Manifestations of Cynicism and Other Adventures in Community

I am a cynic.

I know. Stop! No! No way!  Not Liz!!!!

No, no… really. My cynicism comes in handy sometimes… like once a month when I write these notes wondering if anyone reads them other than the CMO Council team assigned to proofing my horrible drafts. (Hey guys!) But I wasn’t aware of how deeply cynical I had become about humanity until I received an email from an Ancestry.com user.

I know… Ancestry.com. I once heard a senior marketer say their tag line should actually be, “See you at 2am.” Along my own Ancestry journey, I’ve done the whole “spit into a test tube and relinquish unfathomable data into the ether” thing and I have become a living copy of an Ancestry.com commercial where the star of the spot says “and I always THOUGHT my family was part German and it turns out I’m TOTALLY N-O-T!!!!” as I dramatically ditch the lederhosen and tie on a Dutch kraplap while waving the Union Jack and Irish tricolour.

The realization that Ancestry.com is also a booming social network crept up on me a bit more slowly. As I would waste plenty of sleepless nights extending branches on my family tree – I am related to P.T. Barnum, am a distant Rockefeller cousin, and am pretty sure that the Sheriff and Mayor of Nottingham are 15 and 16 times removed grandfathers – I would also get messages and see comments about distant relations. Some were totally wrong… relations of step-relations who were really not relations whatsoever. Some were “stories” with user generated content passing on the “tradition” of oral histories, all likely horribly wrong, but still amazing to uncover.

Then, like all other social communities and networks today, came the scammers, liars and cheats… the bottom dwellers in a social swamp. Instead of threats from “barristers of the IRS,” it was a 10x removed 4th cousins asking for help. My personal favorite was a message about an inheritance that an attorney was helping distribute… ALL I had to do was send my social security number and date of birth to confirm my inheritance. Sure! I’m a long-lost Irish princess… While we are exchanging info, give my buddy Bruce Wayne, Prince of Nigeria, a high-five when you pass his cube on the troll farm!

This was the seedy underbelly of community. But in reality, today it seems like EVERY part of a community is the seedy underbelly. From spam bots to deep fakes to troll farms and downright horrible behavior, it is hard to go into a social network today and not walk out feeling in need of a Silkwood shower.

If you have started walking away from platforms like Facebook, you aren’t alone. According to a new study from our friends at eMarketer, people are ghosting Facebook in a serious way. The study reveals that time spent on Facebook declined 3 minutes daily by US users in 2018… and they believe this downward slide will continue to slip by at least another minute by 2020. Perhaps the exodus is in response to social eating away at our souls. The American Journal of Epidemiology posted a study that said the act of liking posts was tied to declines in mental and physical health as study participants reported “decreased life satisfaction” BECAUSE of their social journey. Another study by the University of Copenhagen dubbed this mental malaise as “Facebook envy,” or the act of being jealous of activities posted on social media.

That’s right: Social toxicity is really a thing and is now the subject of academic research. But social toxicity is also at the core of my cynicism. Social networks have become sewers, plagued with muck and mire that some days I just want to ignore. I want to actively take those minutes back. I want to have conversations that don’t end in my wondering why I was ever “friends” with that person to begin with even though I haven’t seen the person in question since high school graduation. Geesh… when did THEY turn into a loon???

So, when an email from an Ancestry.com user claiming to be in possession of an antique family bible landed in my inbox, my answer was… yeah… OK… did Bruce Wayne find the bible on his journey out of Nigeria? When the second message arrived with PHOTOS of the bible, again, my first reaction was… OK, I’ll bite… What do you want for it? I was POSITIVE this was part shake down, part scam. Through the entire email conversation with this person, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop… waiting for the outrageous ask.

Imagine my shock when a box appeared at an address that was not my home and safe to give a stranger who I was convinced was at the heart of an Internet scam. I am now in possession of EXACTLY what this stranger said they had… a family bible with handwritten inscriptions from my great-great grandfather noting every marriage and birth of his family. Inside are names I’ve literally never seen before… family members long gone and sadly long forgotten until the dusty pages of this bible had been opened.

The community came through without an ounce of cynicism. All these people wanted to do was reconnect a family with a bible. I was totally ashamed by my assumptions fueled by my cynicism.

The lesson: No matter where or why a community has formed, not all of it is jaded. Not all of it is part of an elaborate ruse or scam. Sometimes, the community is just a platform for people to share and connect. As a marketer, this is especially hard to remember when every profile and every post is an opportunity to mine data, dive deeper into intent and perhaps identify a new segment to target. Now, at 2am, when I can’t sleep and I want to figure out what ever happened to my family that left Ireland for Connecticut, I’ll remember the community that I have opted to be part of instead of thinking of the swamp I am forced to wade through.


Until next month!


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