Enjoy the unexpected
resulting from coincidences.
The geranium flower belongs to the genus Pelargonium, which derives from the Greek pelargo (stork), supposedly because the seed head after the plant flowers is long and pointed like a stork’s beak. In floriography, the yellow geranium flower symbolizes “an unexpected encounter,” and one could argue that the concept of storks delivering babies that we have all heard of is connected to the idea of a chance encounter. Contrary to their elegant appearance, geraniums also give off a smell that insects are adverse to, giving some varieties potential insect repelling properties. The gap between the flower’s appearance and the surprising effect of its scent is a curious combination, perhaps lending the geranium a certain kind of unexpectedness.
When thinking about encounters, we often separate them into the unexpected and the expected. Expected encounters are desired, planned, and ultimately carried out, while those that are unexpected are not intentional and happen by chance. Some opinions say nothing is by chance, and that a complicated interweaving of various factors means any encounter is inevitable. Still, I can’t deny that the idea of the unexpected encounter is an exciting one. At times, it’s the incalculable things that spark inspiration. “Serendipity,” a word that has found its way into the vernacular of Japanese business, similarly refers to the phenomenon where a series of coincidences leads to something of value that is different from what you first set out to find. As such, when people share their experiences with serendipity they are often about them being guided towards fortuitous outcomes. The word “serendipity” was actually coined in 1754 by the English writer and politician Horace Walpole. It comes from a fairy tale he read as a boy called The Three Princes of Serendip, a tale of adventure where princes from Serendip (Ceylon, or present-day Sri Lanka) keep encountering unexpected things along their journey. A combination of their wisdom and their accidental findings ultimately lead to the discovery of new knowledge that they had not been searching for. That brief summary alone is exciting, and it is heartwarming to imagine the story filled with happiness that ensues.
Perhaps our hopeful expectations for coincidence is in defiance of the fixed lifestyles of today. Another factor is that even as we begin to question fixed conventional ideas on what is right or wrong and the like, customs of all sorts are being reinforced in insular environments, killing any momentum, or will, to try to undo those problematic conventions. However, even in such insular communities, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of these environments to switch over to a “new normal.” This may be a paradigm shift that resulted from people in already oppressed environments jumping at the chance for change. The relatively recent Japanese buzzword oya-gacha (random parent vending machine) refers to the fact that children can’t choose their parents. There is a pervasive feeling of resignation that the environment you are born in determines the rest of your life. But on the flipside, there has been a clear upsurge in the younger generation of jobseekers who are not scared of challenging themselves. With a positive “where there’s a will, there’s a way” kind of attitude, they choose to begin their own startups in favor of careers in big established companies that were previously highly sought after. This trend seems to be on the other side of the coin that represents the chaos of the current times.
But regardless of an increase in youth who choose to take on unknown, unstable environments, predetermined “tracks” designed to guide people are still very much present. Lines from old TV shows often had characters asking why they should live life on tracks laid down by someone else, in defiance of society. However, I feel like there is actually a different phenomenon today where people get stuck circling around on preexisting tracks. By this, I am referring to filter bubbles and echo chambers, which are purposefully produced based on algorithms and a vast amount of data, leaving people with incredibly narrowed perceptions. When people get stuck idling their time away watching YouTube videos or shopping online, unable to stop themselves from surfing the web, it’s a type of addiction designed to sustain user attention and keep them hooked. Unless they are able to realize this for themselves, they will be stuck in that never-ending loop. On top of this, filter bubbles insulate people to show only the information they want to see through social media, and echo chambers result in increasingly biased opinions by echoing back like-minded views, interests, and information. These all enable the spread of disinformation and fake news, dividing people’s views and opinions. An “attention economy” is at the base of this issue, triggered by an advertisement model that gains profit by attracting people’s attention to get more clicks. Exacerbating this appalling environment is an attitude that cares only about profit, fixated on making people consume content with focus solely on whether the information is enjoyable or gratifying rather than whether it is actually correct.
I would like to take a look at some cases of “unexpected encounters” that shed light on the issues stemming from algorithms and alert people who have gotten stuck in questionable habits. The first is “HetzJaeger. Antifascist Algorithms.”
