The Floss and separating the signal from the noise

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:

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.

(Left to right): Lil Xan, Post Malone, Tekashi69

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):

“There was a contest to name the year and this was the most memorable name. You ask anyone at Amazon who was there at that year and they’ll say ‘Oh, there was that year of GOHIO with a concrete set of projects.’ You go to most companies today and ask them, what’s our theme this year, and they’ll have no idea. It seems silly to have a contest to name a theme, but it really hit home with every group of the company. You’d have [the acronym] repeated at every meeting.”

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:

But there was a particular reason Facebook caught Thiel’s eye, rooted in a byway of intellectual history. In the course of his studies at Stanford – he majored in philosophy – Thiel became interested in the ideas of the US-based French philosopher René Girard (…). Girard’s big idea was something he called ‘mimetic desire’. Human beings are born with a need for food and shelter. Once these fundamental necessities of life have been acquired, we look around us at what other people are doing, and wanting, and we copy them. In Thiel’s summary, the idea is ‘that imitation is at the root of all behaviour’. 

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.

Source: simplepsychology.org

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:”

The reason Thiel latched onto Facebook with such alacrity was that he saw in it for the first time a business that was Girardian to its core: built on people’s deep need to copy. ‘Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,’ Thiel said. ‘Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.’ We are keen to be seen as we want to be seen, and Facebook is the most popular tool humanity has ever had with which to do that.

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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