16 Jun The Floss and separating the signal from the noise
I’ve been dying for an excuse to make a video of myself attempting to The Floss.
And if you haven’t seen this viral dance move, what rock are you living under? Like most things viral, it seemingly came out of nowhere. Yet not a day goes by during which I see a kid, adult, or celebrity drop what they’re doing to perform this asynchronous hip and arm sashay. (And FWIW, if you learn it, once it clicks you’ll experience a brief moment of cathartic transcendence.)
Here’s my crude attempt to catalog the evolution of this meme: The dance move appeared in the dance-along video game version of Katy Perry’s hit Swish Swish. Perry then performed the song on SNL, during which a young lanky backup dancer nails the dance with a stoicism that would make Seneca proud (documented btw in RadReads 168). The dance then appears in the video game sensation Fortnite, spreading it like wildfire across the globe.
Who cares? What’s the point of going down these cultural rabbit holes – which are nothing more than ephemeral, flash in the pan fads. The Floss will be obliterated from our consciousness as quickly as the Harlem Shake or the Mannequin Challenge. I agree, but what fascinates me is that in a world full of noise, how do these arbitrary signals break through? The ability to communicate and spread a compact message, whether it’s a dance, meme, face tattoo or campaign slogan has huge consequences in the digital age. And even if we’re not the one’s originating the message, we should be vigilant about how we internalize (and retransmit) others’ messages.
Face tattoos in a world full of noise
Soundcloud rap is the new game in town for all new aspiring rappers. And it makes sense. Anyone with the $99 software Fruity Loops, a free Soundcloud account and a social media presence can bypass the traditional gatekeepers (i.e. the labels) and start releasing songs. Yet this ease is accompanied by more noise; easy to create a song, hard to get noticed. Long-time technology investor Naval Ravikant extrapolated this more broadly to startups:
It's never been easier to start a company. It's never been harder to build one.
— Naval (@naval) July 1, 2012
So how does an aspiring rapper stand out in this world full of noise? One theory is the face tattoo. It’s visible, memorable and damn does it take some balls. Hip hop aficionados will know that this is a relatively new phenomenon. If you grew up listening to Wu Tang, Jay Z, Biggie and 2Pac – they barely had any tattoos (Pac’s “Thug Life” being the exception), let alone ink on their faces.
All the rappers above have multiple hit songs with Post Malone (along with his Stay Away and barbed wire face tattoos) recently had the apt-titled Beerbongs and Bentleys go platinum.
Yeah but the face ink ain’t for me
Let’s reanalyze the Floss. It is short (2 hand and hip swings) and repetitive. Its compact nature gives it the ability to travel quickly and virally. Where else can we find compact and encoded language that propagates downstream? Jeff Bezos’ management style. Bezos loves using rhetorical tricks and compressed language to spread his management philosophy far and wide within Amazon. When I interviewed Eugene Wei about working in with Bezos during the early days, he shared the story of the acronym G.O.H.I.O (or Getting Our House In Order):
It’s amazing (yet unsurprising) to me that Amazon alums will still remember the GOHIO acronym a decade later. And avid readers of Bezos’ annual shareholder letter will see many instances of this, notably in the way he constantly reminds shareholders and employees alike that it’s always “Day 1” at Amazon. Why? “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death.”
Our human instincts enable the virality
There’s also another acronym in town, it starts with “Make America…” and its originator is masterful in his ability to virally transmit encoded language that’s “unique” to his brand into our collective psyches. Social media networks are unquestionably the fuel that contributes to encoded messages going viral. In John Lanchester’s London Review of Books essay You Are the Product he describes what drew Peter Thiel to invest $500k in a young Mark Zuckerberg in 2004:
This ties directly to Maslow’s hierarchy; once our physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, we crave love and belonging and esteem that comes from respect, status, and recognition.
Furthermore, in Girard’s view of the world humans are homo mimeticus – “We don’t know what we want or who we are; we don’t really have values and beliefs of our own; what we have instead is an instinct to copy and compare.” And according to Lanchester saw that Facebook was “doubly mimetic:”
Is virality always driven by low value messages? The evidence of memes (like the Cryin’ Jordan), cat videos and Soundcloud rappers might suggest so. But on the other hand, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised over $100 mm in donations and reportedly contributed to the discovery of third gene that causes ALS. Trust, generosity, and service are all attributes of the human character that we both crave and all have within us. We see this in how humans come together during large calamities like natural disasters. And that same magic that makes us want to Floss can tap into and amplify these awesome parts of the human spirit.
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