Year 2010 in Video Review Series: What can these videos teach us about the social brain, conflict management and social media?

According to Socrates, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  It is this time again when we look back at the year gone by to see what we can learn from it.  All the exciting happenings in neuroscience and the explorations of the brain, communication and social networks have rocked this Brain Alchemist’s boat, or, perhaps, lab, in 2010.  There is much to learn about the human behavior in cyberspace (as in real life, for that matter), but one thing is clear: the Internet is a good conduit for human follies, passions and emotions. This makes it exciting, but also treacherous and ridden with conflicts and misunderstandings.  How people navigate the rapid streams of social media after minor or major collisions is the subject of my Year 2010  in Video Review Series.

I’ve chosen videos as my review material because videos are more engaging and dynamic, and they have been big this year.  These videos address a broad spectrum of issues, from business to social, from deeply personal to global.  Most importantly, they provide lessons of social behavior online that are relevant to those involved in community management, online collaboration, conflict resolution, customer service, reputation management, crisis communication and PR.  I will break them down into a series of posts to make our learning more digestible.  As always, I want to know your thoughts and your take-aways.

Part I:  From baking pizzas to brewing conflicts – Amy’s Baking Company

What do you do when a customer posts a negative review of your business on Yelp?  The response from Amy Bouzaglo, the owner of Amy’s Baking Company & Bistro in Scottsdale, AZ, made many social media experts shake their heads in disbelief and disapproval. After a local blogger and Yelp reviewer Joel LaTondress posted a critical one-star review, he was accused by Amy Bouzaglo of working for the competition, and then called “ugly,” a “loser,” and a “moron.”  Typically, that’s not the best way to handle customer complaints.  But there is a caveat to the story.  According to Shane Barnhill, who later sat down with the husband-wife team Samy and Amy Bouzaglo, all that negative publicity brought them more business.

So, what do we make of this story?

First, as in many conflicts, there are usually several stories developing simultaneously.  As we read the analysis of this conflict at various social media outlets, we can see Amy cast either as a “villain” who exemplifies bad customer service and lack of understanding of social media or as a “victim” of an unfair review who “didn’t back down from a fight” and came to the defense of her brand even if her immediate reaction may have been harsh and inappropriate.  Christina Baldwin said, “Words are how we think, stories are how we link.”  In a recent study, brain scans of a speaker and listener showed their neural activity synchronizing during storytelling. When the conflict is played out in public, the audience chooses which story to side with.  Telling your story in social media presents unique challenges because online communication is often disjointed and sporadic.  The group dynamics are likely to influence the outcomes because your messages are filtered through other people’s eyes.

Second, just because social media interactions feel less personal, it doesn’t mean they are less emotional.  In fact, the opposite may be true, due to the so-called online disinhibition effect.  The typical social constraints that exist when we talk face to face are minimal in online communication.  Anonymity, invisibility, lack of visual cues and accountability often cause people to say things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t say in person.  The lack of direct feedback makes it easy to misunderstand and misinterpret other people’s words and actions.  Rushed responses online can escalate conflicts.

Third, conflict can be a form of entertainment.  This may sound bad, but it is our cultural and social reality: books, films, stories all have some kind of conflict as their driving force.  Conflicts played out in social media run a higher chance of turning into entertainment for some.  Our brains are driven by curiosity and the urge to search for novelty.  When the brain anticipates something new and searches for patterns, it increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for focused attention and more pleasurable experience.  This can explain the beneficial effect of negative publicity.  Some people will go and check out the place just because it was on the news.

Finally, when a brand has to give up rigid control over conversations happening in social media, it becomes crucial to exert even more control over the non-negotiable foundations of the brand, such as the quality of the product or service and the values the business stands by.  People may be willing to justify and forgive one instance of emotional outburst against a customer, but if poor customer service becomes a pattern or the food is bad, no amount of publicity, positive or negative, will make those customers come back.  The best way to protect your brand against unfair online attacks is to have loyal customers and evangelists that are willing to come to your defense.


