A sabbatical (or something like it)

If I said this once, I told it a trillion times: I have more days behind me than I have in front of me. I may have 10, 20, or 30 years left, or I may have two. All I know is that I’m 55, my dad died when he was 56, and my mom when she was 64. I have aunts and uncles that also died in their 50s and 60s and cousins that passed in their 30s and 40s. The only grandparents I met died before I could drive, and I never met a living great-grandparent. 

The numbers could be better. 

Whatever my fate, living a vibrant life has nothing to do with its length and everything to do with its width.

(Before I continue and tell you what happened, I’m reminding you that impulsiveness is one of my endearing qualities!)

Only a few people know this. In October, I quit my job. This is the first time I’ve taken an unpaid break from work. (I’d call it a sabbatical, but that would imply I kept my employed status.) A couple things: I wanted to see if taking a break…a pause…was all it was hyped up to be. Plus, it was time to step back from work so I could see where I was headed.

I intended to take eight weeks off and start my job hunt after the first of the year, but around six weeks in, I fell upon an opportunity. And, since I’m not entirely bonkers, I started a new job.

Weeks 1, 3, and 6.

I went into this…furlough…expecting it to open a magical portal of bright hope and life-changing experience (I pictured divine beings dancing as a red velvet curtain opens). 

Week one was good. 

Bliss. Heavenly bliss. Like a jar of creamy Jif. Zero dread. Late morning coffee. I ate whip cream from a can.

By week three, I had moved into Loserville. It’s not a great feeling have no reason. Double fisting whip cream from a can.

But, thankfully, I moved out of Loserville and got back on track by week six. Now I was doing the deep thinking I had planned on doing (the kind that is often elusive during the crush of the day-to-day). I was back to being blissfully quiet and mindful in all the moments. I was ordering in. Setting goals. Cozying up with my spreadsheets and planners! I was having revelations. 

Then an old colleague texted me.

“My company is hiring; you would be perfect for the job!”

Now I swear, I was fully committed to my original plan – a full eight weeks off which included all of November and all of December. I planned to show up in January with an updated resume, hit the interview train, and start a new job in February. (I guess mathematically, that’s 12 weeks.) I was fully prepared to play my edge until it scared me, but what happened, happened fast, and I had to make a choice. 

Monday morning, I emailed my resume. 

I was on the phone Monday afternoon with HR – being “screened.”

Tuesday morning, I was on Zoom with the VP of Digital.

I was putting together a mock strategy for a made-up client on Tuesday afternoon.

I was in the office presenting said-mock-strategy before a panel on Wednesday.

Thursday afternoon, I signed their offer letter.

By the time the weekend rolled around, I started crumbling. Likely it was the pool of silence hanging in the air after I signed that letter and I knew even inordinate amounts of food wouldn’t quell the onslaught of emotion that was brewing. 

What did I just do?? Did I just run to a new job, scared? Or did I think this new opportunity was truly sexy and desirable? Did I make the decision with clarity or with an opaque moment of desperation? 

I was supposed to be on pause. Rethinking. Redesigning. Recharging. Eating whip cream from a can. I had been off-center for so long that I knew I owed myself this pause, but I think I just blew it. 

But, in fact, I didn’t. The truth is, my decision was perfectly sane. If something is meant to be, there isn’t any right or wrong thing you can or can’t do. You just have to stop *f-ing yourself in the head over it. Instead of trying to justify why you should stay unhappy (or, paused), honor your desires and stop delaying YOUR TIME. 

I definitely desired this job for a lot of reasons. There’s enough about it that I can do with my eyes shut, while plenty I need to learn. It’s a title I’ve held for years, but the role has always been half-written. But with this company, I get to wrap up the ends (make them a pretty little bow of holiday cheer) and get ‘er done! And it’s going to be incredibly gratifying. 

Desire is the pimp juice of life. (Or is joy?) Either way, the end of my pause comes as no coincidence with the end of the year. I mean, with the end of the year always comes a transition. Some of us celebrate our past year’s accomplishments, while others lament it and hope for their own redo. I stepped out on a ledge (and self-medicated with canned whip cream, but, yeah).

You may be knee-deep in wrapping paper and slushy snow or wading through a puddle of confusion and regret, but here’s my end-of-year and holiday present to you:

This holiday, I hope that every gift you open brings that extra glimmer across your face that only the best gifts can bring. And while you may be opening a “thing,” I hope that your heart is the one gift you open with the most gusto. While you are filling yourself with savory morsels and sweet treats, I hope you are also feasting on the things that nourish and sustain your most perfect life. While you sing along to carols in your toasty car and draw hearts with your mitten hands on the foggy window, I hope you also whistle to your own little tune. For every old tradition, I wish you a new one. For every reindeer game you can’t figure out how to play, I wish you a game that’s all your own. For every Elf, The Land of the Misfits, and the little rebels who are Home Alone, I wish you radical acceptance, even if only you get it. For every Miracle on 34th Street, I wish you a miracle on whatever street, ocean, aircraft, or spaceship you happen to be on. And for every lesson learned in 2022, every disappointment, every accomplishment, I wish you a new year full of just as many “oh shit” moments, happy tears, sad tears, “*F-yeahs!” and visits to the drawing board. I wish you colorful lives where they all may “even say you glow.” Because, after all, none of us knows how many days we have in front of us. 

