You just happen to hit a red light at that busy intersection. The person standing at the corner catches your eye. She picks up a piece of cardboard, holding it in your direction.
“Unemployed. Homeless. Hungry. Please help. I’ll take anything.”
What should you think? You know that that you’ve heard that it’s probably best to make a donation through a known charitable institution, where your money might have the most impact. But (a) will you remember to make the donation once you get to the office? And (b) will it have the same satisfactory, immediate, direct impact that giving money right here, right now to this specific person would? So you decide to assess the situation for yourself. You take in her appearance. Are her clothes dirty? Does she have sufficiently warm clothes for that cold front you heard about? How old are her shoes? Is she well fed?
And then you consider her message.
Is she really unemployed? Does she really live on the street? You’ve never seen her before. It probably took her five minutes to scratch out that sign. Why should you even trust her? More concretely, why should you roll down your window and give her money based simply on what she has written and how she looks?
This unfortunate, all too common social occurrence, metaphorically, also represents an increasingly common dilemma that we all face in today’s information marketplace. We’re busy. We’ve never had access to so much information in the history of humanity. We actually have the ability to interact directly with someone who’s publicly trying to get our attention – itself an increasingly scarce resource that has never been so severely strained.
More challengingly, even if something does catch our eye, and we somehow decide to devote a fraction of our attention to it, will we trust it enough, be persuaded enough – to actually follow through and take some sort of action on the basis of this information?
This is the digital age dilemma: how to calculate the value proposition in someone’s attempt to communicate with us. We have access to more information than ever before yes, but we also have less ability to discern credibility as well.
And yet, what if? What if you had been getting caught at that red light for years? What if you had noticed that this particular woman had shown up a few weeks ago, which happened to coincide with recent layoffs at your region’s major employer? What if her sign changed every day, as she revealed more details about the terrible plight that had forced her to beg at this street corner? And what if you ran into acquaintances who had seen that same woman, who had actually rolled down their windows to speak to her, and even went as far as to begin an informal campaign to find her food, shelter and work? Would all that make your decision whether to believe her – and even to help her – easier?
I’d like to think so.
Let’s set aside this analogy now, but apply some of this thinking to communications and technology specifically, where we face this very same confusion. Thanks to the explosive impact of digital media, we can now hear from so many people; they’re all begging us to listen to them. Should we pay attention? Should we trust what they’re trying to convey? Should we act upon it?
This book will argue that we’re more likely to respond affirmatively to all three of those questions if we recognize that technology has enabled nearly all of us to communicate publicly to people we don’t know. And with this huge surge in participation, this technology also demands that for us to succeed in convincing these unknown people to pay attention to us and act , we must be prepared to build trust, through an ongoing, (ideally) transparent relationship.