Opinion

What’s the point of something like Mumbrella360, anyway?

Last year, a single-panel cartoon sold at auction for $175,000 – the highest amount paid for such an artefact in the history of all histories. 

Naturally, you’d assume it was an old DC Comics frame, or a Snoopy scribble – but it was actually a black-and-white cartoon published in The New Yorker in 1993, titled ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’ – which distilled the essential truth of online life. 

In 1993, the internet was so new that the cartoon’s prescient layers – i.e. the horrors it tried to warn us about – cannot have been intentional, and indeed were not. Peter Stiener recently told Heritage Auctions, who sold the original, his cartoon “wasn’t about the internet at all. It was about my sense that I’m getting away with something”. 

He continued: “I’ve had several checkered careers, and in every one, I felt like a bit of a fraud. I mean, I think many people have that syndrome, the sense that, yeah, I’ve got everybody fooled: ‘They think I know what I’m doing, and they think I’m good at this.’”

Basically, it was about imposter syndrome – the inherent irony of this being that Steiner’s own imposter syndrome was surely set to skyrocket once he got famous for a widely misinterpreted cartoon, assumed by many to be holding some cosmic truth.

Anonymity was both a feature and a bug of the early internet.  People – or indeed dogs – could find their tribe, to use a phrase that didn’t exist back then, while also keeping these explorations private. But this anonymity has led to cybercrime, doxing, misinformation, the mislabeling of a uni student as a terror suspect, and numerous other awful scenarios in which the basic lesson is that we can no longer trust in anything or anyone at face value. At least not on the internet.

The Atlantic has a podcast titled How To Know What’s Real, which explores “deepfakes, illusions, and misinformation”, but mainly grapples with the disconnect of living so much of our lives online in a space that is both performative and private; public and secret; where you move in silence while being surveilled more than Bin Laden. In this week’s episode, Danah Boyd, a partner researcher at Microsoft Research, explained how sociological work done during the rise of cities in the mid-20th century illustrates a similar vertigo to being thrust into the online world. Navigating the anonymous, highly-surveilled nature of it all. Being a familiar stranger. 

Bill Gates was actually the one responsible for the fame of that New Yorker cartoon, putting it in his own far-sighted 1995 book The Road Ahead. He paid Greiner the princely sum of $200 to reprint it, and recast its message as a warning of the unseen dangers of online life. The internet he was helping to build was still an anonymous one.

Facebook changed this all. The promise of Facebook was that, by forcing people to use their real names, everybody would play nice. It’s far easier to insult someone’s double-chin as CorganFan1979 then it is as Doctor Bill East, currently working at Royal Children’s Hospital, and part of St James Primary School closed Facebook group for parents. 

That was the argument, anyway. We all know that’s not what happened. Our behaviour became far worse.

Marc Fennell is currently on the promotional trial for his new podcast, which delves into the early days of the internet. A few weeks ago, when chatting to Mumbrella, he paraphrased an expert, who made the point: “We used to have fake names, but we told the truth about who we were now. Now, we all have our real names, but we’re all lying about who we are.”

If only there was an easier, more accurate, and personable way to connect with people in 2024.

During the week, we held our Mumbrella360 conference, where around 1,500 people who all largely work within a handful of interconnected industries spent two days at the same venue, meeting, eating, and watching presentations, keynotes, live podcast tapings, and round-table discussions. At the risk of sounding like an extra in Almost Famous, the vibe was electric.

The chasm between attending one of these conferences compared to watching a TED talk through a phone is a monumental one – it’s the difference between being in a packed cinema when a comedy is completely crushing, being part of that wave of uncontrollable laughter, and watching American Pie alone.

And that’s just the scheduled side of Mumbrella360. The actual juice is (was) in the interactions. People who had previously been email addresses suddenly had faces. People who had previously been airbrushed faces suddenly had real talking breathing ones. Proximity alone birthed a lot of off-kilter meetings, and a lot of future planning, and maybe changed the trajectory of some lives. It’s too soon to tell. People travelled from all corners of the country just to attend. That says something about the need to be in the room. To burst the bubble that forms around all of us when we don’t delineate from the same few people, websites, news sources. This is the bubble that results in bad decisions, and cloistered, calcified opinions. There was a buzz in the air at Mumbrella360. No bubbles – it was too windy on the harbour.  

Pip Edwards presented her first ever keynote speech there on Wednesday afternoon, stepping through the international success story of her P.E. Nation activewear brand. Straight away, I could tell she was a nervous public speaker. I cannot tell this about her from her Instagram wall.

As with anything that catches fire, timing and luck were major components in the fast success of P.E. Nation -– in her case, as COVID hit, active-wear became work-wear and fashion-wear alike -–  but she was ready for this societal trend, even if she couldn’t have predicted it.

Interestingly enough – especially considering Edwards’ success in the digital realm – very little of her business building happened online.

“I was not only working around the clock, but networking within the industry, attending the right events, and always mingling and building important relationships. It did not stop,” she recalled of building the company.

While she points out that, obviously, Instagram was big in establishing the brand from an advertising point of view, the actual connections that allow the cogs to turn behind-the-scenes were all made in real life. 

“Just a reminder, that social media definitely was around in 2015 and 2016, and it played a huge role in getting our business off the ground,” she explained, “but nothing could replace being in front of people, the right people at the right time, and holding face-to-face meetings, exchanging energy, and connecting with like-minded businesses. 