HetzJaeger. Antifascist Algorithms.
Fascism is on the rise again globally, particularly in Germany, and the ultimate entry point to it seems to be music. Streaming platforms such as Spotify and YouTube actually have thousands of fascist songs available, and if that wasn’t bad enough, algorithms recommend these songs widely, increasing the chance of coming across such songs. This is precisely an issue of the aforementioned filter bubble and echo chamber happening with music. However, the act of enjoying music itself is generally relatable and rarely criticized. As such, the issue is left unaddressed and mostly unnoticed. Even though the streaming platforms knew about the proliferation of this issue, they did not take down these songs and bands and did nothing effective to prevent the spread of fascism. This is when Laut gegen Nazis (Loud against Nazis), an organization that combats fascism in all shapes and forms, took action to change the situation and transform service provider attitudes on these platforms.
The method was ingenious—to use the very algorithm creating the vicious cycle to fight the problem. They decided to analyze how the music recommendation algorithm worked and implement a countermeasure by tricking the algorithm with a Trojan Horse type strategy. They started by creating a fake band called HetzJaeger that seemed to advocate Nazism and promoted its “debut” with a teaser song that met the appropriate parameters of the algorithms. In other words, they attempted to connect with fascist music fans who selectively listened to such songs in one fell swoop, and gained instant immense popularity. But this band was a decoy. On the anniversary of Hitler’s seize of power, a month after HetzJaeger’s debut announcement, the algorithm automatically presented the entirety of the song and its true message—to speak out against fascism—to all corners of the German fascist scene. The lyrics conveyed the outcry of public opinion against fascism and demanded that streaming platforms tighten up their restrictions, resulting in a huge public response. Exposed to this surge of public scrutiny, streaming platforms were pressured to remove more than 700 fascist songs and bands that had previously been available.
Of course, meticulous preparation was required to pull this off. The proprietary algorithms that these services use are naturally kept secret, which made analyzing them a challenge. They therefore used a music streaming data analysis tool called Chartmetric to painstakingly identify the most popular fascist rock songs, their fan base, and the most influential playlists in the genre. Then they brought experts on board from record companies that provide streaming services, as well as those with insight into the German fascist scene, incorporating them into a team that screened YouTube and Telegram to understand how to optimize the Trojan Nazi band’s song for recommendation. Then anti-fascist musicians wrote the music to release based on that data, so the song’s effectiveness on the algorithm was all but assured. A teaser of the resulting “fascist” rock song was set to lyrics using the most frequently used slang, trigger words, and syntax among fascist enthusiasts, and streamed on the major streaming platforms Spotify, SoundCloud, Deezer, Amazon, Apple, and YouTube.
Simultaneously, social media experts infiltrated major fascist groups on Telegram and Instagram to endorse the teaser, getting people to “like” their posts. It was an impressive strategy that integrated experts across fields, overcoming the challenge with the right people in the right roles. This kind of tactic that only allows one shot at success obviously requires thorough preparation and multiple layers of safeguards, and the meticulous preparation put into the project was undoubtedly the reason for its triumph. In the end, awareness for this topic rose 500% and 200,000 supporters gathered to swiftly submit petitions calling for platforms to strengthen their restrictions against fascist content, achieving the aforementioned result.
Even if one were to come up with the idea of deciphering an algorithm and turning it as a weapon against the thing it usually promotes, the sheer amount of preparation required as well as the all-out use of technological skill and knowhow is daunting to think about. My hat is off to how they pushed through without giving up when it was never clear whether such a feat was fully possible. Meanwhile, it is exhilarating to see how the scheme so elegantly supplanted the songs and bands that existing fascist groups consolidated over, which essentially functioned as the forerunners of their ideology. There are influencers everywhere that draw people in with powerful messages, with enough charisma to potentially make people forget about small variabilities in right and wrong. This scheme created a new “voice” to guide people to a morally correct path with a clear understanding of the power an influencer can have, using the narrative of the seeming emergence of a new forerunner in the scene, like something you might see in politics, which is brilliant. Laut gegen Nazis fabricated a new influencer to challenge others in the scene, and after maximizing endorsement within the target group, they did a one-eighty and put out a message that completely went against the ideology they had pretended to represent. To those in the fascist communities who had always celebrated their like-minded views within a bubble, this must have been an unexpected shock of shattering proportions. As an unexpected encounter that changes the way people think, this is an iconic example that gets the job done in a single, brilliantly executed, shot.
