Stand Up 4 Clean Water

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Tell a Friend to Tell a Friend

During my undergrad studies in the visual communication program at the University of Texas at Arlington, I once took a class where one of the exercises required that we come up with a unique magazine ad to spread awareness among just one percent of the 300 million residents of the United States for the ONE Campaign’s global initiative to end world hunger and poverty.

I took the class in the fall of 2006 – roughly a year before Jure Leskovec, Lada A. Adamic and Bernado A. Huberman published their study on “The Dynamics of Viral Marketing *.” At the time, the idea of viral activity or viral marketing – marketing that trusted audiences to pass on a brand’s message via word of mouth – was already being facilitated on the regular by the very students tasked with raising brand and message awareness for the ONE Campaign but wasn’t widely thought of as something that companies – for-profit or nonprofit – could consciously utilize and purposefully orchestrate to happen in their favor.

Leskovec, Adamic, and Huberman’s study on viral marketing dynamics took into account a whole host of factors that contribute – positively and negatively – to the ability of products and services to successfully go viral amongst customers and their social networks. My biggest takeaways from the study were the concepts of the Cascade Model, the Saturation Point and the Long Tail Phenomenon. The study identifies cascades as “the ‘casual’ propagation of recommendations.” The Saturation point is defined in the study as the point at which additional recommendations stop positively affecting the probability that an actual purchase will be made. I think these two concepts are tied to the strategy of big seed marketing that Duncan J. Watts writes about in his Harvard Business Review article “Viral Marketing for the Real World.”

For any company wanting to utilize some form of viral marketing for its products or services, big seed marketing seems to be the safest method of initiating buzz because it takes a “plan for the worst-case-scenario” approach to anticipating the recommendation cascade for each product or service. The Saturation point however is something that I feel isn’t really acknowledged in Watts’ article on big seed marketing. I propose a hypothesis that if a study were ever conducted on the relationship between big seed marketing and the saturation point, researchers would find that the effectiveness of big seed marketing is noticeable affected by saturation.

The Volkswagen ad with the kid in the Darth Vader costume (“The Force”) has received more than 52 million hits on Youtube so far. According to Nielsen, an estimated 111 million people watched the 2011 Superbowl. Assuming that a considerable percentage of people who saw the 2011 Superbowl also happen to be causal Star Wars fans, the current number of Youtube hits seems to play perfectly into the reasoning behind the big seed marketing model. However, after reading about the Saturation Point, it is difficult for me not to consider how the high price of such a big seed (placement during the 2011 Superbowl) also prevented it from reaching its true potential. 111 million people watched the 2011 Superbowl meaning a large percentage of those people probably sat through the commercials. A considerable percentage of that percentage was impressed enough with Volkswagen’s ad to recommend it online and offline to friends. I’m guessing that the Saturation point for such a large scale of viral activity must have been monumental when viewed in its own context. Personally, I can say that I heard about the commercial from just about everyone at my place of work the following week – typical water cooler discussion. I only got around to seeing it purely by accident a few weeks later. I didn’t buy a Volkswagen.

In comparison, low profile media objects like Felicia Day’s “The Guild”, which I think perfectly exemplifies the phenomenon of the long tail, are much less at the mercy of the Saturation point because they seem so much more obscure when held up against expensive ads that air during the Superbowl; meaning for all the production and marketing costs it takes to keep the Guild “on air”, the saturation point probably wouldn’t effect much damage because communities that form around such pieces of media are usually smaller and less susceptible to the excess of hype that usually leads to saturation.

After a few weeks at work on the assignment mentioned in the first two paragraphs, we all presented our proposed solutions to the instructor who seemed mostly unimpressed with all of them. At the end of the class period he suggested a solution that simply employed the use of a headline instructing whoever viewed the ad to “tell a friend to tell a friend.” – an overt call-to-action to the viewer not just to recommend the ONE campaign’s message to just one person, but also to encourage that one person to tell someone else to tell someone else. In retrospect, this seems like an extreme and impractical take on the modest expectations of big seed marketing. Perhaps the fact that it is a nonprofit would’ve made each person more eager to take the desired course of action after getting just a few recommendations. At the time, the solution sounded so simple and ingenious to me. Today, it is so much more complicated by all the factors examined in the aforementioned study of viral marketing dynamics.

Culture Science

Culture should be seen as innovation and innovation as an on-going process. This is one of the many arguments that I found interesting in Henry Jenkins’ book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Unfortunately, most media companies are still scared to embrace the idea that media objects – film, music, tv, games, books, etc – that traffic in culture be allowed room to roam freely and benefit from any form of innovation unless they know and have full control over the who, what, when, and how of said innovation.

