iterateIt was once the promise of the internet: to democratize all communication, to give anyone who wanted it a newspaper, a record label, a book publishing house, a talk show or their own soap opera.  No longer would those in charge of the capital be the soul gatekeepers to new artists, writers, commentators, authorities and entertainers. You don’t need a few million in the bank to own a newspaper, anyone can just roll down to the library, logon, set up a WordPress account and start their own blog for the price of nothing.

When it began to seem as if anyone could become a celebrity, some of the most established media gatekeepers realized how to capitalize. That’s when Honey Boo Boo, wealthy housewives and melanin-enhanced Jersey residents began appearing on our TVs. Everywhere. Simply because they were “interesting” (to put it kindly).

If everyone can be a celebrity, then maybe everyone actually is a celebrity.

So in a world where fame is no longer determined by talent, wealth or genius, how does one person, idea or product stand out from the crowd? The answer is to learn the technology that underpins the internet and use it better than others. For example, if you were careless last holiday season, you may have unintentionally subscribed yourself to a tens of email newsletters. It’s a common mistake, as each sign-up surely offered some discount or offer that seemed incredibly attractive at the time. So with hundreds of weekly, and in some cases daily emails hitting your inbox, desperate to get you to buy something, some succeed where others don’t. Why do some emails get opened 20% of the time while most are lucky to see 5% open rates? In this landscape, who becomes the celebrity when all players have access to the same email tools, the same Photoshop filters and the same words?

Read more about the Post-Optimized World

Now instead of your inbox, consider a search engine. Why, when you search “lawyer” on Google, does one lawyer end up at the top of the listings above all others? Lawyers really can’t talk about their cases, they have little content to show you, and they usually say the same things. Chances are, most of the sites in the top 100 results were built by the same people. But Google made a judgement and put one above the others, not based on that lawyer’s win record, their commercials, or their school. Google picked that one lawyer and made him or her a celebrity. But why?

The answer to both the email newsletter and the lawyer are the same: They were properly optimized. More to the point,they were better optimized than their competition.

We already live in a world where “best” is a function of how well the player plays the game. The lawyer who wins is the one who learns best how Google thinks, and builds their almost identical site to be more palatable, more understandable and more  appealing to Google. To our clumsy user eyes, the difference between the #1 result and the #9 result may be invisible. To Google (and to those SEO professionals who play this game all day), the differences are obvious.

groundhog dayIn the email newsletter, the email that gets read is the one with the best headline. That’s not an accident or solely the skill of a copywriter, it is the outcome of testing dozens or even hundreds of subject lines on small groups of people until the best one was selected and applied to the majority of subscribers. Subject lines, pre-headers, email content, pictures, offers, even the color of the button that leads you to the site is subject to this kind of scrutiny. Iteration after iteration leads to the “perfect” email, in the same way that Bill Murray iterated each day in Groundhog Day until he got it right.

Think of it like this. There’s a cake bake-off. But you have learned that the sole judge loves vanilla and is allergic to almonds. Do you bake a solid vanilla cake or an amazing chocolate cake? You have learned the judge’s preference, so you respond accordingly.

And who could have an issue with any of that. These are the rules of the game, so we play the game to the best of our abilities. But what happens next? What happens when the process of optimization becomes democratized as well?

We’re already seeing it. Google SEO Book and you’ll find thousands of offerings, with only a small percentage being sold by Amazon. Anyone who has learned a single optimization trick is trying to make $20 selling that trick to other collectors of tricks. Nothing is a secret for very long, especially with a million optimization professionals testing ideas daily to see what they can learn, even about how a black box search engine like Google makes its decisions.

What happens when we all know all of the tricks and are applying them equally? What happens when we’re all as optimized as we can be?

The fear is that a moment will come when we are all as optimized as humanly possible, and in-turn we all end up looking and sounding the same. Imagine if every man could optimize what he looked like, there would be a world of dudes who looked like Ryan Gosling or Thor. How would one pick from a thousand Ryan Goslings, Scarlett Johanssons, Calvin Johnsons or Kate Uptons? What happens when all our music sounds a certain way because scientists have figured out what our ears and brains like to hear (no really, people are doing exactly that)? What happens when all the food tastes very similar because we’ve figured out that some magic combination of sweet, fatty and salty make our tastebuds go crazy (again, done)? Do you get the feeling that every character on TV can be reduced to one of ten or so character types? Optimization.

Have you noticed how many more  people in commercials are of indeterminate race? They all look like they came from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s family reunion. People look less wholly hispanic, asian, black or white anymore, they look as if they could be of any or many races. For a single message, multiracial characters allow the commercial to potentially reach more audiences. This allows the same person to appeal (and by appeal, we mean be relatable) to people of different races. Marketers are optimizing actors for commercials in order to appeal to a wider target, and multiple demographics.

The history of technology has alternated between appealing to the human, appealing to the computer the human uses and then appealing to the human again, in an ongoing pattern. Initially the internet was crafted by geeks in the basements of server rooms to appeal to other geeks like them. Then the internet was built around the browser and what the browser could do (remember “Best viewed in Netscape?”). Then the browser became more standardized and we began to write online for ourselves again. Until finally, Google came and taught us that if we wanted our writing found, we had to write for Google.

So what’s next in the post-optimized world? It’s coming up fast, as people will get tired, bored and annoyed by the sameness of it all. What happens then?