Filter bubbles are not limited to online searches. You could actually find yourself in a comparable environment in the real world. Thinking back, there is a surprising amount that has been imprinted in our brains as part of our lifestyles. Upon hatching, birds recognize the first animal they see as their parent and forms an attachment in a process called imprinting. An analogous phenomenon can happen in the human world. Children tag along with their parents and are taught how to keep their behavior in check. Judging right from wrong is also often done by learning from surrounding people such as friends and family, frequently creating a set of unspoken rules within a particular group. Meanwhile, it is very possible for there to be discrepancies between unspoken rules from different groups, and large deviations can develop into conflict. This is exactly the way people from two societies with different rules might each argue that they are in the right. They both seem justified and cannot agree.
However, imprinting in birds has its own rules and there can also be exceptions. For example, chicks that see a human first will identify that human as their parent, but they will not start following that parent around unless the human crouches down when they walk. It seems a human is too tall for the chicks to still identify an upright person as the parent. Apparently it is also possible for chicks to imprint afresh if the timing is right, such as learning to follow an alternative parent figure when presented with one. Once learned and lived with for a long period of time, a rule becomes a habit that continues without question. But certain kinds of stimuli might actually work to subvert such blind habits, as shown by the Hack Market campaign.
Back Market is a major European marketplace for restored devices currently valued at 5.7 billion dollars, ranking 18th on Fast Company’s list of The World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2022. The refurbished products Back Market offers are devices originally returned for having a defect out of the box, or found with an issue before shipping. These are then repaired by the manufacturer to function properly, and their popularity is due to their slightly more affordable price tag. Being much more trustworthy in terms of quality and other factors compared to peer-to-peer secondhand marketplaces such as eBay, Back Market naturally appeals to consumers who wish to purchase hi-tech products at less cost.
However, Back Market’s goal was never to beat out rivals in the secondhand market, but to normalize sustainable consumer behavior. In other words, they wanted to overturn the image that purchasing a refurbished device was a “downgrade” that forced the buyer to compromise, or that there was some kind of negative tradeoff involved. The refurbished smartphones on Back Market are not only cheaper than new devices but also reduce your carbon footprint by an impressive 92%. The objective of their campaign was to prove that choosing their products is the “smarter option” so that people could be confident about opting to buy refurbished items.
In order to get this message across properly, Back Market hacked the way potential consumers shop in order to change their minds right before they were contemplating buying a brand new phone. The campaign was carried out in none other than the Apple Store, the “temple of new tech.” Back Market essentially infiltrated enemy territory and pulled a bold move that is satisfying to see. On April 22nd, when the world’s attention was on environmental issues for Earth Day, Back Market carried out its Hack Market campaign. Using Apple’s own mobile technology AirDrop and new iPhones in Apple Stores, the campaign delivered messages that urged customers to make the more environmentally friendly choice. Every time a potential customer picked up a product on display in the Apple Store, a bot would airdrop a video ad that urged customers to choose Back Market’s greener alternatives over new Apple Store products. It was a daring plan that went right into the heart of the store, transforming the display models into Back Market’s own advertisement medium in a store-wide hack. Messages said things such as, “The salesperson won’t tell it to you, but you can buy this model while reducing its carbon footprint by 92%. Go refurbished.” The numbers concerning environmental impact that they used in the campaign were gathered over two whole years, sourced from studies by ADEME (The French Agency for Ecological Transition) on the environmental impact of buying refurbished versus buying new. Messages that aim for impact generally tend to suffer from exaggeration, but Back Market’s attitude of getting concrete facts and grounding their message in those facts feels sincere and trustworthy. Their commitment to doing their research to make a watertight claim instead of citing convincing-looking but dubious data of the kind you see everywhere is worthy of applause.
