The Power of Cool

Like a lot of kids growing up, I really wanted to be cool.

But despite doing all things the popular things other kids in my school did, like playing lacrosse, drinking, surfing, I struggled to find acceptance. For years I tried to fit in, to be part of the inner circle, but failed.

Eventually, I found acceptance in fringe groups. First it was online gaming, with Tony Hawk’s Proskater 4. I became pretty good at the game, so people respected me. The more people respected me, the more time I spent playing, and became one of the top players in the world.

Toward the end of high school I found myself spending all my time in the hardcore music scene, traveling to shows around Long Island. Hardcore is kind of like heavy metal, but more brutal. Here’s an example of a band I used to see and shattered my jaw at one of their shows. At first this music sounded like noise to me. The songs were about death and destruction. I didn’t care for it. But the people accepted me and as I developed a deeper sense of belonging, I slowly developed a love for the music that gave us the reason to gather.

Most wouldn’t consider these groups cool, but within those groups I was accepted, and so I found myself aligning my time, preferences and values with those communities.

Humans are naturally inclined to seek acceptance because we are social beings. According to the social brain hypothesis, our brains evolved as a result of our ability to form larger and larger groups. We’re wired to believe that those who are accepted will survive, and those who don’t will die. We all want to be cool.

There are groups that struggle to find acceptance in society. These groups usually have unpopular views that the rest of us aren’t ready for or willing to accept. Extreme examples are groups like the KKK and ISIS.

Then there are individuals who struggle to find acceptance in the world, much like I did as a kid. Perhaps it’s because of their views, their personality, where they’re from, the color of their skin…anything that makes them “different”.

Eventually, those fringe groups and isolated individuals find each other.

A group that struggles to be accepted is, socially speaking, in lower demand. So they place a higher value on getting new members and has a lower barrier to entry.

The person who struggles to find acceptance in society will be drawn to these fringe groups. It’s the only place they can feel cool.

It is for this reason that policies like the Muslim Ban drives more recruits to ISIS. People were shunned from society, and these groups are waiting with open arms, and a big bucket of cool.

Today these dynamics are playing out in the digital world.

We want to join and participate in online groups that seem cool, and give us the opportunity to feel cool. The internet has become where billions of people turn to find acceptance.

Now consider that thanks to technology:

  1. digital mobs can form overnight, organize en masse online and offline, polarizing issues and often shaming individuals, shunning them from society
  2. fringe groups with extreme views can make themselves look a lot larger than they are, by being a lot louder and capturing more of the media spotlight
  3. for those looking for acceptance, it’s easier than ever to get information on and connect with extreme groups

…and you can start to understand the state of our society.

The more you exclude people for who they are, the more likely it is they join extreme groups.

The more you attack people for their beliefs, online or offline, the stronger their bond becomes with their fellow community members.

I watch a lot of people writhe in pain watching some of the things President Trump tweets and says. They ask, “How could you still support him when he says stuff like that?”

The truth people love him BECAUSE of how much it pains the other side. He turned digital shaming into a weapon. The more he, and his followers are shamed, the more powerful they feel. This has always been his play. Speak to a group that feels shunned and make them feel cool. The more he could shock the left the more he could win the affection of the right. It doesn’t matter what he says as long as he gets a reaction.

Cool is a powerful tool. It can win presidencies. Neighborhoods become gentrified over a few short years as soon as they’re deemed cool. Restaurants thrive or die based on whether or not there’s a line at the door. Startups with a cool brand can take off before even launching a product. Cool determines what we wear, listen to, talk about and can even define our values and opinions.

If you harness the power of cool, you can harness the power of people’s minds for good. If you want to build a successful community, make people feel cool. If you want to kill a community, figure out how to make it uncool.

And if you’re trying to influence someone, start by accepting them as they are. Through broader acceptance, we can take away people’s inclination to do awful things. Turns out, if people feel accepted, they’re pretty open to changing their views.

P.S. Lots of cool people subscribe to my newsletter.

Thanks to Nathaniel Sokoll-Ward and Jonathan Howard for feedback on this post.