There are a handful of people who think I am good friends with former NFL quarterback Brock Osweiler.
For ages now, the adage has stayed the same: “Don’t believe anything you read online.” Don’t believe what you see online either.
To be safe, don’t believe anything at all. Ever.
The story of my friendship to Brock Osweiler started at the crossroads of my friend John anticipating his firstborn, and my impeccable ability to give the best worst gifts imaginable. Cash donations to a political cause you would never support, my face printed on the wrapper of a case of condoms, or a six-pack of severely-expired beer for someone who had just celebrated their 21st birthday.
Best worst gifts. Just enough to make you say, “are you fucking kidding me?” I reserve these gifts for those who are celebrating the big events.
To celebrate the newborn, I had Brock film a little video congratulating John (and his wife, Tracy, who did most of the work) on the baby and welcomed them to parenthood. Brock Osweiler, owner of no children and a default Super Bowl ring, giving his congratulations to new parents he will never meet.
And he was so damn sincere. It was hilarious. The “are you fucking kidding me” moment; John is a die-hard fan of the Denver Broncos, and even the most casual Bronco fan has a chip on their shoulder for ol’ Brock.
After impressively supporting Peyton Manning during the 2015 season — when the Broncos won their last Superbowl against the Carolina Panthers — Brock was set to take over the QB position and carry the Broncos momentum into a new season after Manning retired.
Instead, Brock to a 75 million dollar contract with the Houston Texas for the very next season, leaving the Broncos in an offensive lurch they have yet to recover from. Brock only brought embarrassment to the Texans, forcing them to trade him to the Browns for pennies on the dollar mid-season. Brock would become a free agent when the Browns cut him, leaving him open and eager to be resigned by the Broncos at the league minimum of $750,000 (1/100th of what the Texans valued him at) where he would largely warm a bench before he was cut again.
Brock would round out his career playing a few games (poorly) for the Miami Dolphins before ultimately retiring from the NFL and making on-demand videos for $50 a pop on Cameo — where I found him.
The joke had been brewing for years, through three NFL seasons, a wedding, and a baby announcement — before landing perfectly in the hospital delivery room where I sent the video to John. Within the first few hours of its life, one of the first voices John’s child would hear would be Brock Osweiler’s welcoming her to the world.
John texted back: Are you Fucking Kidding me?
As a writer and an artist in the digital age, I force myself to live by a very specific mantra:
No One Cares
As I get older and learn things about the world, I’ve softened a little bit. No one cares, probably. What people care about most passionately are often things you cannot meet them on: love, self-confidence, politics, and kinks. Everything else you bring them is assessed on a take-it or leave-it basis.
As someone who makes a living writing, I am often called upon to write product copy for Amazon product pages for items neither of us (you, dear reader, or myself) will ever purchase. When I am not writing copy for the Bezos machine, I am pouring my heart out to a select group of readers in my email audience. The only thing which gets me from the moment I start writing to the minute I hit “publish” is “no one will care about this.”
This is the line most people walk when they create stuff. They both desperately want people to care about the thing they just did or made or sent out or published. Why aren’t more people liking my Instagram post? At the same time, caring about how your audiences will react, if at all, can ultimately paralyze a creator from bothering to put anything out at all.
At the end of every year is the Instagram best-of posts. By sacrificing your data to a random 3rd party app on your phone, you can learn which posts people loved the most and share the results with the world. The results are typical: major life events engagements, weddings, divorces, deaths (of others, not your own — although I’d love to see the stats on that), births, moves, jobs (gains and losses (if you’re bold enough to let people know you were let go)). If the event is something that would make a chapter in your biography, people will most definitely like it.
And who wouldn’t like them? It is only human to find something relatable. After all, everyone is born, or gets married or loses a job, and will one day, hopefully, die. We post about these things to scrape together social proof: we are able to do things. We are humans, and we can CREATE. We can MAKE. Make a thing, whether it be a loving relationship or a human being, and see the validation roll in.
What happens, then, if you are not readily validating someone else for their ability to make a thing? What happens when you become a person who does not care?
Do we say “happy birthday” so others will say it to us when the day comes?
If you do not post a “congratulations” under a photo of a newborn, are you a bad person for not validating the new parent’s ability to create a thing?