  1. Online reputation is about perceptions, not intentions.  Assess and monitor the stories you and others communicate about your brand through social media.
  2. Don’t say online what you wouldn’t say to a person face-to-face.
  3. Dare to be a contrarian, but welcome different opinions and perspectives.  Novelty, diversity and curiosity stimulate the brain. The magnetic pull of conflict can be used to boost creativity, innovation and change.
  4. Honor your loyal customers and evangelists. The strength, visibility and success of your brand depend on them. They are also your best defense against online attacks.

What tips do you have for managing online conflicts and controversies?

Related posts:
Video Review Series, Part 2: The Effective Video Apology “DOs” and “DON’Ts”

Video Review Series, Part 3: Leveraging Social Media for Crisis Communication

Video Review Series, Part 4: Humor in Conflict Is No Laughing Matter

By | 2011-02-25T23:44:30+00:00 December 29th, 2010|Communication, Conflict Management|1 Comment

The death spiral of negative comments: is it good or bad for online engagement?

We get more engaged when our buttons are pushed.  It’s no surprise that negative information captivates the brain and stirs emotions, you have to look no further than our news channels and newspapers.  Negativity keeps the audience captive, in part, because the brain is wired to be more sensitive to negativity.  Negative emotions are so salient and effective in seizing our attention because our survival has depended on them.  The fear of a tiger, the disgust at the sight of rotten food – those negative emotions have been there to protect us.  Now, we have a glimpse of what negativity does to our brains in the cyber jungle.

To investigate how emotions influence online behavior, a group of Slovenian and British researchers completed automatic sentiment analysis of nearly 2.5 million posts left on BBC discussion forums by over 18 thousand users.  In short, they analyzed the language according to whether it was positive, negative or neutral.  They discovered that most posts contained negative emotions and that the most active users in individual threads expressed predominantly negative sentiments.  Participants with more negative emotions also wrote more posts.  In other words, when it comes to the emotional content of BBC forums, the negativity reigns supreme and drives forum discussions.  As the authors of the study observe, “the Internet transfers not only information but also emotions.”

In a separate study of emergence of the emotional behavior among Web users, researchers analyzed the emotional content of discussion-driven comments on digg stories from digg.com to better understand how emotions drive the behavior of the social network members and how individual members influence the collective emotional states.  They found that avalanches of negative emotion triggered by a single post produced self-organised behaviour amongst users.  “Dissemination of emotions by a small fraction of very active users appears to critically tune the collective states,” the researchers observed.

These findings should not surprise you if you have been a member of a social network or online community.  Controversies, negative comments and flaming do engage members and generate even more controversy and negativity.  But before we crown trolls as community engagement experts, let’s consider the implications of these findings.

In my earlier post, I discusseded the research by James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego and Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist at Harvard University, the authors of “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives,” who also study how emotions spread across social networks.  According to their findings, positive networks built on cooperation and altruism tend to thrive, while negative ones tend to dissolve.  They also observe that people who smile in their profile photographs tend to have more friends and are measurably more central to their social network, compared to those who do not smile and who are likely to be on the periphery of the online world.  Their research suggests that happiness is also a collective emotional state.  So, what does this all mean?

Perhaps, to understand the collective dynamics of online interactions, we should also consider the purpose behind an online community, the reason for its existence.  If you come to a website that aims at generating discussions around news items or stories, negative engagement may do the job.  People come to those news outlets for information, entertainment, and opinions. They are  not trying to build social connections and relationships.  In this context, the brain is tempted not only by the negativity but also by easily-available opportunities for status enhancement, unfortunately, often at somebody else’s expense.  With the prevailing anonymity and lack of social ties, constraints and repercussions, it’s no surprise that abrasive language, bad tone, and tunnel vision dominate the discussions.  What you probably won’t find on such forums are creative ideas, novel solutions, collaborative fact-checking or problem-solving because they require more positive mental states.

Positive emotions tend to broaden our focus, enabling us to discover more tools and solutions to life’s challenges and ultimately making us more resourceful, according to the research by neuro-psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, the author of “Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive.”  In contrast, when we experience negative emotions, our focus is narrow.  This tunnel vision precludes us from switching perspectives and seeing creative solutions while positive emotions let our minds open, or “bloom.”