I thought about the scientific community as a model of near-perfect coexistence between production and participation that makes a fairly decent analogy for what is currently being fought for at the turbulent intersection of grassroots culture and mass culture that Henry Jenkins describes in chapter four. In the scientific community – emphasis on community – a theory put forth by one person gains support by many and subsequently becomes fact. I assume for the sake of my analogy that there isn’t much weight placed on who or where the theory comes from – it could originate from an esteemed scientist with the best facilities at his disposal or from a young grad student up to his/her knees in research. There’s a rigorous process in place that involves testing, modifying, relating the theory to other theories and so on until whatever emerges from that process – whether the theory is shut down or promoted to fact – is celebrated as an advance in science because it allows the community to move on to the next thing and avoid stagnation. If media giants refuse to grant everyone rights to participate in media production, media objects and practices become stagnant and ultimately culture becomes stagnant.

Once a theory is declared fact, its journey is far from complete. Many scientific facts have been knocked down by new findings, allowing room for even more innovation. Take the scientific community and impose upon it some weird, new rule that prohibits scientists from challenging what has already been declared fact and you have the terrifying picture of what media conglomerates want to see put in place in order to protect their properties. But it’s no surprise that media giants mostly value the protection of their intellectual properties over the betterment (through creative and interactive participation) of what they release to the masses. From the bottom up, we have the luxury of seeing clearly the chances for making the pieces of media we enjoy – the culture we participate in – better through innovation. From the top down, media conglomerates are too preoccupied with netting precious advertising dollars to see their products for anything more than simple entertainment produced to fill the spaces between commercials. In their eyes, it there’s anything closely resembling innovation in the products they put out, they have enough experts on payroll to foster it. This is based on an old notion that advertising dictates culture, not the other way round.

It’s funny how an increasing number of commercials, tv shows and films today are beginning to incorporate ideas that originated from participatory media. Agents of commercial culture can buy rights to use pieces of participatory culture in their work knowing that in the long run, it will end up being a very small percentage of what they eventually reap from incorporating that strand of participatory media into their product. Unfortunately, agents of grassroots culture can barely afford to provide what media companies demand in order to assimilate fragments of mass culture into participatory media projects. Considering the definition Jenkins presents of Popular Culture as what happens when mass culture is co-opted by grassroots culture, it is sad to think that popular culture, by his definition, has always been on the verge on being labeled criminal activity. In the efforts to find a perfect coexistence between grassroots culture and commercial culture, media conglomerates definitely enjoy an unfair advantage in that they can very easily afford to legally co-opt properties of grassroots culture.

In Media Ecologies by Matthew Fuller, there’s an argument being made about the never-ending process that is born out of constant, complex layering and relating of diverse media objects and processes in order to achieve newer objects and newer processes. According to Jenkins, culture is produced, modded, expanded, remixed in the media playground that we all inhabit. This playground doesn’t exist in delivery technologies or in anything physical. It exists in our minds first then it is pushed out into the open for all to see and consume thanks to delivery technologies. In an ideal world, culture should be viewed as innovation and we should all be regarded by the powers that be as culture innovators, free to experiment without fear of repercussions.

Staying Ahead of the Virus

Outbreak

Outbreak

In the film Outbreak, there are two disparate approaches on display to staying ahead of the virus (or at least trying) – one is fueled by draconian determination to maintain control of the power structure while another is fueled by deep-seated obsession, respect, even admiration for the Motaba virus.

Very early into the film, Dr. Sam Daniels remarks to his lab partner Casey after seeing a graphical representation of the Ebola Motaba virus strand, “Oh, come on, Casey. You have to admire its simplicity. It’s one billionth our size and it’s beating us.” In another scene, General Billy Ford accurately pegs him as a junkie for “world’s end” scenarios. It is this admiration coupled with respect and obsession with rooting out the virus’s origin story that I think ties Sam Daniels to Henry Whitehead and John Snow in The Ghost Map. It is also what ultimately makes him successful.

Sam realizes that in order to truly beat the virus or at least stay on top of it, he has to trace its trajectory and its mutations all the way back to the host. In sharp contrast to this approach, General McClintock and General Ford seem to mostly be concerned with where the virus is headed, not where it came from. They have very little desire to understand the virus’s nature and spend most of the film thwarting Sam’s efforts to do so. In another scene that very clearly spells out these characters’ differing attitudes toward the outbreak, McClintock orders one of his underlings to find out where the virus is headed, how soon, and how far it will travel.

While these are all important things to consider and have answers to, it is so much easier (and a lot more productive) to investigate how something went viral than it is to predict how else something will go viral. Once you understand how something went viral, you are better equipped to act upon that something. This is what Sam and his crew demonstrate very well in their meticulous efforts to understand the virus and their success in finding an antidote.

