What the Homeric Poems and Oral Tradition Can Teach Us About Social Marketing

When Homer composed his poems his society did not have written language, the poems were first written down about 500 years after their creation. The Homeric poems represent a great example of oral tradition, the body of culture that is transmitted without written language. In this type of environment, ideas and stories fight for awareness, retention and repetition as resources in an evolutionary struggle, the characteristics of the successful memes represent the culmination of thousands of years of evolution and can teach us a lot about what kinds of stories will survive in social media.

Communal Recreation (Again)

As in urban legends, oral tradition relies heavily on the game of Chinese Whispers it lives in. Each person who tells the story reworks it to fit into his or her own existing mental framework. On a macro level and we call this process communal recreation. Orally transmitted stories very often heighten this participatory experience by inviting audience reactions and interpretation through patterns such as call and response.

In social media, we see this real-time communal recreation manifest itself in comments on blogs, Digg stories and Youtube videos. The audience reactions become another part of the content and are perhaps just as important as the original story. Viewers are more easily able to perform their own recreation later when they’ve seen the reactions of a number of their peers. This way, they’re able to see how their culture interprets the story and match their recreation to be accepted.


In a pre-literate society stories and bits of information only survive if they can be remembered easily by listeners, so many of the most obvious common traits of oral memes are memory devices or mnemonics. Lines and stanzas are short and the overall structure is very often what we’d recognize today as “chunked” content. When spoken, chunking takes on a new and more powerful retention-enhancing characteristic: rhythms. Those poems and stories that had “catchy” rhythm to them were easy to remember and were thus preserved by a culture. Key elements to these stories were often repeated many times as a form of fault tolerance. Obviously every time a story is repeated it is not done verbatim and errors are made. If the main points occur in many places, there is a much greater chance that some version of them will remain in the story through the communal recreation.

In social media we see countless lists and procedural HOWTOs that break down content into rhythmic chunks, and we see that successful memes online often have their key bits (the “spread me” message) repeated through integration with a number of different social sites as well as redundant calls to action.


Every culture possesses a library of clichés, figures of speech and word patterns that are often used. Books of oft-used Latin phrases are available to students of the Classics who wish to create poems in the dead language by a sort of paint-by-numbers approach, selecting and using these phrases as building blocks with which to create their own narratives. Many oral stories are composed of these clichéd phrases (as was the case with the Homeric poems) which are selected based on their fit into the poem’s metered syllabic structure. Using building blocks like these that are known by everyone in the culture already, Homer was able to create new stories that were easy to remember and retell.

Many of the most popular stories in social media are “new/old”. New twists on old structure. With common patterns including the top 10 list, the worst 10 list, and the HOWTO, new information is often presented via old and well recognized methods. Additionally, internet slang (especially among social media savvy subgroups) allows content creators to speak in the same clichéd patterns as the audience while sharing unique information.

Narrative, Not Referential

Modern written language has developed into a very referential form. Authors make reference to earlier authors and concepts while building on them for the next generation. Oral tradition typically works in narrative, not reference, it “shows” the listener the subject rather than telling them about it.

Since social media is written, it is very referential, however the power of the narrative and the “show don’t tell” aesthetic are still felt. Multimedia content including videos and photos are an obvious example of this, instead of telling me about something funny you saw, you can just snap a picture and show me. The most popular social media phenomenon often have a background story going along with it, from the star wars kid to the re-posting of the blueray code to digg, the whole story is often more important than the individual piece of it.

Strong Characters

In Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong says “colorless personalities cannot survive oral mnemonics”. Generally the most successful oral stories center around the narrative of a strong character, many epic poems are lists of great deeds performed by some legendary figure. Human-centric stories are much easier for oral cultures to relate to and hence typically hold attention and survive better than those without a key individual.

We can remix Ong’s sentiment into “colorless personalities cannot survive social media”. The character is key. Who posted this story to this site, who’s blog is it on, who wrote it? Who else likes this story, who commented on it? In social media, news and networking sites the stronger your personality, the more successful you are at spreading your stories, while “colorless personalities” wallow in obscurity.

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What Urban Legends Can Teach Us About Social Media Marketing

The study of urban legends is a branch of folklorology and for social marketers it represents a vast and largely untapped bank of knowledge into the processes of information transmission. Here’s a list of just a few of the extremely useful concepts urban legend science brings to the table.

