Friends and noses

The future is senseless - literally

The long-term impact of Covid - on our friends and our noses. Plus, recapping recent cameo appearances on misinformation, Amazon, and branding.

What has Covid done to our friendships?

This article describes the surprisingly difficult process of making friends as an adult. It boils down into optimism and perseverance. Keep showing up, stop assuming the worst, and say hi. There are also some practical tips on opening conversations. If this feels a little twee, well, it might be - but there’s some grim context behind it:

meta-analysis by researchers in Germany published in 2013 combined data from 177,635 participants across 277 studies, concluding that friendship networks had been shrinking for the preceding 35 years. For example, in studies conducted between 1980 and 1985, participants reportedly had four more friends on average, compared with the participants who’d taken part in studies between 2000 and 2005.

The article goes on to cite various studies that link social connectedness with general happiness. And, similarly, we know social connectedness is a massive part of resilience as well. Friends are a boost, but they’re also a safety net.

I’d like to see more research on how this past year has affected friendships. A quick scroll through social media (or visit to r/relationships) shows the incredible strain that a year of anxiety has put on people’s connections with other people. For some, it’s the close quarters. For others, it’s the distance. Pick your poison.

This isn’t idle curiosity. I am concerned about the long-term impact of this socio-cultural ‘gap year’. Without the ability to ‘show up’ or to ‘say hi’, have people been able to make new friendships?

Communities and events have both gone the extra mile in ensuring that things still happen - virtually, at least - but even the best-run virtual event still removes the randomness and the proximity that are necessary for introduction. The combination of shared space, shared interest, a bit of privacy, and the time to puzzle it out.

The imminent re-opening of society has been a theme to a lot of conversations I’ve had this week. During the obligatory lockdown status report, one old friend put it, “I’d just love to see someone I don’t already know.”

You can start to understand why activities such as gaming have been so incredibly important during lockdown. It puts people together with that combination of interest, shared purpose, and time-commitment.

This is senseless violence.

Another long-term repercussion of Covid - we’ve now got a vast swathe of the population that can’t smell. Why does this matter?

First, there are a surprising amount of everyday cues that are, uh, olfactory. I can’t tell when my child has pooped. Which is pretty funny, but also… not great. Diapers have visible signalling built into the product (color changes, etc) when kids pee, but they rely on the (normally) overpowering stench to let you know when your kid is wandering around with a sackful of turds. Ditto: cats. Ditto ditto: things like smoke. I’m now neurotic about candles.

Second, there are a lot of scent-related luxuries. My taste for wine is totally gone. It all tastes like garbage now. My taste in coffee and whisky is still there (thank god), but very different, which has led to some strange ‘re-’discovery. Anne has a fascinating collection of perfumes, and we’ve been doing some sniff-testing: they have to be really strong for me to notice, and what I do pick up is very different from their actual ‘notes’.

Third, a general scrambling of my behaviour. My spice tolerance is higher, which is good, as my food needs much more flavour now - whether that’s heat, salt, or sugar. I’ve been taking walks every day during lockdown (when permitted), and it is a little disconcerting not to smell the same things about the places I go. I still BBQ regularly - it is a core part of who I am! - but it is a different process now. I can’t smell the smoke, or even the cooking meat. So I have to keep a closer eye on it throughout.

According to some studies, loss of smell occurs in average of 41% of Covid cases. Interestingly, it is more prevalent in younger people. It comes back for many - hopefully all of us? - but the long-term impacts are still out there. There have been over 4m Covid cases in the UK, almost 30m in the US, 120m globally. That’s a mass of people with changed senses, shifting behaviours, and new needs. I’m curious to see how some of these markets and products adapt.

Misinformation, branding, and the dog that didn’t bark

I’ve been in advertising almost twenty years, and finally made The Drum! Twice in one week, no less! The all-seeing eye of the trade magazine turned, briefly, to misinformation, and I got to chime in - briefly, and then, alongside some peers, at length. At this rate I’ll make Campaign by the time I retire.

If I sound a bit wary, well, I am. I am elated about the near-universal recognition that misinformation is, in some part, a communications challenges, and communications experts should be consulted. However, misinformation stems from an erosion in trust, and mistrust is a wicked problem. We’ve already seen misguided, if well-intended, communications efforts in this space that have exacerbated this (and other) problems. A genuine need for communications support should not be mistaken for the next agency gold rush.

Meanwhile: my two most recent columns in The Bookseller are on a theme. The first was a thought exercise, exploring one of last year’s most interesting rumours. Why didn’t Amazon buy Simon & Schuster?

My intent was - spoilers! - to get publishers thinking about the intangible value they provide beyond ‘putting books out there’ - something Amazon is perfectly capable of doing without them. Amazon’s historic acquisition strategy is about finding new data, expanding their audience contact points, and accumulating existing brand equity. What does it say about Big Publishing if Amazon isn’t seeing any of those? HMMM.

The second column looks at the last, but not least, of those intangibles: the brand. What is a publishing brand, and what value does it add? Should publishers be paying more (any?) attention to that formless, intangible, incalculable, and (largely) undernourished asset. HMMM INDEED.

…and don’t put the cartridge before the horse

The artist and author Jeffrey Alan Love now has a newsletter, and it is off with a bang. He’s speaking about a fancy pen:

What I found, the more that I drew with it, is that I became seduced by the line and stopped seeing what was in front of me. I let the line dictate the drawing instead of seeing what was truly in front of me. I was blinded by a beautiful line. So now I’m drawing in my sketchbook with a normal ballpoint pen, learning to see again, because that has become more important to me now than that oh so seductive calligraphic line.

But the metaphor is, of course, brilliant. Sometimes we get so seduced by our tools - be it a fancy pen or a new social analytics platform - that we have a tendency to adapt the solution to the process, and not the other way around. Going back to basics is, as Love concludes, the best way to get a clear view.

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