What are some of the characteristics that these main characters share with entities and movements working within the world wide web today? I think McClintock and Ford exemplify the old approach that many special interests take to understanding Internet culture and trying unsuccessfully to bend it to their needs. Fear of where the internet is headed and what that might mean for monolithic conglomerates have led to many harsh initiatives on par with potentially dropping a bomb on the quarantined area in Outbreak. The people who truly have their fingers on the pulse of the viral nature of the internet are the ones who care enough to invest time in closely observing how things and people are interconnected and how that interconnectedness can be used to their advantage.

A good resource for understanding how things on the internet, memes in particular, are interconnected and how one led to the other and mutated into newer strands is the internet research website Know Your Meme. Like Sam Daniels and his crew, this website continuously maps out with great detail the origins and subsequent spreading of memes and viral activity on the web.

Viruses, Plagues, & History

In the Byzantine Empire during the sixth century, one of the first recorded instances of what many historians have generally identified as the bubonic plague (or more specifically Justinian’s Plague) brought devastation to the Eastern Roman Empire of the late antiquity period in more ways than one. The immediate effects of the plague were seen and felt by almost everyone alive at the time. At the height of virulence, everyone in and around the empire had seen at least half of their friends and loved ones succumb to the pandemic. Due to shortage of land to bury the dead, streets were littered with stacks of dead, rotting corpses.

plague at ashdod

Plague at Ashdod

Following this first pandemic, survivors – Justinian included – made efforts to rebuild and restructure their empire and its economy but due to the latent effects of the plague, the empire would never fully recover or return to the level of prosperity it once enjoyed. In keeping with points made by Oldstone about viruses and their long-lasting effects on major events and decisions in history and economy, I think it is exemplary of the basic viral-to-host transaction that the bubonic plague, generally believed to have reached Byzantium due to the far-reaching nature of its then thriving economy (trade with neighboring areas, etc), ultimately weakened the same economy that allowed it to spread so quickly in the first place. Should all past, present and future major outbreaks of viruses/plagues be viewed, not as an anomalies, but as inevitable – part and parcel of human advancement much in the same way immunization is devised to combat them?

Biological or (more important and pertinent) computational, is the virus solely responsible for successfully infecting and altering a host cell or should the environment that allows it to spread rapidly be credited for however high a level of virulence the virus is able to achieve? In the specific case of memes in meme culture, how much credit should be given to a video that goes viral for having the right qualities/ingredients to make it go viral? and how much credit should be given to the platform on top of which the video was able to spread so quickly? Does the nature of that platform change over time to reflect the long-lasting effects of highly successful memes on pop and internet culture?

Successful memes go viral, less successful memes don’t. What is the deciding factor for judging a meme as successful or as an isolated incident? Is it quantitative? Is it based on how the meme originated (from an outside agent or as part of the internet turning on itself)? Should a distinction be made between memes that spring up “naturally” (genuinely born on the web… eg: “double rainbow”) and memes that are “manufactured” (perhaps as part of a carefully constructed marketing campaign with deliberate “going viral” potential… eg: “old spice guy”)?

Top 10 Worst Plagues in History

Dignity In Cyberspace

In Code 2.0, Lawrence Lessig says that a good argument against invasion of privacy in cyberspace can be to think of it as an affront to personal dignity protected by the fourth amendment:

But it may be that we understand the Fourth Amendment to protect a kind of dignity. Even if a search does not burden anyone, or even if one doesn’t notice the search at all, this conception of privacy holds that the very idea of a search is an offense to dignity. That dignity interest is only matched if the state has a good reason to search before it searches. From this perspective, a search without justification harms your dignity whether it interfaces with your life or not.

Although I generally agree with this interpretation of the fourth amendment, I disagree with the argument made that all digital survellance violates the amendment. If a worm or a bot is installed on your computer and it is programmed to performed just one query, I don’t see it as being in violation because even though that search might have been performed without your knowledge, there’s a good chance that it wasn’t performed without your permission. Everyday, we give permission to monitoring mechanisms by using the technologies that we use. We might not know that we are giving permission to the government and to corporations to put us under constant surveillance. We might know and agree to use these technologies anyway, thinking of it as a price to pay for the conveniences that they offer. In this respect, in the corporations’ view at least, dignity isn’t being violated because you sign user agreements that give them the permission to do that. Where one can strongly argue that dignity is being violated is when the technology involved isn’t technology that you agree to use or had the option to sign a user agreement for. Methods produced by these technologies might be unobtrusive but the feeling of knowing that the sole purpose of this technology is surveillance and that there’s nothing you’re getting in return might create a clear feeling that your dignity is being violated.

