The Vibrating Aboutness Cluster

That sounds utterly filthy, doesn't it? 

"Who are your influences?" Easily the most annoying question you can ever ask an author.

Best case scenario, they simply rattle off a list of favourites ("Not sure if they were an influence, but I really played a lot of Fighting Fantasy.").

Worst case scenario, they list off a bunch of authors they wish they were. ("I don't want to make a thing of it, but I really see a lot of Dorothy Parker in this email.")

Worstest case scenario, I suppose, is that it becomes a form of investigative journalism. ("Well, now that you ask, this is gender-swapped Wolf Hall. I'M A FRAUD!")

The most honest answer I've ever heard was from China Miéville, who, in his patented fashion, digressed. At length. His point (I believe. This was a long time ago.) was that 'how was he to know?'. Although he skirted the edges of Derridan turf, Miéville pointed out that the influences he could identify would merely be the tip of the iceberg. How was he to identify the various forces and factors that would have influenced, consciously or subconsciously, what he wrote? Is he even the person best-placed to do so - or would someone with more objectivity and distance be better able to see what 'nudged' his writing? (Caveat: he certainly did not use the word 'nudge'.) Miéville went on to describe this as the 'vibrating about-ness cluster' - the amorphous mass of stuff that subtly affects what the writer creates.

Some authors attempt to capture the topography of the cluster. Acknowledgements that include beta readers and inspirational authors. Spotify lists of 'what I listened to'. Introductions about the, well, 'about'. Compulsive version control. Self-annotated manuscripts. This book is about such and such a news story. At a different event, I heard Cory Doctorow tell an audience that he has a whizzy piece of software that automatically records the websites he visits, the music he hears, and the words he writes. This data is then safely exported at five minute intervals, presumably awaiting future Doctorologists (Doctors of Doctorowology?), who will try to recreate the Authentic Doctorow Experience™. 

(Miéville, incidentally, uses a pen.)

Cluster topography isn't a bad thing - just as the endlessly-frustrating "show your work" dictum really does have value. Like many other human beings over the age of grumpfhapdfh, I spend time in my browser history, desperately looking for that-thing-about-the-thing-that-had-a-great-quote-about-onions. I also use tumblr to capture as much of my own 'aboutness' as possible. But I'm also self-aware enough to know that my intentional 'aboutness' is a hugely (bigly!) flawed idea of what media is influencing me. Hell, I know the plot and 'vibe' of a dozen TV shows I've never watched. I've "heard of" movies that I've never seen the trailer for. Festival posters show names that are somehow "familiar", despite not being able to name a single song. We are awash in aboutness.

One particularly fascinating bit of aboutness - an aboutness molecule - the humble Facebook ad. We don't see them. Of course we don't! I've held approximately 7,500,000 focus groups, and I've never once heard someone say that they noticed a Facebook ad. I don't. You don't. No one does! And yet, someone does, because, guess what, Facebook made $39.9 billion on that ads last year. Billion. That's a lot of not-noticing. This isn't social acceptability bias either, as even in quantitative surveys, we say we don't see those ads. 91% of the UK population says they've never made a purchase through a social media ad. 87% have never clicked a brand communication through Facebook. And yet, someone is placing - and winning - a forty billion dollar bet that they do.

There are no shortage of revelations about how Facebook spreads extremist contentexacerbates racial violenceshares conspiracy theoriesallows a handful of people to reach billions of screens with dangerous nastiness, and generallymakes you feel bad. However, these have always operated within the boundaries of our tacit assumption that that shit is organic. A global network of racist uncles, spreading horror through reposting. Organic is, somehow, permissible - because it allows us the illusion of separation from Facebook's aboutness. If a bunch of skeezebags share hate videos, it still doesn't influence me. That's opt-in aboutness; a permissible influence. But we also know that Facebook was used to swing the Referendum and the Election. (Caps because, exhausted.) And guess what? Those were advertisements. Those tiny particles of aboutness that "no one ever sees" and "no one ever clicks", used to shift some of the biggest decisions in the world. We can't rant about Russians, Vote Leave and Cambridge Analytica without fundamentally admitting a basic weakness in ourselves: these things can, and have, influenced us without our awareness. 

And that's 'just' Facebook. But they make $40 billion/year off of selling tiny bits of aboutness. And Twitter. And YouTube. Then think about every t-shirt you see walking down the street. The design on your coffee cup or napkin. Our vibrating aboutness cluster isn't simply what we choose we be influenced by - our lives are swarming, seething with aboutness.

What are my influences? I simply have no idea.

Get: Anyone acting on customer insight
To: Appreciate the limits of our understanding
By: Showing we don't even 
really know ourselves.


Another cheeky vintage ad, this time for the classic 2CV.

This Twitter, uh, speech from @shailjaptel, on what 'free time' really means.

The rise and fall of the mayonnaise empire.

I'll be talking about the 'Podcast Opportunity' with the PRCA next week. Tickets online here