Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Spreading Against Your Will

The “viral is a dumb name for media that spreads” is hardly a new conversation, but Faris summed it up quite nicely the other day, explaining that viruses spread without the consent of the host. Viral marketing, on the other hand, is different. “LOTS OF PEOPLE CHOOSE TO PROPAGATE IT. It requires people to do something. Voluntarily. For their own reasons. It is not simply a new way to broadcast our messages through populations. It suggests we push, when in fact they pull.”

But then I read something about the Sarah Palin turkey murder interview and got to thinking. New York Magazine’s Daily Intel blog wrote that the cameraman told Palin and her aides of what was going on in the background and they said, “no worries.” As the Daily Intel wrote, “It’s been speculated that Palin would have trouble staying in the national spotlight until 2012 while holed away up in Alaska, where news travels by sled dog and darkness shrouds the land for months at a time. But this video proves that Palin knows exactly how to continue to attract attention: Take a normally mundane gubernatorial event like a turkey pardon, Palin it up with something irresistible to the elite east-coast liberal media, and watch the coverage follow.”

This, I’d argue, is actually closer to the way viruses spread. People and media are sharing this video not because they like the message, but because they’re so amazed by what’s going on. It’s almost like they’re doing it against their will. (As my sister put it, it’s kind of like watching a car crash.) Think of political combat generally and this is how things work. When the republicans started the Bill Ayers thing, for instance, the hope was that they’d get everyone talking about it. Even the people who were saying how terrible it was to try and connect Obama and Ayers were actually pushing forward the republican cause, further cementing a connection between terrorism and Obama.

I recently watched Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story and this is precisely the kind of politics he created. One of the more famous moves was in making Willie Horton a household name (here’s a clip from Boogie Man about it). While the world argued about the ad, the final outcome was that, as Atwater had apparently predicted, the country knew Horton’s name (and presumably connected it with Dukakis) by the end of the campaign. The Obama/Muslim connection was similar in that even when people on the left argued how ridiculous it was they were still spreading the idea.

Basically the best way to fight this kind of behavior is to not talk about it. But most people can’t help themselves. To give one more political example, remember September when everybody could talk about nothing but Sarah Palin? While democrats were panning her as an inexperienced choice they were still pushing her further into the collective consciousness (and I would guess making her seem more experienced: After all, how could you be famous and inexperienced?)

In a non-political sphere, think about Wired’s blogging is dead article and the firestorm it created. Most of what I read was disagreeing with the idea, but in the process they were also strengthening the meme (both from a pagerank and collective consciousness perspective). While lots of people opened their posts with something to the effect of “I don’t even want to respond to this,” they followed it with a response, thus justifying it as a worthwhile bit of thinking (inasmuch as it made them feel compelled to write a retort).

Anyway, all of this is to make the point that while I do think viral is overused in marketing terms, I also think there are viral ideas that spread despite their hosts best effort not to push forward the idea.

Oh, and happy thanksgiving.

Update (11/29/08): My buddy Eric wrote a very interesting response to this post over at his blog. It’s specifically about how even if you disagree with something you may be accepting the framing of the issue and thus pushing forward the idea. Well worth a read.

November 27, 2008