Monday, September 26, 2011

The New Facebook Effect, the Rosetta Stone and Why it is Important for Communicators

Once again Facebook has changed the layout of the home page and once again most people are enraged. There are always a minority who are attracted by change but the majority react like the participants in this Digital Trends Survey who gave the latest redesign a clear thumbs down. Yet the people who don't like the new version now prefer the previous version, but just a few months ago the same people were telling pollsters how much they hated it. This phenomenon is well known and is the topic of many cartoons, like this one from Mashable and the classic 2010 State of the Web comic from The Oatmeal.

Why do people hate the changes on the first impression and then grow to like, or at least to accept, them later?  And why is this so important to communication professionals, or indeed anyone who wants to communicate effectively?

The "New Facebook Effect" is simply a stronger manifestation of a well-known aspect of human behavior -- that the majority of people do not like something the first time they see it. This applies not only to Facebook layouts but also new logos, website redesigns, new products and even new ideas. People need to get used to something new before they can become comfortable with it and understanding this fact is vital in communications.

Suppose, for example, that you are an entrepreneur pitching a new idea to an investor or an employee trying to convince the management to adopt your idea.  The worst way to do this is to present your idea as a surprise and then expect a decision. In this case your likelihood of getting a positive answer is seriously reduced because your idea is still in the unfamiliar zone, and still suspect. But give the person some time to digest it and probably later it will not be so unfamiliar and therefore will not be so suspect.  In practice this means that it is a good idea to evangelize your idea before you make any formal presentation or demand any decision. This will ensure that the unfamiliarity has worn off before the formal pitch. As a side effect it also means that you can gauge the reactions of everyone and prepare responses to criticism -- a topic I covered in a previous post about lessons from Mubarak's last address to the Egyptian people.  Remember: the first time you mention something it's like new Facebook, but after a week or so it's already the old, familiar Facebook we all know and at least put up with.

This technique is critically important when you are pitching a new idea, but it is also the key to long-term advocacy campaigns aiming at a major shift in mindsets. Every so often someone launches a campaign that at the time seems hopeless -- the abolition of slavery, votes for women, ending of child labor and so on -- yet after a time nobody would ever want to go back.  In 2003, for example, the chief of Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiqities, Zahi Hawass, asked the British Museum to return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt. When he first made this demand very few people in the UK thought it was a reasonable request because they are starting from a very different mindset and because this was such a new idea.  But given time more and more people will come to accept this as a possibility, leading eventually perhaps to some sort of agreement. People born when the return of antiquities was simply never considered will probably not change their mind, but eventually they will be outnumbered by people who grew up hearing about this possibility and who at least consider both sides of the argument. Maybe this will take a long time, but eventually people will not find the idea so strange and this is thanks to the way Hawass and others are helping people to become familiar with the idea.

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