A few years ago I was sat with a young Chinese intern, brimming with confidence and bundled up in k-pop culture: blue hair, retro t-shirt, weird socks. I asked her to walk me through Chinese social media, a reasonably big ask if ever there was one.
After some discussion, I then asked her to look over another channel and give her opinion: what did it look like through her blue fringe?
Rather bland, as it turned out.
"It's just like advertising," she said, bluntly.
"Just showing off what they do over and over again. 'We did this, we do this' over and over. It's kind of like: 'Well ok, thanks'. It doesn't make me reflect, or make me want to do anything."
Yes, right. Hm.
I loved the clarity of her delivery. Older people, I include myself in that group I suppose, often sit in meeting rooms talking about analytics and templates. It sounds professional and businesslike. Scientific, almost.
We search for 'signal' - little numbers on spreadsheets that may tell us what works and what doesn't.
Less often do people sit in meeting rooms and talk about what actually moves people: art.
Lillian, the intern, showed me examples of stories that worked well with young people in China.
They were poems, short stories, photo essays, many made by young people who were trying to express themselves. These little pieces of art might not have been perfect, but they were real.
It's very hard matching messages to audiences. It can often seem like we're trying to serve salad while our potential customers are asking for pizza.
And then, sometimes, we'll try and make our salad look like pizza. We might even get away with it once or twice. But it's not sustainable.
People smell salad-pizza a mile off.
Step onto the gap
We don't want to be too technical, we say, because that'll isolate audiences. We can't be too simplistic though, because we won't get our main message across. So we get stuck in the middle.
The middle is safe. It's calm there, it offends no one.
The message becomes supermarket-brand vanilla ice cream with Ben and Jerry's Cookie Dough on the one side and Haagen Daz Strawberry Cheesecake on the other (I'm doing well with my food metaphors today).
This brought to mind an excellent essay by Thomas Bevan on avoiding the middle, and the popular Midwit Meme.
Now, this meme can be very problematic on several levels but I, like Thomas, don't have the time to go into that (and nor do you). I'm just using it to illustrate a point, so please don't take this too seriously.
(The irony of having to put a disclaimer on this because the meme is perhaps one of the spicier, least middling things on my website isn't lost on me...)
So, this Midwit Meme shows the standard IQ distribution curve, starting with an unusual looking like chap who seems happy enough on the left and finishing with what looks like a very smug Jedi on the right.
In the centre, crying, is the midwit. The place, says the meme, we don't want to be.
"In the centre of the bell curve you have the emblem of the majority of humankind- a gritted teeth, skinfade haircutted cartoon man whose bloodshot bespectacled eyes are crying tears of pure frustration at the injustices of his life." - Thomas Bevan
Now I'm not talking about people and audience here. The midwit in this case is the messaging: social media posts, blogs, articles, videos... You name it.
I'm talking about how we often try so hard to find balance that we begin to replace colour with different hues of grey.
And my message here is that being in the middle leads to tears. The middle leads to songs called The Middle by middling rock bands called Jimmy Eat World. Nobody wants that.
Being neither here nor there is worse than being there, in the middle.