If the argument is that the fourth amendment protects against offenses to human dignity, what exactly does dignity mean and how is it violated? Digital surveillance and search occur en masse unobtrusively because new technologies make it easy to do this. If they occur en masse, I don’t think personal dignity is an issue because it isn’t like being singled out, monitored and searched. There’s an example Lessig gives which I don’t think is a very good example because it doesn’t factor in the massive aspect of modern-day surveillance. To explain how search can be undignified even if the person being searched doesn’t feel like it is intrusive, Lessig uses the example of young teens being stopped and searched by police officers after an incident was reported nearby. Simply put, there were singled out and searched. There were probably bystanders, onlookers and passers-by present during the search. Online, there are no bystanders, onlookers or passers-by, we are all subjected to the same search and monitoring. In Lessig’s example, I think the youth who vividly expresses his outrage is also accounting for bystanders, onlookers, and passers-by when he feels his dignity is being violated. Online, digital surveillance is a shared experience and to me, doesn’t feel like an affront to dignity so long as when I find out that I’m being searched, I don’t feel singled out.

Filtered Experiences: Online and Offline

In Republic 2.0, Cass Sunstein explores the effects of filtering for consumers on their ability to be good citizens and on future democracy. Many people see the ability to filter the information you receive on a daily basis – the ability to have a Daily Me – as a positive because it cuts down on the amount of time you spend trying to find pertinent information. Years ago, you would’ve had to drive down to the neighborhood video-rental store to sort through many options to find the one obscure film you’d been meaning to watch. Today, Netflix can suggest a list of obscure films you didn’t know you’d been meaning to watch. On the surface, filtering seems to be very liberating to consumers, freeing them from unwelcome and unwanted information, but Sunstein argues that filtering hurts democracy in the long run because it eliminates forums for healthy, public discourse.

Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time in addressing social problems. People may even find it hard to understand one another. Common experiences, emphatically including the common experiences made possible by the media, provide a form of social glue.

Sunstein talks about viewing the Internet as a street or a public park. Most streets and public parks are by law open to speakers looking for a diverse audience for their opinions, arguments and ideas. Street corners and public parks are public spaces and the Internet by its initial definition is also a public space but it is also becoming an increasingly commercialized and privatized space. Sunstein’s description of the tension between our roles and rights as consumers versus our rights as citizens mirrors the tension that exists on the Internet between truly public aspects and commercialized spaces governed by corporations. All the major websites and SNSs are owned by corporations which, by definition, make it good practice to deliver consumers what they want. Websites like the Facebook, Netflix and Amazon would not be nearly as successful today without many consumer-centric practices which include filtering. In addition to filtering, some of these websites, rather than push the feeling of being on a street corner or public park, strive to make visitors feel like they are at home by allowing them to customize and filter their experiences online. Sunstein talks about the difficulty of convincing lawmakers to officially recognize the Internet as the new street corner because of this tension.

This tension is even more complex when we consider mobile experiences and how smartphones, mobile devices and social media apps used to access the Internet are viewed and marketed as highly personalized extensions of ourselves. Apps like Tweetdeck and Facebook for iPhone make it even easy to filter not only your online experiences, but your offline experiences as well. Before the emergence and ubiquity of mobile Internet and all the services that plug into it, your filtered online experience ended once you were away from your computer or out of the house. Today, your filtered experience follows you everywhere. A conservative leaning citizen doesn’t have to make the effort to process ideas in a speech from a liberal politician when bloggers and politicians that share his political views are also listening in and live-tweeting their reactions. During the State-of-the-Union address, Republican senators in attendance can live-tweet their reactions so that their conservative followers don’t have an unfiltered experience of the President’s speech. This practice of live-tweeting and live-blogging, when consumed from a narrow group of like-minded sources, flies in the face of Sunstein’s optimistic view of general interest intermediaries and advances consumer sovereignty even further. When consumed from a wide range of diverse sources, live-tweeting and live-blogging promotes political sovereignty:

The idea of political sovereignty stands on different foundations. It does not take individual tastes as fixed or given; it doesn’t not see people as simply “having” tastes and preferences. For those who value political sovereignty, “We the People” reflect on what we want by exchanging diverse information and perspectives.

When you have a smartphone with you, you can literally be on a street corner or public park, point your device at something you disagree with and get instant instructions on exactly how to feel about it. In essence, your mobile device becomes not only a live-filter, but more importantly an interpreter of unplanned, unanticipated experiences so you don’t have to do it yourself. The filters you set up or have set up for you online become so powerful that even shared experiences end up having little effect on your preconceived opinions and points-of-view. You don’t get the feeling of being in a public space when you have your consumer-centric smartphone with all its apps and filters with you at all times filtering your environment so that unfamiliar ideas and arguments come to you in familiar interpretations.

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