What we know today as the “like” button was born as a way to manage the wealth of “congrats” that typically showed up with wedding announcements and graduation processions. It was a way platforms kept the people who were seeking validation from drowning in what they wanted most.
Forget the string of “congratulations!”, here are 50 likes. You can spend them as you would any other accolade.
It only took a few years to come full circle. The power of the like fell off. If you wanted your sincerity to come through, you had to return to auto-completing “congratulations” because you’d be damned if you can remember how to spell it correctly.
Of course, there are those who legitimately care about the progress people post online. Let’s say you forewent jumping on the congratulatory Facebook bandwagon and sent across a text with the same sentiment — what kind of person does that make you? Are you more enlightened?
Or are you a pain in the ass?
Oh, great, another text to respond to. And if you don’t respond, what kind of person does that make you?
Don’t believe anything you see on the internet. Or anything you hear on a podcast, especially when they go on a commercial break.
For the most part, a podcast host has no problem lying to you. Even more so when there is a bit of money on the line.
“I just love my Brooklinen sheets,” they would say. “It’s the best night of sleep I’ve had in years.”
“They have THOUSANDS of five-star reviews online.”
Sadly, Brooklinen sheets are absolute garbage. There is a set currently festering in the top shelf of the linen closet (wherever the hell that is), never to be used again. I won’t even put them on the guest bed.
They are awful. I have exes I would rather take to bed instead of Brooklinen sheets. Marital arguments have broken out because of these damn sheets. Because of Brooklinen sheets, I will never be able to trust a podcaster again.
And to think, they sounded so sincere. It must have been their microphone set up — so silky and smooth, who could possibly resist their recommendations? Podcasters will recommend everything from CBD to audiobooks to male enhancement pills — all with the same tenor and sincerity as Brooklinen sheets.
Part of me misses the days when podcasters just hawked Blue Apron subscriptions. If the Blue Apron sucked, it was more likely a reflection of your cooking aptitude than the service sold.
There was a time not so long ago where you could set up a little website and review a category of things you liked. Movies were popular, so were local restaurants or certain genres of comic books, and they were all reviewed by one person, with one opinion, which you either agreed or disagreed with.
Maybe you loved what they loved! Maybe you built your reading list around the very things they despised. These little blogs and websites were the last bastion of real critique in our modern age. The publishers were real critics, who gave authentic appreciation to their specific niche. Appreciation of such caliber required a sincere enthusiasm and a developing sense of wonder, which many try and fail to pursue and present. Even if you didn’t agree where they were going, you could at least appreciate where their opinion came from.
Somewhere along the way, the process of “reviewing” was consolidated to a handful of websites owned by a few corporate interests. Please rate your experience out of five stars — forget the context, we need data. How can we provide an objective rating on a subjective experience? A hundred five-star opinions would result in a perfect score, if only it weren’t for the four-star experiences of people who had to be different.
Would you agree with those who liked it? Or those who didn’t? Furthermore, what draws people to leave reviews on websites they do not own? Why leave your opinion in a forum you ultimately have no control over?
For years, my wife would build her reputation by writing reviews on Yelp! In that time, Yelp! rewarded quality reviewers with digital badges and invitations to gatherings and parties. The time and care someone put into their reviews was ultimately rewarded and made one a desirable customer, one with taste, one who could influence business.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the idea to ruin itself.
A good review on Yelp was sometimes an accurate account reflecting the experience: here is what it was like to do be a customer of this business.
On the other hand, negative reviews were more often than not a reflection of the character of the reviewer — some people are not meant to experience the pleasures of this life, and most of these people have a Yelp! account.
After all, to simply leave a review online does not make one a critic.
When done well, criticism is an art form. A critic distills sensory clues down to a handful of words to say, “this is what this experience is. Your experience will be similar to it.” Good critics are wise to not say one thing is better than another or to deter any type of patronage. Rather, their experience will be your experience.
What does it mean when a product or place has a perfect, five-star review? It should mean: this is the best of the best. Humankind will never know anything more perfect! When something has less than five stars? It means Ted from HR thought his steak dinner was overpriced.
