When to be a sheep

“Why is everyone standing there?” and “Could it really be worth the line?!”

I overheard both these questions on a recent trip to Seattle. In both situations, I was feeling a bit like a sheep following its flock.

The first question came from someone walking by a group that had lined up – with phone cameras at the ready – to see the (in)famous fishmongers at Pike Place Market throw their customers’ orders around. The second question came in response to another line, one that came snaking out of a breakfast place called Biscuit Bitch. I was in both lines. I didn’t last long in the first one, but I waited about 45 minutes in the second.

See, I was kind of embarrassed to stand around waiting for a fish to go flying. I had no intention of buying a fish, so it seemed kind of wrong to gawk at the staff in hopes of taking their photo. Sure, my picture might get a bunch of likes on Instagram, but it would also mean I was standing in the way of people trying to get through a busy marketplace.

But biscuits covered in cheese and bacon? That, I could get behind. And my breakfast was delicious, even if I didn’t take a photo of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love looking at images online; I love seeing what my friends are doing on their vacations; and I’ve certainly been guilty of craving the dopamine hit that comes with posting my own photos – despite the downsides, which are dangerous enough that people who’ve made billions of dollars from these online platforms are now refusing to let their kids have access.

But I digress. I do actually believe we can use social media for its positive effects and suffer fewer of its consequences – if we also use our ability to think, and our ability to gut-check ourselves.

Standing in front of a group of fishmongers where no one was buying anything but everyone wanted the photo? My gut said that felt kinda yucky, and my brain said it was awkward at best. So, I left. Seeing the line for biscuits stretch down the block, my gut was disappointed…but mainly because I’m now talking about my stomach more literally, and I was really hungry. But my brain said to trust the reviews that the biscuits would be worth it, and they were.

Let’s consider another place where I saw people acting like sheep in Seattle. The photo for this blog post (see? I told you I’m not above taking and posting photos) is from the Gum Wall. According to Wikipedia, people started sticking gum on the walls of this alley in 1993. And by 1999, it had been proclaimed an official tourist attraction.

The first thing that comes to mind for me is…why? And that question is followed closely by “how?!”. As in: how did it happen that a few blobs of gum became a full-on movement??

Have you ever seen the “guy starts dance party” video? It shows that it’s one thing to start doing something different than everyone else. But the turning point comes when a second person joins in…then more and more people, until “every non-adventurous person in the crowd jumps in, because they’d be ridiculed if they don’t.”

Maybe we’re not fearing ridicule when we decide to capture a picture of a flying market fish, or when we want the taste of a really good biscuit, or even when we must absolutely have the memory of sticking gum to a wall coated in other people’s saliva. But I do think there’s some sheep-like fear that we might miss something.

Fortunately, that’s where we’re lucky to be able to use reason over instinct. Like I wrote earlier this year: we know humans have a tendency toward tribalism, but we also know that humans are capable of looking past it.

I’m not judging whether you would watch for the fish, eat the biscuit, or stick gum to the wall (okay, I’m kinda judging the last one). But I am urging you to think about why you’re standing in the line. I hope you’re aware of your own motives for wanting the photo. And I hope we’re all at least a little thoughtful about the consequences that can result when everyone wants the same photo. (Remember that story from last summer about the sunflower field?)

Sometimes, there are good reasons to be a sheep. In the context of this post, it’s probably worth noting that photos of the fish market are helping publicize a business now owned by its fishmongers. Buying a biscuit means supporting a fast-food joint that provides health benefits and retirement savings to its workers. And the gum? Well, that’s colourful and maybe even kind of fun. Maybe There's More


While we’re on the subject of social media, you know what would help me use social media less often? If you scrolled up to the top of this page and clicked “follow” on the right-hand side, to subscribe to this blog. Thanks!

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