As a result, this one-day-only campaign on April 22nd succeeded in reaching approximately 5,200 customers at six Apple Stores across Paris, Berlin, and London. The extraordinary plan was reported by media around the world, and garnered more than 0.1 billion impressions on social media. The Hack Market campaign not only succeeded in giving the brand exposure, but also raised the value of the refurbished product category. In the three countries where the campaign ran, interest in buying refurbished devices increased by an average of 27% and the word “refurbished” became a trending topic on Earth Day 2022. The take-home message here is the novel appeal and highly memorable effect of the campaign’s surprise element: receiving a “message from above” when visiting an Apple Store to buy a new smartphone and it turning out to be from a different company altogether. This again is a case where an unexpected encounter—the theme of this chapter—had a great effect on changing the way people think.
Actually, this kind of communication style that creates a surprise new encounter to encourage some kind of realization has existed in the real world for quite some time. Genre-wise, “stunts” that provide more spontaneous event experiences fit in that category. Another example might be the once wildly popular flash mobs that had people in streets or at weddings suddenly breaking out in group dance routines. As I mentioned earlier, people see promise in the unexpected. When stunts and flash mobs were emerging as new categories, the recommendation engines used by Amazon and the like were making huge leaps in accuracy, and “serendipity” had become a buzzword. These may be slightly outdated examples, but let’s take a look at a couple of particularly memorable flash mobs and stunts that took place in cities: “Dance” by T-Mobile in the UK, and the “Push to Add Drama” campaign that offered “a life with drama” by the American television network TNT to promote the channel’s launch in Belgium.
One ordinary morning, a single commuter suddenly started dancing in the station in the middle of rush hour. As if drawn to the dance, more dancing people joined in until there were about 300 people dancing in perfect unison by the time the dance ended. Stunned onlookers bobbed along to the beat, enjoying the moment, and impulsively shared the amazing event they were witnessing by phone and texts. This was, off course, a stunt pulled off by mobile communications carrier T-Mobile, with the tagline “Life’s for sharing.” Although the phone cameras of the time did not have quite as much functionality as the ones today, when this surprise event happened in 2009 the number of mobile phone subscriptions worldwide had reached 4.6 billion and smartphone usage was starting to rise exponentially with the release of the iPhone 3GS. With this very early delivery of “shareworthy” content as if foretelling the rise of social media, T-Mobile may very well have been responsible for creating the culture of sharing content.
The mind-blowing yet very entertaining video shot in London’s Liverpool Street Station recorded a whopping 13 million views on YouTube, and T-Mobile’s YouTube channel became the second most subscribed channel in the UK. Business-wise, T-Mobile’s stores around the country got a record number of customers that year. In addition, despite being the third most popular carrier in the UK at the time, the number of people who thought T-Mobile was the number one provider tripled thanks to the campaign, helping to boost the brand. Their sales also increased by an additional 52% compared to the previous year.
First and foremost, the aim of the event was to have people understand T-Mobile’s slogan, “Life’s for sharing.” A spoken explanation from the company would have been uninteresting and hard to understand, not to mention indirect. Instead, T-Mobile used a creative method to provide an experience that made people want to share the moment with a special someone, to incite a relatable “So that’s what that means!” moment. Although the moment itself was short-lived, the tactic made people want to and actually share their reactions with others, and expertly lured them toward that realization. The plan ensured relatability, the foundation on which communication today is built on, and even structured a proper narrative. “Narrative” is also a keyword that crops up frequently in Japanese these days, but it has always existed as a concept and as a method, and its effectiveness can be seen in this example. At a glance, this endeavor may seem nothing more than a fun gimmick, but it actually follows all the classic rules of communication, cleverly combining the spread of smartphones and other opportune moments in society, communication trends generated from relatability, and the self-propulsion of powerful content. Even today, there is a lot that can be learned from this campaign. In today’s online-centric society, information of all kinds exist in a careless jumble on the web, much of which is shared with little thought. However, this T-Mobile campaign makes us pause and think, reminding us that in sharing, the most important factor is what it is that moves you and who you want to share it with. That very real connection between people leads to building true communities, becoming a powerful force that is completely different from impersonal digital interactions.
