transcribed

Henry Ford’s philosophy applies to bloggers, too: We’re faster, cheaper, better

January 19, 2013
January 19, 2013

Random. It’s an overused word, but the best one I could come up with to describe the other 154 bloggers—and me (especially me)—Ford invited for a three-day junket to Detroit, culminating in a sneak peek at the North American International Auto Show.

If the company had invited only car bloggers, well, that would have made a lot of sense. Ditto, tech geeks. Or if the whole thing had been a frothy fest of mommy bloggers and all we heard about for three days was safety features and sippy cup holders, I might not have been able to keep my pomegranate-glazed lamb chops down. But at least I’d get it: Ford was courting moms. Instead, as the crowd of digital scribes mingled at the Henry Ford Museum at our opening dinner Sunday night, I just couldn’t figure out the algorithm.

There was a California guy who takes photos of graffiti and sneakers for Hypebeast. A Canadian dude who chases tornadoes. A woman who tells her readers how to save money on organic products like (ugh) almond milk. And me. My blog is about how kids are not in danger every single second of every single day, even though society makes us think they are. I am so not a car writer (I live in New York City, car-free) that when we got a tour of Ford’s Rouge factory on and the guide announced that today the workers were assembling F150s, I said, “That’s not their real name, right?” I thought it was factory lingo. But for some reason, there we all were.

Why?

The answer, as it turns out, comes from two directions—one having to do with the brain, and one with the march of history.

A study published just this week in the journal Memory & Cognition called, “Major Memory for Microblogs,” posits a rather amazing thing: People’s memory for Facebook posts is actually stronger than it is for sentences from books, for headlines, and even for faces. In other words, Facebook posts —silly, ungrammatical, written-like-a-4-year-old Facebook posts—are possibly the most memorable thing on earth.

That’s what lead author Laura Mickes of the department of psychology at the University of Warwick, England, discovered pretty much by accident. Helping another professor study the effect of mood on memory, she needed a lot of material for the test subjects to memorize, so she grabbed a bunch of Facebook posts.

The study didn’t pan out, but so what? The data showed something completely unexpected: a collective memory for Facebook posts that was off the charts.

Mickes wondered just how memorable the posts would be compared to other types of sentences. So she mixed Facebook posts with sentences of the same length pulled from all sorts of books—fiction, non-fiction, romance. And after showing an equal number of book and Facebook sentences to the test subjects, she recorded which ones they remembered. (She did this by mixing materials they’d seen with materials they hadn’t, and having them circle the ones they definitely remembered reading.) The results?

“Not even close,” says Mickes. The memory for Facebook posts was so much stronger, it was “similar to the differences between amnesiacs and people with healthy memory.”

In subsequent studies comparing the memory for human faces with posts, and for headlines (which, after all, are written to be attention grabbing), the posts kept winning. Equally memorable, Mickes discovered, are the online comments below an article—far more so than the article itself. And when she thought about it, the researcher realized with a laugh, that that’s the stuff she digests, too. “I had a friend post something about, ‘What are your favorite bathroom cleaning products?’ and I read through all the people commenting.”

The key seems to be that we are primed to pay attention to casual communication, or what Mickes is calling (and maybe should be trademarking) “mind-ready” material. After all, books have only been around for a few thousand years. Newspapers and magazines, even less. But we have been talking to each other forever. The less formal the exchange, the more it sticks.

And this probably explains why Ford invited such a grab-bag of social media. We are a grab-bag of influence. It’s not just that we start conversations on Twitter, Facebook, WordPress or wherever, with all sorts of different people (not just car nuts). It’s that once they’re talking, they do the influencing. They probably influence more than we do.

As a former newspaper reporter, this hooray-for-hacks moment is not something I’d been cheering. I spent years mourning the fact that most of the publications I worked for are limping along (or dead) because the ad money’s going to the internet—that vast place where anyone with a keyboard can set up shop and blather.

Now it turns out that blathering is the web’s greatest strength—a faster path to the brain. And you can’t argue with efficiency. Faster, better, and cheaper were, after all, the goals of Henry Ford all along.

The museum that bears his name is stuffed with Smithsonian-esque artifacts: A massive locomotive. Steam engines. An early light-bulb blowing machine. Suffragette posters, Rosa Parks’ bus, an original Golden Arches and a ‘60s Holiday Inn sign. There’s an assembly line, of course. And lots of cars.

As we wandered around it that night, fancy drinks in hand, it finally dawned on me that the museum is not about Americana. It’s about revolution. Steam power, electricity, cars, women’s rights, civil rights, fast food, standardization—those changed everything. Holding a party in the midst of all that for bloggers—not credentialed scribes, but folks who chat about their everyday lives and bathroom cleaning products—that’s just the next chapter.

Instead of wondering why on earth we’d been invited, I toasted a black and white photo of the Ford family. Maybe I’ll post a copy of it on my Facebook page: “Hanging w/ Henry.”

Us revolutionaries have to stick together.

Lenore Skenazy blogs and tweets @FreeRangeKids. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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