Don’t follow anyone

Some people like to accumulate followers. Not me. I hope I don’t have a single follower. I’d much rather have students of my work, as opposed to followers. A decade or so ago, the architecture of the internet took a turn, and gave birth to digital zealotry, people have become disciples of opinion instead of being students of fact. We’ve been gamed.

We are now judged on who we follow and how many followers we have. The way we quantify all that we do online and the language we use is leading us to a place which is both economically and politically dangerous.

For a brief moment, let’s review the definitions of the two words in question – Followers versus Students.

  • Follower: a person who adheres to another in regard to their ideas or beliefs, a disciple.
  • Student: a person who studies, investigates, or examines thoughtfully.

Upon reading that, I’m not sure why anyone would want to follow anyone online. Wouldn’t we all rather be students of the information we are exposed to or choose to consume?  Now, let’s imagine for a moment there are two books.

Author number 1 says: if you do what I say you’ll end up wealthy, healthy and happy
Author number 2 says: if you do what that first author said, you’ll end up broke, sick and miserable.
Which one should you believe? It’s pretty simple really. You should read both books and make up your own mind. This is the action of a student. The action of a follower, however, would be quite the opposite. A follower would most likely only take the advice of their favourite author, entrepreneur, technologist, CEO, politician, celebrity, you name it. Or even worse, some people just look at the metrics on the screen as a form of ‘social proof’ as to who is right. ‘Clearly the person with the most followers, fans, likes and reviews must be right, right? Anyway, who’s got time to do that research – better to  just go with the the crowd…there’s safety in numbers.’

This matters more than ever. Our world is quickly changing how it operates technologically, socially and politically. We happen to have a climate crisis that requires decisions based on scientific fact, not opinion. We need people to be students now, maybe more than we ever have in the history of our species.

People have become ideologues, blind fans of people and ideas, much like they might follow a football team. One-eyed supporters of what they can identify with, regardless of where the truth lies. The process is increasing the societal divide on important issues we need to resolve. And quite frankly, it’s an easy path to go down. I’ve even been a little guilty of it.

The technology around automobiles is one topic that people become very passionate about, regardless of their understanding of the facts. While it is clear the days of the internal combustion engine (ICE) are limited, what will replace it is not so clear. I’ve been such an evangelist of Battery Electric Vehicles, I’ve been quick to write off fuel cell Hydrogen Electric Vehicles as a valid alternative to the ICE. But just this week, I presented to the C-suite of one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers, who compete in all transport arenas. I had done my homework looking more closely at the tech and found out that the fuel cell Hydrogen Electric Car is in some ways better than the battery version. They are lighter in weight, they have a greater range, and can be filled much quicker than a battery EV can be charged. Even the most famous tech heroes of our time – those we trust to be the bastions of truth – can fall into zealotry. Elon Musk famously called fuel cell Hydrogen EV – ‘Fool Cells’. While I still think the Battery Electric Vehicle is better overall, I forced myself to dig deeper, and after investigating I learned both have advantages.

While the internet echo chamber can contribute to a post-truth world, we as individuals still have the choice to investigate the facts rigorously. In the long run, the scientific method ensures we’ll be beneficiaries of our own approach, regardless of what the sheep do.

Be a student, not a follower.