Push Add to Drama
The other example is from the American television network TNT, whose brand promise is “TV worth talking about.” TNT is renowned as a quality entertainment channel that delivers inventive drama series, highly-rated movies, and deeply insightful true stories. To promote its launch on the cable network in the Flemish Region of Belgium, TNT aimed to create buzz with their “Push to Add Drama” campaign. Based on the TNT catchphrase “We Know Drama,” they designed an experience opportunity that focused on creating dramatic entries, as well as delivering a story that the participant would be compelled to talk about, instead of one that TNT would tell on its own. The result was a big red button placed in the middle of an exceedingly ordinary town square. A sign saying “Push to Add Drama” hung nearby. When curious people cautiously pressed the button, a dramatic and crazy scene unfolded right in front of them at dizzying speed. The button presser was drawn into the scene as if they were actually a character in the exciting drama. But even before the initial shock had time to wear off, the scene rapidly wrapped up, culminating in a huge drop curtain with the tagline “Your Daily Dose of Drama.” Although structured like a prank show, the scale and quality was that of a movie being filmed in real time. It was actually filmed too, with the resulting YouTube video immediately getting 10 million views, 100,000 likes, and 1 million shares on Facebook. The video alone is entertaining, like a teaser for a reality TV show, demonstrating TNT’s quality production ability despite it being a promotional video. Happening upon such a thrilling incident stirs excitement, impulsively making one want to share the experience. That simulated experience is surely enough to make people want to check out the channel at least once.
Both examples used what was new technology at the time in a way that linked to their taglines, and used narrative to build their brands. Mobile communications carrier T-Mobile’s “Life’s for sharing” and the drama channel TNT’s “Your Daily Dose of Drama” are both taglines that surely originated due in part to the rise of social media. Instead of forcing their own ideal image on consumers, each presented what kind of company they strived to be through an actual experience, creating a live narrative phenomenon that encouraged people to describe their own reactions to the experience with others. The force of such “in-the-moment” stories, or narratives, spread to social media when it was just emerging, possibly influencing communities of people with similar values to unknowingly result in new encounters. The current echo chambers and filter bubbles mentioned in this chapter are due in part to the way gathering information works online, but also in no small part to closed-minded views of recipients who only want to see news of a certain type. To some extent, everyone wants to avoid disagreeable information if at all possible, but perhaps that is resulting in information blocking. I am sure many people have experienced a situation where no amount of explanation could get a person to listen, but we must also not forget that getting people to listen requires some kind of hook or new maneuver to get people to notice in the first place.
People tend to feel relief when things are within their expectations. However, putting yourself in that kind of environment eventually leads to never taking your chances again. You lose the courage to venture into something new. Even if not that extreme, it at least makes you less motivated to do so. If you put your faith in serendipity, however, a seemingly expected encounter may present new value through some kind of action. And people may actually be waiting for such an opportunity in their subconsciousness. The world seems to have become a place where information comes first, with less opportunity to learn from experience. Resolving things according to an established plan is fine, but there is no room for innovation there. Just as the huge shift in society due to the COVID-19 pandemic changed people’s lifestyles, views, and values in big ways, perhaps in order to pioneer the future we must give in to the unexpected, and be of the mindset to strive diligently in the given environment so as to find a single ray of potential. We in the communication and media industries must provide opportunities that lead to that kind of change, and I think it is very important right now to deliver unbiased information to users, particularly digitally. I strongly believe that this may be one way to prevent the progressive fragmentation of the post-COVID world.
Finally, we created a simple search engine for experiencing the type of “unexpected encounter” described in this final chapter that combines Open AI’s ChatGPT and Google search API, which are currently trending. I hope you will try it out for an experience that offers a truly “unexpected” answer. What you might imagine from the answer is interesting, as is contemplating the concealed logic of why the answer is the way it is. It is always the unexpected happenings that change the world, and I believe a better future can be pioneered beyond.