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The Fear Economy: the growth of fear bait and what to do about it

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Whatever “social media” was intended to be, in the last few years it seems to have begun an inexorable decline into what it always had to become:

A 24/7, always-on, personalized fear machine.

All you have to do is look into the “black mirror” in your pocket, and you’ll see what I mean.

How many scrolls, swipes, or taps does it take to find your first piece of bad news?

While writing this, I decided to run my own experiment.

I started by opening up a new browser (Firefox).

On the homepage, I’m greeted with Firefox’s standard homepage settings: a search bar, as well as a list of articles they state are “Recommended by Pocket.”

Pocket is a robot.

Here’s what Pocket is recommending today:

  1. A disease you’ve never heard of that killed someone you didn’t know in a part of a world you’ve never been to nor have plans to go (and, I kid you not, part of the headline is: “how worried should we be”)
  2. An innocent grandmother gets scammed
  3. Something or other (that you probably have to register or pay for) to tell you if “your home is doomed”
  4. A sponsored ad to play a new game “Free!”

Sorry Pocket, but after browsing your recommended reading list for the last minute, I think I’m going to need a cold shower, not a free fake farm so I can ignore my real farm.

And if you’re thinking “but Tom, that’s curated based on what you read. You’re the culprit!”

…I opened the browser with a cleared cache, VPN’d, not connected to Pocket.

If I had been connected (signed in and synced up), and if I were playing the game they wanted me to play (engaging with their content; clicking, sharing, liking, whatever), the fear bait would only get more personalized.

But here’s the thing:

Even if the fear gets more personalized, it doesn’t get any more real.

I’m not saying the crazy rare disease didn’t strike; or that the grandmother is just a narrative hook to generate more interest; or that some homes may, in fact, be doomed…

These things might be factual…

…but even if they are, they have no impact in or on your life beyond what you allow.

As in, you have to CONSENT to letting this information into your head, and you have to CONSENT to letting it affect your aim, your attitude, your work, or your life.

But if you don’t give consent…if you ignore, delete, simply opt out…all of it vanishes, as if it never existed in the first place.

On the side mirrors of my car there’s text that reads:

“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”

The purpose is to help you avoid a deadly accident by reminding you that what you see…isn’t exactly what you’re seeing…and to adjust your behavior accordingly.

I think every device with a screen that can access the internet should have its own label:

“Objects on screen are not real and are intentionally designed to spike your cortisol levels.”

Don’t get caught in the fear trap. It’s not real.

What’s real is right in front of you; your friends, family, and loved ones, the people you serve, and the meaningful work you do, day in and day out.

Now that you know this, how will you show up?

Stay frosty,

Tom “thoughts” Morkes

p.s. this was originally going to be 3 reasons you should be excited for 2020, with reason #1 being that life is a lot better than it looks online…but I realize I gotta establish some foundational things before I move forward.

My interest this year is in taking an ecological approach to marketing and sales, and I'll be using this newsletter to put out new ideas to better codify my thinking. 

Who knows, it might turn into my next book. Your feedback, questions, and insights are appreciated!!

p.p.s. Recently, several people have asked me to help them launch products / set up affiliate marketing campaigns / create and implement referral programs for their brands, etc. Straight up - I don't do project bids. I also don't do 'initial consult' calls. If you want my help, you can book an Accelerator Coaching time block or Lightning Session right here. 

Started, finished, and shipped from high up in the Rockies | Writing time: 5 hrs | Soundtrack: silence

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23 comments

  • Yes I remember the lead up to 2016 election, and early 2017… I made a recurring reminder to “Stop and think of the good people in your real life”. Crazy times.

    • I don’t just remember that, I lived it, probably like most. 2016 USA election might have been the pinnacle of the fear economy. On all sides, everyone was trying to show you how the OTHER way leads to death…fast forward to today and the all the predictions of disaster are wrong. Everything is fine…like it was, and like it probably will be…That doesn’t mean don’t plan for bad times (storms coming so build your ark now is my motto), but don’t get caught up in it. Just keep your eyes on the work in front of you and do what you gotta do…it’s boring and that’s why it’s effective.

