IT’S THE COOLEST THING EVER.

Why is empathy important? It’s the opposite of apathy. It is what will take us out of the isolation and othering that has been plaguing our culture for too long. It will overload us with human experiences, joyous and devastating, but it will make us human again. Will you do that? Can you commit to joining in the empathetic revolution?

IN CONCLUSION

To pull it all together here, here are our five points:

  • LESSON #1: UNDERSTAND YOUR COMMUNITY
  • LESSON #2: FIND PEOPLE THAT AREN’T LIKE YOU
  • LESSON #3: TRUST EVERYONE
  • LESSON #4: CREATE SERENDIPITY
  • LESSON #5: EMPLOY EMPATHY

Bringing it all home, what I want you to remember is that you are human. As much we in this crowd get our rocks off on the 1s and 0s, we’re still big irrational piles guts and brains who don’t want to be alone in the world. The last thing I want you doing is going into social because you want to be rich and famous. Do you think Kermit counts his followers? No. You’re in this to make millions of people happy. Thank you!

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