It’s snowing here in New England. And, as always, the local and national news and weather cabals have energized the panic economy, creating not just millions of page views but endless supermarket lines to buy batteries, bread, and milk. (Why bread and milk? No one knows.) As I sit safe and cozy in my home office watching the snow fall, here are a few reflections on panic, media, and the internet.
Early in my career I had the title of documentation manager at a startup software company. As the ship date approached, my two technical writers and I were flat out attempting to create manuals for an innovative product that would replace the spreadsheet (it didn’t). While I later became an early adopter of desktop publishing, it didn’t exist at this point; I sent everything out for typesetting and it came back in long sheets of type that my designer had to slice and paste up to create camera-ready pages. We were on the critical path. If I didn’t get the documentation done on time, the product wouldn’t ship on time.
Every once in a while (all right, every other day), something would go wrong. The engineers would change a feature, making part of the manuals obsolete. Or I’d find out that we’d labelled something inconsistently in the first half of the manual and the second half. Or a critical employee would take a sick day. And so I did what any twenty-something guy in his first management job would do: I panicked and ran around screaming and whining. Then, after I settled down a bit, I worked the problem. I figured out the best possible solution, and we did what we needed to do.
Eventually, I realized that I could skip the panicking stage and move directly into the problem-solving stage. Like any normal human being, I still experienced the thrill of fear and dread when something went wrong, but I tried to minimize that and move on directly to doing things. Not only was solving problems more productive than panicking, it was also more enjoyable.
A lot’s changed since I learned that lesson, and not just that printed documentation, and the job I had, really don’t exist any more. On the one hand, Internet technology makes it far easier and faster to solve problems. But it also makes it far more profitable to create panic.
This is the panic economy in action. Right now, my Dark Sky app, which is the most accurate localized weather app I know, is telling me that we’ll get 4-7 inches of snow, followed by rain this afternoon, and winds up to 26 miles per hour. Weather.com suggests that “Winter Storm Stella” will generate more than a foot of snow and gusts to 50 miles per hour. But the local news stations and the paper are telling us to brace for the apocalypse. It snows here all the time. We know how to deal with it. The governor is telling everyone to stay off the roads. My doctor’s office closed and cancelled my appointment. Plows are out. Branches will fall on power lines and people will lose power, and then the work crews will get out and fix it. We have snow shovels and snow blowers. By tomorrow, everything will be back to normal, except for the excessive quantities of bread and milk in people’s houses.
Panic generates page views. According to ChartBeat, people spend an average of 36 seconds with an online news article. On local television, it used to be, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Now, if it doesn’t generate panic, readers skip it. So we get “Winter storm slams Northeast, 9 states under Blizzard Warning” (WCVB, our local Channel 5) and “Bombogenesis: Could Winter Storm Stella become a weather ‘bomb’?” (The Weather Channel). Get the bread! Get the milk! But first, share the news on Facebook.
The national media love the panic economy, too. Whether it’s global warming, health care policy, the future of the Democratic Party, or devices that the CIA could use for spying, the key is to make people panic. Urgent headlines create panic, which creates sharing, which creates more page views. These are important issues, but important is not the same as urgent. The panic response is alarm, but there is so much alarm that people move from one panic to the next; media conditions them to jump immediately to the panic response. It’s like a roller-coaster or a horror movie, but one that never ends. Whee!
What’s different this time around is that it’s not just the media. Presidents used to be a voice of calm in difficult times (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”) Now the president spreads panic to compete with media for attention. Illegal immigrant criminals, Chinese currency manipulators, skyrocketing health insurance premiums, radical Islamic terrorists! Follow me; I am the only one who can save you. Don’t let the Democrats or judges stand in my way. The president uses panic as a weapon. (Democrats are learning, too; they’re fighting Trumpian panic with panic of their own.)
Learn the lesson that I learned in my twenties. Don’t become part of the panic economy. Become part of the solution. Spreading awareness is no longer a problem — everyone I know is pretty aware of the most immediate problems, thanks to the media panic economy. But sharing one panic after another doesn’t do anything except raise the national blood pressure. Especially if you do nothing after panicking but go back to reading and panicking more.
Which problems will still be here in two years, four years ten years? Can you analyze how to solve them? What action can you take to make the solutions work? Whether its through voting, researching, writing, organizing locally, or just making your company and your family more successful, what are you actually doing?
Panicking is not a strategy.