  • Tom, I love this: “Objects on screen are not real and are intentionally designed to spike your cortisol levels.” This year I’m pruning my social media usage, reducing the number of newsletters subscriptions (yours is a keeper, though), and my internet browsing in general. Staying off the grid, per se. It may seem counterintuitive as a writer, but my goal is, as you reminded us, to stay focused on what’s real — what’s right in front of me.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    • Boom. Marcus, you nailed it. Love it. Keep me posted how life after the “pruning” goes. I’ve been off “news” for over a year now and my life is without question better.

    • Exactly. On the ‘fixing it’ side of things…let’s just say I’ve gotten over my 12 stages of grief or whatever over the past year or two. Now I’m just focused on the practical, not what “could be”, instead – “given the situation, what should I do now” – and I’ve found that all the fear bait, everyone participating…it’s all completely powerless if you just don’t care what’s in the box. Maybe another idea for a future blog post or podcast…

  • “Fear economy,” as you call it, is older than the internet, heck it’s as old as humans have had language. So no surprise a “clean slate” AI, which will use popular data until it develops a profile of you, will offer a lot of clickbait, and that will be dominated by boogeymen in the closet. We’re actually hardwired to look for the danger.
    But it’s not all (general) human nature. The really scary part is that many purveyors of information are deliberately skewing search results for their own agenda. When people are fearful, they’re easier to control–mice to the pied piper that promises a solution (even if it’s a problem they themselves manufactured). Even when they think they’re being neutral, studies have shown that AI often develop the biases of their programmers.
    That’s the REAL scare.

  • I was having this discussion w/ my wife last night at dinner(being empty nesters submits her to my fits of rants with somewhat less intensity and regularity but still…they arrive). She’s not into politics, casually follows the news and when she does, the choices are media outlets that market only FEAR. I remind her *and* myself continually to be vigilant of the agenda being force-fed by most media outlets – because grabbing out attention alongside primal fears we reflexively respond to…is their business model.

    “Entrepreneurs run on different engines than the majority of the population. Instead of avoiding risk and uncertainty, we eat it for breakfast. We don’t work for The Man… we exist outside most of the rules everyone else plays by, and often we end up inventing new rules altogether. Where safety is primary for most folks, we seek adventure and fulfillment first.” – John Carlton

    We lean into enough of the fear of from the vistas of the unknown already, on our own. I’ll do my own curation the old fashion way, Pocket/Facebook/Twitter/et.al., thank you.

    • Bingo.

      That’s why I guess I had to write about this…because there’s already a ton of stress that comes with creating, making, composing, or building anything. You can’t win that game without intense focus. The insanity on all sides needs to be blocked out if you want to do meaningful work. Like the boxer going for a title fight; if you let what’s outside the ring distract you, you already lost.

      That’s my position, at least, and I guess you could say I’m betting my life’s work on it 😀

  • Tom,
    Love your perspective. My own business is based on the concept of “Say Yes” and then from there you can discover a life of purpose, peace and abundance, but you have to CHOOSE it (or opt-out). Am looking forward to your more “ecological” focus this year, and finally making use of your Influencer Marketing Method as I publish my book later this spring. Stay frosty!

    • Awesome! Keep me posted on progress with your book Christina.

      And yes, you’re absolutley right about intentionally saying yes to what matters (and otherwise, as a default, just opting out).

      FOMO is powerless if you don’t know or don’t care (and yes, you can do both deliberately).

  • I hope you didn’t base your article on opening Firefox only once (you can’t really call this an experiment). On my homepage I regularly get interesting stories and scientific news. The last days I learnt about the black hole in the middle of the galaxy, the nuclear fusion reactor ITER, the rise of mattress startups (:D), that Germany is the most innovative country or what to do when I said the wrong thing.

    • I appreciate the comment because it seems sincere.

      However, I think you missed my point, so I’ll try another approach:

      Let me know a year from now how the above information served you in the pursuit of your goals.

