What Comes After The Coherence Crash?

Our capacity to make sense of events crashed in 2020. New research shows how we coped, embraced a DIY ethos to find perspective.

Chris Perry
Dec 4, 2020 · 5 min read

On March 26, 2020, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) halted trading shares of Zoom Technologies. Volume in “ZOOM” transactions skyrocketed as did its valuation, increasing nearly seven-fold — from around $3 a share to more than $20 — in a month. The SEC’s statement said the company had no meaningful operations and had not reported financial results in five years. Somehow shares of a defunct company shot through the roof.

On the surface, this made no sense. Zoom’s growth was so extreme its market cap would eclipse the top six airlines combined. It was all there for traders to see, so why did regulators take action?

They had no choice. The SEC stepped in to protect traders from themselves. A growing segment of investors had repeatedly bought shares of the wrong stock, ticker symbol ZOOM versus high-flyer ZM. Herd mentality was so extreme the herd didn’t know what it was buying. Authorities needed to intervene.

Around the same time, telecom operators pleaded with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to act on a different issue. Arsonists were burning down 5G towers in Europe, and the phenomenon was moving into other parts of the world. In the bowels of Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, people fed on a cornucopia of unfounded claims that 5G technology caused coronavirus.

Attackers eventually torched more than 100 towers all over the world. To this day, there is no scientific evidence linking the pandemic to 5G.

A surge of disinformation inundated media and social networks in 2020. To fill the void news outlets didn’t, people turned to other sources. One unexpected “authority” to emerge — Steak-Umm. Somehow, it became an authoritative source on the most significant public health issue of our time.

Business Insider said the frozen meat maker became “the face of coronavirus media literacy.” Other search results from The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Washington Post, and Vox drew attention to Steak-Umm’s sage advice about dissecting truth from falsehoods.

In a year defined by confusion and irony, titans of the media world passing truth-building on to Steak-Umm is a hard metaphor to beat.

All is not normal. And it’s not solely due to global effects of coronavirus or culture wars sending waves of polarity and confusion throughout society. Coherence crashed following a confluence of world-changing events, the decline of trusted institutions, and technology accelerating faster than human sensibilities can keep up.

At Weber Shandwick, we began studying this looming crisis in partnership with outside collaborators almost two years ago. As part of that ongoing mission, we recently finished a six-month study to address the following existential question for citizens, business leaders, and communicators:

How will people make sense of the world in the face of societal crises, disinformation, and declining confidence in anchor institutions?

The study was designed in partnership with the Institute for The Future, a leading Silicon Valley forecasting non-profit. In collaboration Executive Director Marina Gorbis, and “Team Human” author Douglas Rushkoff, we conducted interviews with experts and ethnographic research in 13 cities around the world. We started with roughly 50 “signals from the edge” and boiled them down to focus on those with the potential to become fully mainstream behaviors.

Some went from fringe to front-page news in a matter of weeks as teams conducted field studies. Others remain somewhat nascent. All, seemingly below the radar, “quietly” and radically reordered how tens of millions of people connect with one another and find perspective.

The findings are stark: 2020 broke cultural and media conventions that help us make sense of the world, our communities, and ourselves. The before-and-after depiction below shows how deeply our frame of reference changed this year. Undercurrents of angst, technological empowerment, and forced change fast-tracked trends that otherwise would have taken years to take hold.

Dynamics decades in the making contributed to and accelerated the break. Contributing factors that have significant implications include:

  • Encouragement to bypass public authorities for answers and guidance on issues big and small.
  • Transitions from major social networks into private, special-purpose platforms.
  • Mobilized communities motivated by common interests in ways that aren’t always visible, at a scale hard to fathom.
  • Socially-constructed facts and realities trumping authoritative sources across media, government, and science.
  • The rise of making sense for each other when those we historically turned to lost our trust.

These are now fundamental factors shaping how people perceive and interpret identity, connection, events, and unknowns. The expert interviews and ethnographic research crystalized real-world cases of a great transition in development — behaviors that suggest what life looks like after the coherence crash.

You can check out the study highlights here.

So where do we go from here? How do we start to ask questions that address the depth and range of perspective-building and sensemaking required?

Let’s revert to ground-level changes that create the potential for such confusion and dynamic transition in our midst.

  • If we as citizens are encouraged to bypass public authorities for perspective… can organizations engage a more comprehensive array of sources or become a primary source of information on their own?
  • If individuals are increasingly moving from the public into private networks… how can businesses and marketers use these same networks to connect and empower people to make their mark on the world?
  • If we’re banding together in forums tailored to particular interests… can organizations enhance our communities with relevant participation and perspective?
  • If facts are socially-constructed versus authoritatively told… do we understand the means for how this happens, along with the dis- or misinformation risks that coincide with reality-building?
  • And if we use our collective voice to make sense for each other… can brands and institutions create platforms, services, or expert knowledge, packaged appropriately, to inform (or amplify) the collective’s voice?

We are in the midst of a fundamentally altered public sphere.

As the ways and means people make sense of the world continue to transform, there’s a new question that lies beyond “reach,” “awareness,” even “engagement.”

Are you prepared to participate in people’s lives, in ways they see the world? Coherence crashed this year. The future view will be quite different from the past.

Media Genius

Decoding media + culture change @ Weber Shandwick since 2018.