September I 2008

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris

From Democrats, to democracy to Internet demos (δήμος)

For many years, I have worked with a small television on my desk, usually with the news – CNN, BBC or a local channel – burbling along, barely audible. I rarely pay much attention; I have a neuron or two that monitors the TV and lets me know when something important is happening. These neurons bypass the daily bumph, the feel-good features, the glop that turns any woman into a supermodel and the latest must-have technology that does something no rational person really wants. If something important happens, like 9/11, my watch-neuron rings an alarm

A few days ago, with the Democratic Party National Convention rolling along in the background, I got a wakeup call from my watch-neuron. A participants on one of those panels of distinguished figures, academics and reporters, that re-hash the obvious or speculate knowingly about things none has more direct knowledge of than I do, spoke of online, viral, political marketing.

Viral marketing refers to marketing campaigns that depend upon word of mouth or the Internet – especially via social networks – to spread information, stories, product promotions and such in much the same way viruses, both human and computer, propagate. Viral marketing campaigns are designed to be passed voluntarily from person to person. The information might be in a song, a video clip, text messages, an advertisement, a game and image of some sort – anything that conveys an idea. What caught my attention was a statement by one of the panellists that, on average, people pass along good news, a favourable review – whatever they agree with – to three people. On the other hand, when people do not like something they tell eleven other people.

I don’t know if the ‘3 – 11’ rule was discovered by serious researchers, or if someone invented it on the spur of the moment to win an argument. When I mentioned the rule to a friend that had phoned me – a marketing type, not much given to scholarly pursuits or reflection – he quickly said, ‘sure, everyone knows that’. I didn’t, and I was amazed that he did. It made me wonder if that statistic itself wasn’t a bit of virally propagated misinformation.

Correct or not, the ‘3 – 11’ rule sounds like it should be right, so people believe it – they want to believe it – and, besides, it’s a good line; it sounds scientific enough to sidetrack a discussion when you run out of facts.

The panel’s ‘expert’, explained that conservatives were using the Internet and social networks to accelerate the spread of viral marketing – especially negative marketing – aimed at Obama, the Democrat’s nominee for President of the United States. He was probably right, at least in this.

As they spoke of negative marketing, I thought of the ways technology influences so many aspect of our world, including the election for the President of the USA and I remembered something I had read, somewhere, earlier during the week. I still don’t remember where. It was one of those interesting things you come across while chasing another subject, but have no time to look into it. It had something to do with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and cultural convergence.

A little Googling got me to the site of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium.

Cultural convergence, as the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium (C3) describes it, is a marketing-related phenomenon, “an emerging pattern of relations bringing together entertainment, advertising, brands, and consumers in creative and often surprising ways. These new relations are underpinned by three key concepts: transmedia entertainment, participatory culture, and experiential marketing”.

The site surprised me; MIT C3 site’s emphasis on marketing, branding and advertising surprised me.

I had expected MIT would have adopted a somewhat broader-based cultural/social/ political/economic approach to the question. They have identified a major technology-driven cultural trend, but are looking – or so it seems – only at the technology, techniques and business implications of this sociological revolution.

MIT has done some amazing work on language sciences, cognitive science, especially during the Steven Pinker era at MIT, and other more human-centred studies, including at its famous Media Laboratory. Despite this, MIT has always been better known as a technology and business (Sloan School of Management) centred institution, so the C3 emphasis might be a reflection of what is commonly perceived to be MIT’s traditional world view. Or is it?

I suspect that MIT’s investigations cover a much broader universe than its avowed marketing / advertising focus.

The political campaigns in the USA have shown the convergence between technologies, content and the de facto sort of social and political engineering, although just beginning, is a powerful force. The campaign inspired viral messaging also shows us that the C3 vision is correct, but very short-sighted; the convergence of technologies with media is much more than a marketing phenomenon, just as viral messaging is more than just a marketing tool. The convergence of technology with such socially manipulative tools as viral messaging has the potential to change the course of society, to change governments, to change the world.

Today, converged, viral, messaging is powerful, but still primitive. It uses social networks to spread commercial messages, political messages, spiritual messages and even the words of terrorist and hate groups. As primitive and inefficient as it is, it still gets the message across. It works well spreading messages about the supposed sins, foibles, weaknesses, questionable activities and questionable past of political candidates – the 3 – 11 rule. I expect that before long – and with the help of groups such as C3 – the effectiveness of technology-enhanced positive viral messaging will improve, although given human nature I doubt it will fully rival that of the negative.

I wonder if those studying media/technology convergence and the tools it enhances, such as viral messaging, are ‘in denial’ regarding its potentially broader impact, or are just trying to downplay the Orwellian overtones, the connotations of mind control, that hover over any use of technology to convince people, to instigate mass movements or to manipulate popular perceptions. I suspect C3 chose to speak only of advertising, branding and marketing for reasons such as these.

Perhaps C3 is right to be careful about the way it presents itself; when I first looked at their site this week, I was deeply suspicious about the possible exploitation and misuse of viral messaging. Sure, the potential exists, but closer examination of the danger took the edge off my worst fears. Unlike in the past, when the state or a few well-defined media groups controlled the means of mass communication, the Internet is open to all and notoriously hard to control. Even individuals can easily – at no cost – use their own Internet-powered messages to counter-attack malicious attempts to manipulate mass perceptions.

It seems that with the help of technology we have come full circle. Democrats and democracy are both words and concepts derived from the Greek demos – the people, the citizens, of the ancient Greek states that had equal privilege and voice in the public assemblies that ruled the state. Today, the Internet is the public assembly where we all have a voice, and when we all have a voice, tyrannies – political or marketing – find it harder to flourish.


Our next Connect-World EMEA Issue will be published early next month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows such as: IBC Amsterdam (12-16 Sept) Carriers World (London, UK, 23-26 Sept) Broadband World Forum Europe (Brussels, Belgium, 29 Sept-2 Oct) and AfricaCom (18-19 Nov, Cape Town South Africa).

The theme for this issue will be Convergence and data – pushing the limits of the network.

The Internet has changed our world and the global economy. We are now entering a new stage in its growth. Web 2.0, collaboration, virtual worlds and mashups are all part of it. Also parts of the new Web are the evolutionary moves towards the semantic/ intelligent web, IPv6, the growth in enterprise services that are not a mere extension of existing services and financial services such as mobile cash and credit. The Web is also revolutionising education, healthcare, government and social services in general. The impact of this upon the world’s ICT infrastructure is hard to calculate, but you see and feel the effects wherever you are in the region – or the world.

EMEA 2008 Media Pack; Click here


One Response to September I 2008

  1. Torri says:

    I would like to draw your attention to the positive side of internet and politics:

    It’s not about merely blogging for democracy: it is using Web 2.0 to create genuine democracy, where the people rule not as a mob, but as a consensus organism.

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