Merry Christmas! 

It’s starling, my dear. Simply starling.

Murmuration. It’s a biology term, and it’s the phenomenon that results when hundreds of starlings fly side-by-side in unison and coordinate their flapping to make spectacular flight patterns.

You’ve seen them: A flock of birds in the night sky, swirling this way and that, feinting left but then swerving right. The flock gets denser, then sparser, moving faster, then slower – but always in a captivating pattern, like they’re being controlled by a secret rhythm.  

In a murmuration, each bird, on average, pays attention to its seven closest neighbors. Why seven? According to researchers, six or seven neighbors optimize the balance between group cohesiveness and individual effort. 

So it sees the seven nearest birds, and it will adjust its own behavior. If its nearest neighbors move left, it moves left. If they move right, it moves right. The bird doesn’t know the flock’s eventual journey’s end and can make no radical change to the whole. But each of these birds’ slight reformations, when occurring in swift sequence, shift the course of the total and in fascinating patterns. (It’s just like the 2° I talk about in my article, The Power of Small.) 

I cannot fully understand it, but I am impressed by it. I’ve been reading a lot, and the way I interpret it is that it’s a logic that emerges from simply who is sensing whom (aka, the function of the network structure). The flock’s performance is determined by the construction of the network. This, in turn, shapes the behavior of the network. 

(*Writer shakes head) 

The pattern — or information — passes through this chain of connections from one bird to the next. 

(*Writer is still shaking her head)

Each bird is a node in the system of influence and can affect the behavior of its neighbors. Scientists call the process in which groups of disparate creatures move as a cohesive unit of collective behavior.

Human behavior on social media. Strikingly similar.

New research suggests that human behavior on social media (coordinated activism, harassment mobs, etc.) bears strikingly similar to the collective behavior performed by birds. Picture birds, fish, or ants acting in collective behavior without hierarchical direction from a designated leader.

Crazy to think about, but once you start, you get it!

One bird follows another.

I retweet you; you retweet me.

It’s the construction of the network.

For birds, the signals along the network are passed from the eyes or ears to the brains. For humans, though, the signals are passed along our screens, from news feed to news feed along this artificial superstructure designed by humans. And this superstructure is mediated by algorithms. And curation by the algorithms is how content appears in your feed. In essence, the algorithm determines the seven birds… and you react.

First, the nudge to assemble into flocks. Next, the nudge to engage. The nudge to engage is also known as “bait.” Twitter’s Trending Topics, for example, shows a nascent “trend” to someone inclined to be interested. The algorithm is signaled once the user takes the bait, and the topic’s profile is raised for their followers. Now the bait is curated into your friends’ feeds. Why? Because they are one of your seven birds. Frenzies begin to take shape. Are you with me? And once this happens, there are consequences: users are driven mad with rage, and small subsets of people become larger flocks. All before anyone knows anything has happened. Eventually, an armed man may decide to free a DC pizza parlor or a violent mob blitz a nation’s capitol. 

We often say “it went viral” to describe our online murmurations, but, come on, we’re not wholly passive here. We have agency, and we can decide not to take the bait. We aren’t actually birds. Saying it went viral is a pathetic attempt to absolve ourselves of all responsibility. I remember my mom telling me that a rumor does not simply spread; it spreads because I spread it. 

I used to think the bait cascading across the network was the problem, but I don’t anymore. Most of the bait is old; history repeats itself. Instead, the size and speed of networks are the real problems. In the early 1900s, bait may have been confined to a village or town. In the 60s, it might have percolated across television. In the 2020s, it pushes through a murmuration of hundreds of millions of Twitter users and is picked up 24/7 by mass media. 

Winston Churchill said, “We shape our tools, and then the tools shape us.” Social media infrastructure shaped society, which shaped behavior, which is shaping society…

The content is somewhat secondary. So, is what we see of value? We’re technically not seeing what we want to see but instead what the structure (algorithm) wants us to see. And if this is the case, the only possible result is a social disaster (which I’m seeing). Instability results from immediate public reaction to incompletely understood matters magnified by instantaneous feedback.

Because curation organizes and directs the flock’s attention, the potential downstream impact on real-world power is absolute. Disinformation, hate speech, and harassment mobs; we’re intractably polarized.

And what are we doing? 

We are treating the worst dynamics of today’s online ecosystem as problems of speech rather than challenges of curation and network organization. Content moderation needs to be reworked. What does this look like? Well, I don’t know. How many birds should we see? Which birds? When? Nudges and bait seem to be attention traps. And attention traps seem to lead to bad things. We need more tech reformation conversations. Some bills mandate transparency, and there are calls to reform 230, but revoking legal protections or breaking up business grabs is challenging. Someone needs to prioritize rethinking design. For example, Twitter could eliminate its Trending feature entirely or in specific geographies during sensitive times like elections. It might limit nudges to surfacing actual large-scale or regional trends, not small-scale rage bait. Instagram could enact a maximum follower count. Facebook could introduce more friction into its Groups, allowing only a certain number of users to join a specific Group within a given timeframe. These are substance-agnostic and not reactive. Design interventions.

But, again, the design shapes the system and spawns the behavior. But if the resulting behavior includes less time on site and fewer active flocks, well…

So what do you think? How much online mobs and flocks of birds have in common is truly starling, right!