If you want to build a community where people would come to connect, nurture relationships, collaborate, actively learn, safely share, and support one another, then you probably want to manage the death spiral of negative comments more diligently.  (For a discussion on how to deal with negative comments, hop over to “Spin Sucks.”)  Is there an optimal ratio of positive comments to negative comments for a community to thrive?  Dr. Fredrickson, for example, discovered that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones makes people more resilient and creative in meeting life’s challenges and achieving their goals.  (You can find out your ratio and get other online tools at Dr. Fredrickson’s website http://www.positivityratio.com.)  Perhaps, thriving online communities have their own pattern yet to be discovered.

So, what do you think?  How damaging are negative comments to an online community?  What would you do if a few members of your community were to start a death spiral of negativity, threatening the collective emotional stability of your group?

By | 2010-12-17T17:01:13+00:00 December 17th, 2010|Brain, Communication, Conflict Management|1 Comment

Lucky charms for enchanting customer experience

Lucky charmsSome time ago I watched a TED presentation by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love” on nurturing creativity.  Talking about the pressures of creative work, felt especially strongly after a hugely successful book, Elizabeth Gilbert described how writers and poets had relied for centuries on their creative genius, or muse, to keep them inspired and prolific.  They developed special relationships with their mystical helpers, often incorporating elaborate rituals into the writing process.  They attributed their success to the power of their creative genius and their misfortunes to the loss of the mystical support.

If you have a muse or a lucky charm, you are in good company.  It turns out that not only artists rely on their mystical supporters.  Athletes invite them too, usually with the help of performance jewelry, lucky charms and rituals to help them focus, calm down and perform better.

Rituals and symbols captivate our brains, which are wired to look for patterns and make predictions even where none exists.  Wearing a bracelet may not really cause you to perform better but if your brain sees the connection and you believe in it, the power of suggestion makes the brain respond as if it were true, triggering a placebo effect.  It’s the power of belief anchored in a symbolic object that can cause you to perform better.  Rituals serve a similar function.  A ritual is a set of actions that has a special symbolic meaning.   Rituals give a signal to your brain to prepare for something or shift focus, depending on the meaning and purpose of your ritual.

Both rituals and symbols set expectations, and, perhaps, brands can use them too as tools to create unique customer experiences that go beyond the function of the logos.

For example, in my daughter’s kindergarten, each day of the week has its alternative name that incorporates the type of food that the kids help to prepare that day.  Monday is the rice day, Tuesday is the bread day, etc.  Every Tuesday morning when we step through the school doors, we are welcomed by the wonderful aroma of the home-made bread baked in the oven.  We all have come to expect it on Tuesdays, and it’s a part of the school experience.

How can you get your customers in the mood to expect something wonderful?  There is a small toy store in my town, which has to compete with all those big chains around. When you have a five-year-old kid, you have numerous birthday parties to attend, and you need gifts.  We choose to shop in this independent toy store not only because of the nice inventory of toys and the friendliness of the store employees who are ready to assist you in choosing the right product. There are some unique thoughtful features in that shop that boost their customer experience.  For example, they provide a few tables with complimentary gift wrapping paper and bows so that the customers could wrap their gifts and kids could take part in the action.  You can also choose a free birthday card with your purchase.  This little gift-prep ritual makes a difference.  And when we are in a rush to get that last minute present, we know we can get it all done in one place without crowds of people and much waiting.

Either it’s the holiday season that makes me think of freshly-baked bread and pies or I am just hungry and my brain needs glucose, but my next example also involves a culinary tradition.  It comes from The Grossman Group, a consultancy that specializes in strategic leadership, internal communication and delicious Grandma Elsie’s Famous Pumpkin Chiffon pies, which The Grossman Group makes for their in-town clients every Thanksgiving as a sweet way to say “Thank you.”  Their out-of-town clients get the ingredients and the recipe in the mail to make their own pies.  And all other lovers of pies and communication can get the famous recipe on The Grossman Group website.  Now, that’s a treat and treatment that customers can appreciate.

How can your brand find a lucky charm or creative inspiration that can set it apart from competition?  Do you have a lucky charm or tradition that you want to share?

By | 2013-03-27T19:42:30+00:00 December 8th, 2010|Communication, Peak Performance|1 Comment