The Squeakiest Wheel

The information we are exposed to directly shapes what we care about.

Most of the written and online information we engage with is filtered through another person or an algorithm. Their preferences and leanings are passed along with their text. The result is that it can be somewhat challenging to understand if your interests are truly your own. Did your chosen experience and reflection direct these ideas, or are they a product of exposure to what someone/thing told you was important? The answer is both, but I expect most of us to prefer more control over our individual interests.

I found this challenge to be highlighted well by Yuval Noah Harari near the end of his book Homo Dues

In the past, censorship works by blocking the flow of information. In the Twenty-first century censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information.

The torrent of novel, compelling, and seemingly relevant flashes of info we digest can easily drown out the topics we genuinely care for. What gets through the flood is going to differ from person to person. But there are a few general conditions that apply to most of us.

  1. Emotional engagement – Anger is one of the most powerful tools for capturing an individual’s attention. Other emotional work as well.

  2. What you previously paid attention to – Background experiences help embed the value to new bits of information by providing connections.

  3. What is being said most frequently – repeated exposure to the idea influences your likelihood of engaging with it and potentially believing it.

Elements 1 and 2 are impactful and are more important on the personal level because individuals likely have more control over them. But for the moment, let’s think about element three.

What is being said most frequently

The metaphor “The squeakiest wheel gets the grease” comes from an unclear origin when wagons were common forms of transportation. These carts had wooden wheels, which apparently would squeak when the lubrication wore thin. The one that made the most noise would be the one that drew your attention and, therefore, was most likely to get the grease.

Text, images, and conversations form the foundation of our social world. Given the connected nature of our culture, there is a tendency for ideas and concepts to experience tremendous growth in popularity over a short period. Everyone starts talking about them, giving them a perceived level of significance that extends beyond the actual value of the information. To illustrate this phenomenon, I’ve shared the plot below, which shows the prevalence of the term “blm” over the past five years.


(source Google Trends )

There are two remarkably sharp increases in the popularity of the term. The peak-and-bust structure of popularity highlights the quickness at which information can spread and dissipate. There was little chance you did not hear about the term blm in 2020. If we are to trust the data here, it’s also likely this is not a term you are actively utilizing (within Google products) in 2023. For a period of time, the term blm was a squeaky wheel; it drew out attention.

The goodness of squeaky

An idea being a squeaky wheel is not a good or bad thing. That’s up to the individual to determine. What is important is being able to take a step back and attempt to place the significance of the new information within your current understanding and interests. Without doing so, just through sheer repetition and exposure, you will likely find yourself drawn into caring about these squeaky wheels. Popularity and frequency of exposure are sometimes good metrics of significance, but they should never be the only metric to consider. Don’t ignore the squeaky wheels; take time to evaluate what that squeak tells you and make a choice.

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