Spreadable media

Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Art at the University of Southern California, makes a case for “spreadable media”.

Jenkins doesn’t like the use of the word Viral in describing media. I must say a disease-based metaphor never sat well with me in describing ‘new media’. Neither did I like the concept of Web 2.0, a borrowed programming metaphor, that is still vague and inaccurate.

Our easy reliance on the word “viral” as if communication takes place by way of an infection, Jenkins explains, has two issues:

1. It reduces consumers, often the most unpredictable variable in the sender-message-receiver frame, to involuntary “hosts” of media viruses;

2. It holds onto the idea that media producers can design “killer” texts which can ensure circulation by being injected directly into the cultural “bloodstream.”


Douglas Rushkoff’s 1994 book Media Virus may not have invented the term “viral media”, but his ideas eloquently describe the way these texts are popularly held to behave. The media virus, Rushkoff argues, is a Trojan horse, that surreptitiously brings messages into our homes — messages can be encoded into a form people are compelled to pass along and share, allowing the embedded meanings, buried inside like DNA, to “infect” and spread, like a pathogen. There is an implicit and often explicit proposition that this spread of ideas and messages can occur not only without the user’s consent, but perhaps actively against it, requiring that people be duped into passing a hidden agenda while circulating compelling content. Douglas Rushkoff insists he is not using the term “as a metaphor. These media events are not like viruses. They are viruses . . . (such as) the common cold, and perhaps even AIDS” (Rushkoff, 9, emphasis his).

Media viruses spread through the datasphere the same way biological ones spread through the body or a community. But instead of traveling along an organic circulatory system, a media virus travels through the networks of the mediaspace. The “protein shell” of a media virus might be an event, invention, technology, system of thought, musical riff, visual image, scientific theory, sex scandal, clothing style or even a pop hero — as long as it can catch our attention. Any one of these media virus shells will search out the receptive nooks and crannies in popular culture and stick on anywhere it is noticed. Once attached, the virus injects its more hidden agendas into the datastream in the form of ideological code — not genes, but a conceptual equivalent we now call “memes” (Rushkoff, p.9-10).

The “hidden agenda” and “embedded meanings” Rushkoff mentions are the brand messages buried at the heart of viral videos, the promotional elements in videos featuring Mentos exploding out of soda bottles, or Gorillas playing the drumline of  In the Air Tonight . The media virus proposition is that these marketing messages — messages consumers may normally avoid, approach skeptically, or disregard altogether — are hidden by the “protein shell” of compelling media properties. Nestled within interesting bits of content, these messages are snuck into the heads of consumers, or wilfully passed between them.

These messages, Rushkoff and others suggest, constitute “memes”, conceived by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 as a sort of cultural version of the gene. Dawkins was looking for a way to explain cultural evolution, imagining it as a biological system. What genes are to genetics, he suggested, memes would be to culture. Like the gene, the meme is driven to self-create, and is possessed of three important characteristics:

1. Fidelity — memes have the ability to retain their informational content as they pass from mind to mind;

2. Fecundity — memes possess the power to induce copies of themselves;

3. Longevity — memes that survive longer have a better chance of being copied.

The meme, then, is “a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds” (Brodie, 1996, p. 32). They are the ideas at the center of virally spread events, some coherent, self-replicating idea which moves from person-to-person, from mind-to-mind, duplicating itself as it goes.

Language seems to ‘evolve’ by non-genetic means and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation (Dawkins, 1976, p.189).

Dawkins remained vague about the granularity of this concept, seeing it as an all-purpose unit which could explain everything from politics to fashion. Each of these fields are comprised of good ideas, good ideas which, in order to survive, attach themselves to media virii — funny, catchy, compelling bits of content — as a vehicle to infect new minds with copies of themselves.

We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep on humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban Legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information. (Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash, 1992, p.399)

Though imagined long before the rise of the Internet and the Web, the idea of the meme has been widely embraced as a way of talking about the rapid dispersion of informationn and the widespread circulation of concepts which characterize the digital era. It has been a particularly attractive way to think about the rise of Internet fads like the LOLcats or Soulja Boy, fads considered seemingly trivial or meangingless. The content which circulates in such a fashion is seen as simplistic, fragmentary, and essentially meaningless, though it may shape our beliefs and actions in significant ways. Wired magazine (Miller, 2007) recently summed it up as a culture of “media snacks”:

We now devour our pop culture the same way we enjoy candy and chips – in conveniently packaged bite-size nuggets made to be munched easily with increased frequency and maximum speed. This is snack culture – and boy, is it tasty (not to mention addictive).

This description of snacks implies that they are without nutritional value, trivial or meaningless aspect of our culture, a time waste. And if this meaningless content is self-replicating then consumers are “irrational,” and unable to escape their infection. Yet these models — the idea of the meme and the media virus, of self-replicating ideas hidden in attractive, catchy content we are helpless to resist — is a problematic way to understand cultural practices. We want to suggest that these materials travel through the web because they are meaningful to the people who spread them. At the most fundamental level, such an approach misunderstands the way content spreads, which is namely, through the active practices of people. As such, we would like to suggest:

1. That “memes” do not self-replicate;

2. That people are not “susceptible” to this viral media;

3. That viral media and Internet memes are not nutritionally bereft, meaningless ’snacks’.

The 8-part posts with embedded videos can be read at: MIT Convergence Culture Consortium or Henryjenkins.org

Yammer for the enterprise

Been fascinated with the use of Yammer, a micro-blogging tool that is making headway on the enterprise. These two presentations, one by BJ Schone and John Polaschek on Qualcomm and the second by Lee Aase of Mayo Clinic was useful:

Yammer 101
View more documents from Lee Aase.

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