Communal Recreation
Historically urban legends were passed on from person to person in what amounted to a giant game of telephone with each person changing the story a little bit as they passed it on. Each person in this recreative chain attempts to fit the story into their existing mental frameworks and in doing so they apply a bit of themselves, of their own values and perspectives, altering the story and retelling their version. Often the first person in a new society to effect this change to an urban legend makes the legend more intuitive for the rest of the group because he or she has imposed their shared values on to it already.

In online social media the same effect occurs. The lolcat meme was transformed by each person who participated in it and is probably the most obvious recent example of communal recreation. Bloggers usually put their own spin on a story they discuss in a post. Rumors and gossip spread almost entirely unchecked (transmission friction is nearly zero in social media) and are wildely recreated into countless variations.  All the best social sites are platforms that make the central act of the site communal recreation, Digg, delicious, Newsvine, Myspace, Facebook, Youtube etc.

The Goliath Effect
A phenomena occurs in urban legends where large companies, rich individuals or government agencies are metaphorically turned into a Goliath-type figure and the legend centers on the suffering or victory of an “average person” and their interaction with the megolithic entity. Obviously the repeated occurrence of large and well known organizations in urban legends is testament partially to the high awareness of those organizations in the mind of the average person in a society, but the grassroots nature of folklore means that the narrator almost always sides with the underdog, the little guy, the average Joe.

The parallels of the Goliath Effect for social media marketing are pretty clear. Digg is a great example, large brands and public figures dominate the site and with a few notable exceptions (Apple) the Goliath is portrayed as the bad guy. There are countless social media marketing nightmare case studies in which the web turns against what they perceive as a large and looming corporate force. On a purely quantative level, the larger a brand is, the more disproportionate the amount of organic (that is not influenced by marketers) social media mentions of the brand.

The Social Conflict Theory
A school of urban legend thought exists in which the motivations of various social groups involved in the creation, transmission and preservation of legends. The argument is that social groups all generally in conflict with other social groups, for control of members, resources, and public image. Urban legends (especially those containing warnings or based on social rules) are created by these groups in the hopes that they will benefit the group’s aims or diminish the success of competeting groups. Proponents of the social conflict theory search for the meaning of urban legends in the motivations of these groups.

Online, social group membership tends to require less investment and commitment from users meaning people often feel the pull of motivations from many more groups than they would offline. The scale of these groups varies from Facebook and Google groups to Ron Paul supporters and Apple fanboys. Every group has at least one purpose for existing, one motivation. Depending on their level of engagement with the group, members may be pursuaded to spread social marketing messages if they align with their group’s motivations.

In the study of urban legends special attention is paid to the context or “set and setting” of the transmission of a legend. Contextual factors affecting transmission range from the teller and listener’s age and gender, social status, education levels to the physical location of the communication. The actual act of telling the legend is also studied, details are notably important (if its vague, its just another story). Certain people are known by their social groups to commonly be in possession of “inside” information and legends they tell are much more likely to be received, retained and re-transmitted by listeners.

Websites provide a specific type of context, with a specialized set of criteria. The site or source’s reputation is of utmost importance to acceptance of the message in the reader. But the web is all about finding new things and users will accept memes from sites they’ve never been on if they appear to be legitimate and aligned with the viewers own relevant motivations and experiences. Authenticity becomes an issue in a modern online context, big corporations and marketing agencies aren’t trusted on social sites.

The most well known trait of urban legends is that they very often contain parental style warnings. Don’t go with your boyfriend to lover’s lane or an escaped pscyho will get you. Don’t eat at fast food places or you’ll eat a rat. These warnings turn urban legends into the codification of a normally unspoken behavioral code imposed by the social group responsible for the legend, its social conflict theory again. Much like gossip, legends are often used to impose these rules on to listeners. Religious legends (and the religion meme in general perhaps) are an incredibly effective example of this phenomena.

Bogus warning emails are a memetic study group all to themselves they’re so numerous. Warnings are likely one of the first and most popular forms of on social media messages and they are just as strong today. Social news sites are filled with stories about the “worst” things, or bad customer service experiences or kryptonite lockpicking.

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Some Great Viral anti-Hummer Ads

There’s a new book out called unmarketable, and its about the evils of corporate advertising’s takeover of the underground, but sometimes, the underground fights back, as is the case with unpopular products. And nothing is a lighting rod for anti-marketing quite like the hummer, here are a few of my favorites, and I’d love to see yours.

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