“Before the brand was born, and before it became fully global, I could sell a vision best in real life.”

“I.R.L”, she humorously elaborated, to a crowd largely made up of digital natives. “And in my mind, that still is the case. That’s become so transparent post-COVID. You’ve got to be front-of-mind and be amongst it. 

“I know it’s an old-school way of doing business, but it still really rings true. To be tactile, real, living and breathing the brand, giving it real life energy, really does personify and humanise the product, and that resonates all the time with people, leaving a lasting impact.”

Human connection. In real life. 

Remember Nathan Cavaleri? This kid?

When you last thought about him, he was probably still an 11-year-old child prodigy, upstaging Diesel on the set of Hey, Hey It’s Saturday, wearing a sleeveless denim jacket, shredding like a child possessed on a cherry red electric guitar.

Of course, given the march of time, he is no longer a kid – and given he was a better guitarist than Keith Richards by the time he hit high school, it’s perhaps not surprising he is still making music.

But the recent flood of realistic AI music generators has him thinking seriously about quitting the art form he has dedicated his entire waking life to. During the week, he posted what can best be described as a well-considered rant on Facebook.

He was railing against how uncannily AI can create a realistic facsimile of popular artists, creating a Green Day ‘song’ about chickens in a few minutes to prove his point. He was crestfallen to hear how good the music itself was, but the replication of the human voice was where it visibly upset him. “I didn’t expect what the human voice was going to do to me,” he says, lost for words.

“When I’m hearing a human, back at me, that’s been created by a robot, that for some reason freaks me out. I don’t know how to explain it. It feels dark.” 

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a robot.

Cavaleri’s uneasy reaction is to do with what used to be called ‘the uncanny valley’, where animators, back in the innocent ol’ 90s, were hitting a point with 3D rendering where they could finally make photo realistic fakes. 

Japanese gaming company Square designed a digital ‘actress’ named Aki Ross, who starred in the big-budget 2001 feature, Final Fantasy. Ross was intended to star in a number of films, thus finally doing away with the cost of actor’s trailers – but she looked ‘too real’ while also looking ‘too fake’, albeit in ways picked up by the subconscious and not able to be fully articulated. In short: It freaked people out, and the movie bombed. The uncanny valley is real – Pixar were deadly scared of it. It’s why Andy from Toy Story didn’t have the shape and dimensions of a real human. People viscerally react against it. We know it’s not real, but it feels real. It’s deep in our evolution to believe what we see is in front of us. It’s why movie-goers freaked out when they first saw a train coming towards them on the screen. They ‘know’ it’s not real, but their bodies don’t. And our bodies always betray us.

That’s how I knew Pip Edwards was nervous. That’s why a room full of people got to experience her personality in real life. 

Dylan Alcott was another of our M360 speakers who stressed the importance of having important conversations in real life. Not on screen. Not in emails. Not paying lip service to the idea of having important conversations, but having them. It is one thing to dispassionately read statistics about disabilities in between your morning coffees, but it’s quite another thing to be in a room with someone as they tell you about their life in a wheelchair. There’s a humanity that cannot be replicated in any other form. After his talk, Alcott got rushed by an audience who briefly morphed from conference attendees into N*SYNC fans. Sure, he is famous, and that’s part of it – but these people just wanted to shake his hand, to tell him he was great, that they listened, that they were paying attention. They wanted that human connection. They didn’t want his email address. 

I am a writer, and therefore clearly believe in the persuasive powers of the written word alone. Because of this, I have also had the exact same conversation with everyone I meet in real life who had only encountered me on the internet, and it inevitably features the phrase: “You aren’t how I expected you to be.” Whether it’s physical, to do with temperament, or simply because of my haircut, it’s always the same reaction. What is also true of these in real life encounters is that they shortcut years of emailing. I immediately feel either more or less fondly about someone after meeting them in real life. Everyone does. There’s a ton of research around the non-verbal cues that humans give and pick up -– in fact Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book about how they can negatively colour our interactions with strangers – and the common theory is that most of what we gleam from others is through these non-verbal cues, and — more crucially — most of this gleaming, we aren’t even aware of. To quote The Castle, it’s just the vibe of it.

Building relationships, whether they are intended to be ‘real friends’ or just ‘deal friends’, as author Arthur C. Brooks puts it, is best done in person.

COVID was the perfect testing ground for this. 

That’s why events like Mumbrella360 didn’t work remotely, when numerous companies, including ours, tried to recreate the IRL buzz of these conferences with a series of Zoom presentations that felt more like a forced work training video than a vibrant networking event. Coachella, possibly the one truly large-scale communion event America has left outside of Burning Man, sold online tickets one year – and it thoroughly missed the entire point.

Some things are best experienced in person. And the truly important things can only be experienced in person. 

And when you’re in the room, everyone knows you’re not a dog – no matter how good your disguise might be. So be truthful, and honest – and people will see who you are. And maybe, you’ll even become fast Facebook friends. But in real life.

Enjoy your weekend.

For more Mumbrella360 coverage:

To watch session recordings from Mumbrella360, head to Mumbrella Pro.

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Pip Edwards says ‘no one touches on the emotional cost’ for startups
It’s about shifting the needle’ – Dylan Alcott calls on industry to work with disability community
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