  • I’ve been saying something similar to this to people for years and they respond with some form of literal or implied version of “you must just want to be ignorant if you don’t think these things are real or that they don’t effect you.” Ignorance is seen as a bad thing because for the entirety of human evolution it was always the things you didn’t know that got you. Knowing things is a natural human tendency but in the end the type of info we’re curated online, which seem like knowledge that we should find out about so as to make our lives better or to avert tragedy, are largely NOT things that, once we know them, will allow us to escape danger or thrive in some new previously unknown way. Despite the copious amount of info at our fingertips about every possible danger, the same problem persists that our ancient ancestors dealt with… Somethings gonna get ya, but its not the thing you expect.

    • “the type of info we’re curated online,…are largely NOT things that, once we know them, will allow us to escape danger or thrive in some new previously unknown way.”

      Spot on.

      Also, it’s possible that information that does not actively and pragmatically help you move forward toward what you’re aimed at isn’t just useless, it’s dangerous. That means no information is better than the wrong information.

      Just an idea I’m mulling over…will see if it sticks 🙂

  • Sorry, I had to write a new comment, because the reply button didn’t work.

    Why shouldn’t my comment be sincere?

    Also I know what you want to say with your article, I get the same bullshit news when opening Chrome on the mobile phone. I just wanted to defend Firefox/Pocket. But maybe the algorithm is reacting differently in other countries…

  • Many years ago Tom Morkes gave me some amazing advice that led me to start my own online business and life has never been the same since.

    I was obsessed with growing my online presence and connected with everyone i could. It didn’t matter if you were a rice farmer in Indonesia, or a billionaire in Dallas, your connection had to be worthwhile having.

    Fortunately I am one of the worlds freaks, who has never owned a mobile phone or home-phone, so this wasn’t a 24 hour problem that I dragged around with me. However subsequently over the years my days got filled up not only with being bombarded with the views and fears of everyone who had the ability create a post, video or tweet and send it in my direction, or everyday was spent wishing someone that I had never met and had no plans to meet a happy birthday…madness.

    You wouldn’t walk down the street wishing complete strangers the best of days, or happy birthdays. But this was where i had found myself. The High Street Of Other Peoples Lives, Loves, Rants and Fears.

    But I had an online business…i couldn’t just switch off from everything my business would go down the toilet and end up in the slipstream of sludge that nobody wants. I couldn’t just pull the plug on connecting with everyone, as people wouldn’t then want to know me anymore…sob, sob , sob what could I do?

    Anyway, one day I was looking at Messenger and was watching the messages flow in slowly and steadily. I didn’t respond i just watched the tide flow my way. Drowning me until my pc floated into the world of dead blogs and broken links and i had enough. Online limbo land i was heading.

    First thing was to delete every post and comment I had made on FB for seven years to stop the pull of looking at photos of social events that I hadnt been invited to. Guess what, when you don’t see the image you dont know that you have missed out and you don’t feel the resentment. In the words of Charlie Sheen….”#winning!”

    Then i stopped reading anything online other than the BBC website and what ever was directly responsible to the success of my business. My happiness levels have soared.

    Lastly I realised that people more often than not wanted me and my advice for free, and used messenger to get to me without officially signing up for anything. My days were full of working for nothing to people I didnt want to know.

    Nowadays life is different, oh so different.

    I dont know about plague, famine, Donald Trump or any other of the worlds nasties.

    I dont know who is annoyed with who, or who is now seeing who.

    I dont know anything.

    In fact as i said the other day “It feels like growing up in the seventies. When the only thing you was bothered by was the rumor that a strange man was seen in the woods”

    Of course I have my own fears, but these are real fears. Fears that effect my directly. But as for what the world wants me to think or act…forget it. I aint ever going back I tell ya!!

    • Love it David. Your story, the move away from the abyss…sounds like my own. Even though my entire business is online, I don’t let the noise in through the cracks.

      I block all social media, or at least the feeds.

      I don’t do work on my phone.

      And I quit “news” over a year ago.

      That has helped me with my health and wellbeing even more than quitting alcohol the year before. But together, it’s almost like my head is so clear, I can see into the future. Almost.

      Thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting. Thanks for following along all these years and for taking what I say seriously enough to implement.

      Your podcast rocks and you deserve all the success you’ve had. You earned it.

      Keep it up my man 🙂

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