Have you ever heard of a lemming?
I hadn’t either until I played the video game GoldenEye for Nintendo 64 in 1997. They’re small rodents that typically live in very cold habitats. It’s said that every few years, enraged herds of lemmings band together, run off a cliff, and commit mass suicide. In the game, if you happened to kill yourself more times than anyone else, you received none other than the “lemming award.” For the next twenty years, I went on believing this story about lemmings.
Quite literally, it wasn’t until I went to research more about lemmings for this very article that I learned this whole story was nonsense. According to Thomas McDonough, Alaskan wildlife biologist, “It’s a complete urban legend.” It apparently dates all the way back to the late 1800s, but was popularized by Walt Disney in his 1958 documentary White Wilderness. That doesn’t really surprise me, especially coming from someone who once said, “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something then educate people and hope they were entertained.” Not a knock on Walt, just a glimpse into his conscious.
In 1985, Apple aired a Super Bowl commercial titled “Lemmings,” which played on the idea of lemming suicide. It actually performed terribly, as did the Macintosh Office product it was promoting. Here nor there, the lemming myth lived on. Over and over again, this misconception continued to spread throughout pop culture.
It’s been postured so many times as the truth that I thought it was true. I mean, it sounds like it could be true. I guess it was just easier to use this metaphor for herd mentality, conformity, and groupthink. It made sense.
But it’s this type of thinking thats created a massive cultural problem. One that extends much further than lemmings. Lemmings are just a micro example of a macro problem. I might even suggest a modern day epidemic called noise. Noise benefits from our yearning for more, faster, and cheaper. Noise benefits from our intrinsic desire for ease, comfort, and survival. Encouraging us to posture, fabricate, and entertain. Noise benefits from easy access to create and distribute content. Modern technology amplifies noise. Noise is not only our continual perpetuation of the lemming myth—consider the lemming myth itself. It’s likely to be the only thing you know about lemmings. It was for me. We want to feel like we know. We want to believe it. We want to defend it. Damn, confirmation bias. Clearly, at the expense of validity. The lemming myth is noise. It has shifted its way through society posturing as a fact.
Noise is all that overly certain, manipulating, and deceiving content. The content you hate. The content that tricks you. The content that seems to be everywhere. It might be entertaining in the short run, but the effects of noise run deep. Noise wears you down. Burns you out. It makes you lack trust in everyone and everything. Noise creates stress. Noise creates confusion. Noise is everywhere. Perhaps noise is why you’ve turned to yoga or pilates. Maybe alcohol. Maybe meditation. I think this is why culturally we’ve seen the rise of meditation. Too much noise. Noise is rooted in our insistence for more rather than less. Faster rather than slower. Now rather than later. Our society just keeps getting noisier and noisier. All at the expense of quality, and now we’re screaming to escape.
I was going to use the lemming story as an example of how we follow each other off a cliff and systematically create more noise. Until I found it was nonsense, and then I realized I would just be contributing to the noise. Something I openly did for years. Something we all seem to make our valuable contribution toward. Maybe this article is noise for you. I hope not.
But I thought, You know this lemming myth still does kind of prove my point. It’s a great fictional metaphor to show how humans don’t think when they’re in groups. They just do, even against their best interest. It also had me thinking and sharing the lemming suicide story since 1997. This itself is the very definition of noise. Garbage in, garbage out. Walt Disney, you’re an iconic entrepreneur. Apple, you’re a great company. GoldenEye, you’re a legendary video game. But even you’ve contributed to noise. In the end, I lost twenty years believing something that wasn’t even real. Twenty years of passing along a fable as the truth.
Okay, I get it. It’s only a harmless lemming story.
But, think bigger.
Here’s the heart of the problem and a potential solution.
It all starts with a quick business lesson. There’s a common issue that affects all commodity businesses. It’s known as a race-to-the-bottom effect. Each company continues to undercut the others on price alone until there’s nothing left. There’s no more profit for the either company. Plus, they had to lay people off, provide worse service, and create a crappier product just to meet market demand. The customer was only doing what customers do. They wanted a better value for the commodity, so they shopped the price. But now they’re pissed with a crappy product and crappy service. Racing to the bottom creates an environment where nobody wins.
We seem to be creating the same exact problem with information. The unlimited access to create and distribute content has truly commoditized information. Now we’re experiencing a race to the bottom. I don’t think I need to tell you, but we have so much information at our fingertips that we don’t know what to do with it. The real problem is we’re doing this at the cost of quality. We want quantity. More. Faster. Now.
We’ve openly created an informational environment that demands quantity over quality. It’s great that anybody can produce content. You wouldn’t be reading this if that weren’t the case. Unfortunately, there’s no regulation on quality. Worse, we reward for quantity. More. Faster. Now. Plus, every content distribution platform—Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, YouTube, whatever—rewards the content creator for quantity over quality. The more you post, the more exposure. Increase posting, increase relevance. Nothing regulates or rewards for quality. Unless you consider the almighty “like” or “follow” the quality police. Do I need to explain the problem with this? It’s just another glaring example of groupthink, conformity, and herd mentality. More likes beget more likes. More follows beget more follows. This doesn’t get at the heart of the problem. As a society, we seem to be valuing of quantity over quality.
This is a problem for everyone. Content producers are incited to spend less time with their ideas and to pump out crappy content. They need to meet consumer demand and remain relevant on their chosen distribution platform. On the whole, this creates worse content and more noise. The consumer just ends up frustrated and confused. All this makes for a horrible recipe. Unstainable, really. It’s an environment where nobody wins. An environment where we go on believing lemmings commit mass suicide every few years. I know I can’t change the world with one article. Only a lunatic would think that, but I’m hoping you might take a moment to think about this:
Am I valuing quantity or quality? Am I contributing to the noise?
The deck might be stacked against you. Our biological desires and technological preferences have not made this easy on us. We’re sort of in a pickle. It’s a predicament we all face: quantity vs quality. A predicament that we can either choose consciously or be swayed unconsciously.
My advice would be to opt out of the quantity game now. Start making a commitment to quality. A commitment to quality in all that you do. A commitment to never share that stupid lemming story ever again. A commitment to discomfort rather than comfort. Unease over ease. Validity over polarity.
As it turns out, you’re not a lemming, but you might be feeling the effects of groupthink or herd mentality.
This could be much, much worse. You might start to believe things that aren’t even real.