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How to Develop a Junk Content Filter In a world dominated by user-generated content, you've got to know what's real and what isn't.

By Steve Tobak Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


My wife sometimes says that marrying me was the biggest mistake she ever made in her life. She says it with a straight face. Does she really mean it? Honestly, I have no idea. I don't think she knows either.

But here's the thing. After 25 years, she's still here. That sort of speaks for itself, n'est ce pas?

We often judge people by what they say, but what they do is far more telling … and a far more accurate representation of what's really going on inside their heads. That's as true in our business relationships as it is in our personal lives.

Meanwhile, every day we generate, consume, and respond to enormous amounts of written content and communication. But just how much of it is genuine? Some of it's just for show or to get attention. And sometimes we write things we don't mean to avoid the truth or cover up how we really feel.

If that boggles your mind, it should. Verbal communication between people is perplexing enough, even when it's coming out of your own mouth. It's far harder to determine whether written communication or content is genuine, how it's truly intended, and what people mean by it.

Since so much more of our communication is now done in writing and at a distance than ever before – a logarithmic increase in just a few short years, I suspect – it's that much more challenging to comprehend what people really mean and how you should respond, if at all.

Related: How Innovative Companies Push the Limits and Accomplish the Impossible

And yet, so much depends on our ability to cultivate personal and business relationships. Clearly, the solution to this dilemma is to develop your ability to discern genuine intent from written communication, to become a sort of "content whisperer."

Let's break this down into three general categories.

First, users generate an enormous amount of online content to draw attention to themselves, whether they're consciously aware of it or not. They usually employ one of two methods: either communicating what they think people want to hear to gain favor or making controversial statements to appear edgy and elicit a response.

Whether the feedback is positive or negative, it's ego or self-reinforcing. So as far as your limbic system – the part of your brain that reinforces social behavior – is concerned, mission accomplished.

A second category of blogs, social media, and email content is specifically designed to get you to click to generate ad revenue, subscribe to a service, or buy a product. Interestingly enough, the same two methods are usually employed: attempting to resonate with the audience or shocking them into taking action.

In this case, you essentially have a social media or content marketer taking the place of the brain's limbic system. And based on the responses it receives, the system makes adjustments to maximize response from subsequent communication.

Now here's the interesting part. For both categories, pretty much any kind of response – email, retweet, like, comment, share, follow, whatever – satisfies the originators limbic system, marketing strategy, or both, as the case may be. And since the response is voluntary, it's all good, right? Not exactly.

The question is, is your response entirely voluntary? The answer, I'm afraid, is that it's not. To a great extent, it's just your limbic system injecting your brain with powerful neurotransmitters that make you feel good when you connect with others. It's part of an ancient survival instinct that rewards social behavior.

That's why humans formed tribes, cities, and civilizations: safety and strength in numbers. Social behavior is beneficial to the survival of the individual and the species so our limbic systems reinforce it.

Related: 5 Skills You Must Develop to Succeed in Business

And get this: That part of your brain hasn't evolved in millions of years. It's so primitive, in fact, that we share essentially the same system with nearly every creature on Earth. And the same process is at work when you generate, consume, and respond to online content and communication.

It's just like the classic behavioral conditioning "Skinner Box" experiments that train lab mice to press a lever to get a food pellet whenever a light comes on. Unfortunately, you're not the experimenter in that analogy. You're the lab mouse.

And while the second category of content does have a marketing component that can benefit the originator, all your retweets, likes, shares, and comments don't benefit you one bit. You're just pressing a little lever to get a neurotransmitter treat.

To summarize, those first two categories include the bulk of all online content and communication. The first category is entirely worthless for both generator and consumer and, except for the rare case that an actual business transaction occurs, so is the second.

What's left – which isn't much – is more or less the only online information and communication that's genuinely beneficial and worth generating, consuming, or responding to. Congratulations. You are now officially a content whisperer capable of filtering out all that junk content. Go ahead and reward yourself with a tweet.

Related: 10 Timeless Qualities of True Leaders

If you liked this article, you'll love Steve's new book, Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur, available everywhere.

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at, where you can contact him and learn more.

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