Writing by Bob Doto

The Five Levels of Hype

What is framing?

Framing is a way of organizing a discussion or argument. It gives people parameters, a set of agreed-upon guides to work within. When two people talk about "the metaverse" in terms of gentrification (see below), they're agreeing to look at the metaverse in a particular light, one in which the reality of gentrification is a given.

Framing can also be used in a dynamic, Judo kind of way. Ultimately, the person who frames an argument, the person who gets to say how we're gonna discuss Topic A, sets the tone. I look at framing in this way like playing cards at a friend's place. House rules.

In a less aggressive sense, framing helps us understand complexity. It helps us make sense of unfamiliar subjects and situations. In the case of mega-tech and social media, framing can help us see things that would otherwise go unnoticed.

"The Five Levels of Hype"

I was reminded of the importance of framing while reading "The Five Levels of Hype" by designer and researcher, Johannes Klingebiel.

Klingebiel states that although hype is regularly understood (and experienced) as "misleading bullshit," hype is actually a bit more nuanced. It's in understanding the nuances where illumination can happen.

On the positive, hype can act as a sort of "glue" binding developers, investors, and the public in a "shared vision," possibly leading to "self-fulfilling prophecies." That is to say, if you believe it, build it, and bash people over the head with how your thing is gonna change the world, there's a good chance it might actually happen.

The shadow, of course, is much more pervasive. The negatives of hype range from "overpromising" and "overselling" to "irrational exuberance" and "magical thinking."

Klingebiel's Five Levels of Hype frames the discussion by giving the reader a set of parameters within which to understand what they're experiencing when they experience hype. This has the added effect of helping people spot hype more easily, as well as rate the hype they are seeing.

Klingebiel's Five Levels of Hype from least to most egregious are:

Level 1: Basic Marketing
Standard marketing speak telling you how the thing will benefit you now.

"Why cut paper with handheld scissors, when you could use our gas-powered scissors?"

Level 2: Exaggerated Returns
The impact of the thing is overstated and focuses on the benefits you'll have in the future if you invest now.

"We're working on a prototype for gas-powered scissors that will revolutionize the paper-cutting world!"

Level 3: Utopian Futures
Focused almost entirely on the future, which, depending on the thing's success will either be utopian or dystopian.

"We're standing at a precipice when it comes to cutting paper. We believe our gas-powered scissors will ferry humanity across unforeseen dangers and into the promised land where all people can cut paper in peace."

Level 4: Magical Thinking
The claims about the thing's future importance are based almost entirely in fantasy land, where the list of problems that can be solved by the thing gets longer and longer.

"Gas-powered scissors won't just revolutionize the way you cut paper. They will fundamentally alter your appreciation of the written word, while simultaneously helping to end illiteracy, famine, wage gaps, and economic disparity."

Level 5: Othering Allegiance to the thing has become an identity in and of itself. Anyone who believes in the thing is of the living future. All those who do not believe in the thing are of the dying past.

"The GCS community is at the forefront of both technology and human development. In order to realize a decentralized future in which all people can cut paper in peace without Big Brother watching their every move, we must fight against those who wish to keep us in the past."

Real-world examples

When I first read the five levels I immediately started categorizing my experiences of hyped tech, spiritualities, and ideologies into these categories. Here's some of what I came up with:

Why is this helpful?

Because I am first and foremost interested in people and why people do things, I'm less interested in judging the various levels of hype. I have no problem with Kundalini Yoga going all in on Level 5, because I consider myself a relatively astute person who can navigate wild assertions and even participate in them as it suits me. But, I can also leave them when the time is right.

Instead, I think framing hype in this way helps me to see more clearly what I'm encountering, but more importantly allows me to make a choice about what I want to engage with. And, that, to me, is the whole point: having choice. Media literacy, as an effect of proper framing, can help a person choose to buy into hype when it serves them. But, they can also choose to untether themselves when it becomes a hindrance. Although it can be tricky to tell the difference, with enough practice a person can get good at being both _in_ the world of hype, while at the same time not being _of_ the world of hype. 🌴

#2022 #essays