Reviews determine whether a business succeeds, so businesses find them any way they can. Reviewers like the idea of their opinion mattering to a total stranger, so they find ways to share it in a way that makes them stand out.
What happens when your experience doesn’t match the 5-star expectation?
The herd will be the death of us.
The diffusion of responsibility killed Kitty Genovese in 1964. Brutally murdered at night, her screams were heard by everyone in the apartments that surrounded the crime scene. Everyone heard her die; no one called the cops because everyone assumed someone else would save Kitty’s life.
When the killer was apprehended, and Chief of Detectives Albert Seedman asked him how he dared to attack a woman in front of so many witnesses, the psychopath calmly replied, ‘I knew they wouldn’t do anything, people never do.’
A restaurant lives and dies upon the initial reviews when they open. The performance of the first few weeks can determine if the venue will be open for only a few months, or will be loved for years. When the first day matters, you’ll pay for favorable reviews. Hundreds of marketing companies exist for the sole purpose of boosting the initial reviews, by whatever cost, to turn public and professional opinion to the favor of the restaurant.
The entire strategy is placing a giant digital thumb on the scale of automated opinions. Restaurants are far from alone; every single industry with something to sell eventually falls to falsified reviews.
The launch of a new product on Amazon depends on the volume of favorable user reviews. You can buy them by the thousands from questionable sources. Every time Amazon attempts to safeguard quality reviews, another company sprouts up and sells fraud reviews in a new way.
87% of shoppers consider reviews. Hundreds of five-star reviews might place you on the front page of Amazon’s search results, where future sales will yield real reviews from real, satisfied customers that will keep you on the front page.
All of this assumes the product you are selling can back up the fake reviews. Rob Peter, pay Paul.
Every time Amazon tries to fix this fraudulent cycle, another company finds a way to create a new herd. When the five-star product shows up to your house, and you discover it is definitely not worth five stars, is it worth the time and energy to log in and place a three-star review.?
If you are the first bad review on a restaurant’s Yelp! page, does that make you an asshole?
Looking through the review section of any Amazon product, they all say basically the same thing: “Works great,” “Love this product,” “Would totally buy again.” To find something sincere, you might have to wade your way down to the two-star reviews with more than five words to find what is really for sale: “What the hell is this!” says Tony with his Verified Purchase. “Box was damaged, and the phone case was the wrong size. DO NOT GIVE THESE PEOPLE YOUR MONEY!”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” is another popular one.
You can buy thousands of likes and comments on your latest Instagram post. Pumping your Facebook business page full of five-star reviews only costs you about fifty bucks. Algorithms go to work, push you to the top of the feed. They fix the algorithm against the fraud, and someone else figures a way to fool it.
Through it all, sincere voices are drowned out in the stampede of fraud.
For the most part, no one cares. Probably.
The further outside of someone’s tangible, immediate reach something happens to be, the less they are likely going to care about it. If we could, most of us would rather sequester ourselves off into caves for the rest of our days and have groceries delivered while we get full run of which HGTV shows to binge-watch.
However, two things that tend to get people to care:
- When they have something to gain
- When they have something to lose
People move a lot faster when they have something to lose.
We jump at opportunities that seem easy in the short term, even if we aren’t sure what the long term result might be.
Would someone care enough to leave an opinion on a matter if they weren’t immediately incentivized for doing so? Leaving a great review for a restaurant might mean a free meal. The fake review farms on Amazon reimburse the price of the product, plus a little extra for your trouble.
Paying a few bucks for a bunch of robotic likes on social media could mean the chance at exposure, attention, influence, sponsorship, or worse.
Inversely, we work our jobs and gigs and put in the work because everything in our life is tied to a paycheck we presume will eventually show up. We can’t stand the idea of losing the quality of life we currently know.
After the rush of the new baby, John texts me. “Seriously, how do you know Brock?”
Earlier, I lied to you. THAT was the punchline I was waiting for.
It was also a bit troubling. I posted the video into the stream of comments that followed the baby announcement on his Facebook page. Hundreds of people saw it and most likely assumed what John assumed. Brock seemed sincere, almost loving, as though he enjoyed taking a moment of his day to send along a video to someone he hadn’t spoken to in a while.
