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Mobile Futures: Technology Primer

Spreadable Media

[The video above was made by mate Mauricio and Ricardo Justus for a panel at FOE3 - it is a mash up made from a Brazilian film called Tropa De Elite, a film which was embraced and spread by remix culture.]

One of the important things that FOE3 left me with, apart from how awesome everyone was, was the re-framing that C3 has brought to what we really shouldn't be calling viral content.

I've been getting angry about the use of the word viral for a long time. About two years ago I tried to explain why people using the word was very frustrating:

Viral is a thing that happens, not a thing that is.

If people pass your communication on, it's viral. If they don't, it's not. Sometimes I get calls saying this viral isn't performing very well - what's the problem? We've seeded it to all the right places, it's on youtube and everything - where's our traffic? The problem is usually that they've made an ad that contains nothing people consider worth showing to their friends.

Unless you would be willing to send whatever it is to your mates - it's not viral!

I remain in agreement with myself on this. 

My brother, who is an awesome epidemiological modeler [among other things] would point out to me that the 'viral' metaphor is flawed - ideas do not propagate through populations like diseases - so using the word like I do above protests against something that the signifier belies.

This metaphor is very seductive and very hard to get rid of. It lets us think we understand. And specificaly, it re-affirms the structure of control. It implies all you need to do is create something that is 'viral' enough and it spreads through populations like, well, a virus - it self-propagates.

This is simply untrue.

What we mean when something goes 'viral' is that 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.

This is a complete inversion of the viral model.

As Watts has pointed out, the structure of the network is perhaps more important in predicting the spread of content than the nature of the content - the same thing can succeed or fail depending on network structure. 

But saying something is viral, we focus entirely on the content itself and not on the needs of the people that we are asking to spread ideas.

"People don't engage with each other to engage viruses; people
exchange viruses as an excuse to engage with each other." Douglas

Shenja Van Der Graaf "The main feature of viral marketing is that it
heavily depends on interconnected peers. Viral marketing is inherently

As Henry points out, people do not spread things to spread them. Like so much social communication, it has a social function, both phatic and generous. It operates within a gift economy, where value is generated in transference, not purchase.

Further, as I've endlessly pointed out, if you let people mess with your content, it gets more spreadable - because people suddenly have a personal stake in its propagation - this insight was at the heart of propagation planning, learning that we took from the Sony work and applied to the digital activation of the Cadbury's Gorilla campaign, the digital longevity of which was driven entirely by remix culture.

This ties into Mark's work on direct and indirect copying as the driving mechanism of behaviour spreading through populations.

We need to forget about trying to make things viral and begin to understand what people would like to spread and why.

You can read Henry's opening remarks here:

If it doesn't spread, it's dead.