What Traffic in Mexico City Can Teach Us about Social Media

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[I wrote this piece quite a while ago for a collaborative book on social media, but ultimately chose to go with another piece.]

In ‘Traffic: Why We drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us)’, author Tom Vanderbilt explains how a right of way is negotiated in some places:

“Eye contact is a critical factor at unmarked intersections in Mexico City. Look at another driver and he’ll know you have seen him, and thus dart ahead of you. Not looking at the driver shifts the responsibility to him (assuming he has actually seen you), which allows you to proceed first – if, that is, he truly believes you are not aware of him.”

Experiments in the lab confirm this. In one study, subjects were shown pictures of equidistant cars approaching an intersection. One had the right of way and the other didn’t.

When confirmed eye contact was made, most subjects thought that the driver who had the legal right-of-way would/should claim it. When no clear eye contact was made, the subjects had lesser clarity on who had the right of way – thereby absolving the driver without the legal right of way of any responsibility if he wrested it.

Avoiding eye contact is a strategy employed not just by motorists but by pedestrians too.

Motorists are willing to slow down or stop if they think that pedestrians have not seem them approaching. However, if the pedestrian has made eye contact with the motorist, this is less likely to happen.

So what has all this to do with social media?

Put very simply, our traditional mass-media approaches to advertising are all about avoiding ‘eye contact’ with our consumers – lest we be forced to change our well drawn out strategies and plans. So we put the pedal to the metal and zip past intersections and pedestrian crossings, all the while staring rigidly ahead – so that no one can ‘expect’ us to slow down, stop or change directions for them.

But social media is about the opposite approach. It’s less about right of ways and wanting to wrest them at any cost – it’s about acknowledging our consumers, slowing down to let them pass, being receptive to their choices and letting them influence our journey.

Therefore, a good way to test your social media strategy is to ask the question ‘Is it enabling eye contact with our consumers or helping us avoid it?’

If it’s the latter, you ought to know it’s just a mass media strategy in social media clothing.

[Original pic by ·júbilo·haku·]

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