In the corner of the frame, clear as day, is the CAMEO watermark.
On Cameo, you can ask any number of C and D list celebrities to make a short, personalized video. For a price. Brock’s price was $50.
Does the $50 price tag make his sentiment any less sincere? If I hadn’t paid Brock, would he have cared about John’s baby at all?
Could I have gotten the same video if I reached out through another channel? DM’d him on Twitter or left a comment on his Facebook page? Does Brock still have an agent I can get in touch with?
The number of people who legitimately care about your birthday is pretty small. You, of course. Your parents. Maybe a sibling and a life-long friend or two — the kind who have been celebrating since your FIFTH birthday. Beyond that, your birthday in no way benefits other people unless you incentivize them to care.
When you wish someone “HBD” on their special day, through social media, we have a subconscious obligation built: now, at least one person will wish you a happy birthday.
Look at the dozens or hundreds of “congrats” that fall below a marriage or baby announcement. How many of them are sincere? How many people just hit a button because that is the very thing these platforms have trained us to do? If you dig through, how many exes are offering snide remarks? How many CAMEO videos of Brock Osweiler are there?
How many of these sentiments would exist if Facebook hadn’t prompted them? The last time I wished someone well on Facebook, the app barfed balloons and digital confetti at me.
Congratulations on your baby. However, when the child turns 13 and gains access to the account their parents secured for them at birth (gotta have the vanity username!), what is the kid going to think of the handful of posts they are already tagged in.
Here you are when you were born. Here are a hundred posts of people welcoming you into the world. How is it your Uncle Dave didn’t leave a congratulatory message, but your Uncle Brock did?
The poor kid will already have a decade of questions to catch up on. The future doesn’t stand a chance.
Is authenticity quantifiable?
Any number of tech companies can qualify the authenticity of a review. Look at all of these verified customers and blue checkmarks. But how can one quantify how authentic something is?
No matter what outcome you’re after, someone will make a yardstick to measure it against.
It used to be: is this real, yes or no?
As a copywriter, I’m often obligated to write headlines like: “68% of Corporate Leaders Are Missing This One Crucial Quality.”
There is no math or research to back up the number, but sticking it in the headline increases the likelihood of someone clicking to read the story. Everyone wants to make sure they aren’t one of the 68%.
Authenticity is quantifiable because it can be faked. We live in a time when news and facts can be discounted, fudged, replaced, and flat out denied. Maybe we aren’t looking for authenticity?
Netflix thinks I’ll like this new release 96%. I have no idea what the metric means. I also don’t know why the taco place down the street only has a four-and-a-half star rating, and I’m too afraid to dive into the 200 reviews to see where the other half-star went. Next week I have an appointment with a doctor who has a five-star rating on HealthGrades. The specialist in the neighboring suite only has three stars, but he’s a urologist. On the wall behind the doctor is a poster of ten cartoon faces — how would you describe your level of pain on a scale of one to ten?
Most of us don’t want to know why the ratings are what they are, but we need to have them so we can know what to do next. Without ratings, we would be obligated to make a choice.
“Please choose us,” the retailer says. “Well, say anything you want, just please leave your money here.”
Ratings are everything; ratings are the body of proof about what else the company can do.
From the performance of four games in a season, Brock’s rating resulted in a 75 million dollar contract. Ratings are everything.
Like Brock, though, ratings can be faked and fudged. Eventually, the curtain gets pulled back, and you’re left to ask: Is the juice worth the squeeze?
If not authenticity, what are we looking for?
Everyone wants someone to look them in the eye with a mouthful of truth.
The smell of a newborn’s head and knowing you have a family supporting you.
Sincerity isn’t good or bad, right or wrong, three stars or five. Sincerity is.
And because it just is, we struggle with it. We hide behind social avatars while trying to exchange authenticity for sincerity. We present a self we wish we had, a life we dream of living, and what we wish others would think of us.
The smell of a newborn’s head. The feeling of support from your family. Happy Birthday.
Sincerity isn’t a matter of good or bad, right or wrong, fact or fiction. To be sincere is to be honest — something a great deal of us seem to struggle with as we put up social avatars of the self we wish we had, the life we dream of living, and what we wish other people would think of us.
Even if we have to pay for it.