McLuhan’s Tetrad in Social Media

I found this on sphinn and I wanted to respond to a few points. Its about applying a method of discussing the effects of media change on society by Marshal McLuhan called a Tetrad.

What is enhanced? – The idea of an authority for the collective. When we have lots of people speaking it is the voice of authority and experience that commands attention.

I think there is a subtle difference between what you are saying (the power wielded by authority figures is enhanced) and what is actually happening (the value of attention in garnering authority is enhanced). As social media matures online, its seems as if we’ll see the same number of media “authority” holders as in old media.

What is made obsolete? – The power of the individual is lost. The average social media user becomes redundant. Of course, s/he can still work their way up to being a power user in time, but the average user is left with little or no power and is forced to rely on top users in order to be �heard�.

Compared with other types of media the average social media participant has much more power (and authority?) than they’ve ever had before. What is obsolete is the necessity of power to get authority. It used to be that you had to be in control of a large and expensive distribution system wide enough to gain media authority. These days the distribution is large supply and cheap, what you need to do is get attention, which is scarce due to fragmentation.

What is retrieved that had been made obsolete earlier? – Brings back the idea of the shaman or tribe leader.

The traits necessary for individual memes to survive in forms of media with scarce attention and fast paced social dynamics, like urban legends, Homeric poems, gossip, and indeed oral culture in general translate directly to modern forms of social media.

What is reversed when pushed to extremes? – Back to �master and servant� methods of information retrieval. When pushed to its extremes more users will go back to using search engines. The social media power user is in itself a reversal of search engines – from lots of information sources to trusted sources.

In search you query, in social media you discover. You wouldn’t go looking for a pizza place on digg, just as you’d be more likely to go to digg when bored (or at least I would). The tetrad here is actually what would the subject reverse to turn into if it was pushed to the limit of its potential. If attention grew immeasurably scarce due to fragmentation, I don’t agree that search would replace the discovery function for the average user, they would simply be using smaller, more targeted niche aggregation sites of which there would be millions and the power wielded by a power user on any site would be meaningless.

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Desire vs Commitment: The Viral Quadrant Graph

After writing a guest post on desire in social media, my mind began to wander and out came this:

Memetics teaches us that ideas can be like organisms and evolve, and for these memes, reproduction is attention and longevity is host engagement. The more attention and desire an idea stirs, the more people it is able to infect, thereby reproducing itself and introducing variations. Additionally if a meme, once assimilated into a person, creates a high level of commitment in the form of time, energy, or resources it is more likely to live on in that host and will be given more time to spread from each individual. We can say there are two drivers of viral growth then, desire and commitment.

If a meme isn’t desireable at all, it won’t spread.

If a meme requires a low level of commitment from the user, like a simple text-based blog post or a short video it requires less desire to motivate people to engage it. Most diggbait is relatively low desire (its fun, but it won’t really change my life for the better) and very low commitment. This also means that people imprinted with these types of memes are less likely to spread them. As we either increase the desire and leave the commitment low or increase both the desire and the commitment, we see retransmission rates increase. The more attention-getting, life-enhancing, pleasurable (aka desireable) the story, the more links it will get, this is why we tend to see the “wisdom of the crowd” work and surface some pretty cool content in social media. We also see higher retransmission if a story engages the reader to participate and can raise the amount of attention he or she has committed to it. Ron Paul supporters are probably the most obvious recent example of this, this is a very high level of both commitment and desire for their candidate to win and the amount of attention and links generated is astounding.

If you liked this, you’ll probably like this too and you should follow me on twitter.

And, go vote for me for Best Social Media blog.

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The Goliath Effect

The Goliath effect can be found in prototypical forms in both gossip and urban legends.

I first found out about the Goliath effect while reading Jan Harold Brunvand’s study of urban legends, a specific brand of folklorology. Brunvand refers to Gary Alan Fine who writes in The Journal of American Folklore in 1985 that “a larger percentage of American legends than predicted by chance refer to the most dominant corporation or product in a particular market” and that legends that exhibit this effect by referencing market giants reflect “Americans’ fear of bigness“. We often see the central protagonist in an urban legend as a combination of unwitting victim and underdog challenger to the Goliath.

Then I came across a book called “The Feminist Critque of Language” in which Deborah Jones defined a type of gossip as “bitching” and called it the “overt expression of women’s anger at their restricted role and inferior status“. Generally manifesting as a narrative, bitching involves a specific and personal struggle with an oppressively large structure, typically a patriarchal one. Here the woman is David and a sexist culture rather than a large corporation is Goliath. Gossip shows us that cultural systems and policies can be the bad guy too, not just companies and brands.

The Goliath effect shows up more frequently in social media perhaps than in any other form of communication. On many sites (Digg, Reddit, Youtube) and in many social media savvy communities (Apple fans, Ron Paul supporters) the key motivating factor is often an us versus them approach, with the users as the underdog battling a giant corporation or politician or social structure.

In urban legends Brunvand found no evidence that competing companies were responsible for starting Goliath rumors or legends, but the possibility of that ocuring in social media is much higher due to its ease. We’ve seen a site,, use a “false flag” story against them to covertly benefit their site by publicizing a new domain name. And beyond false or directly competitive stories, obliquely or entirely unrelated sites can leverage this effect to gain links from social media. Not a day goes by that some sort of Goliath effect story makes the front page of nearly every popular social media site.

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What Gossip Teaches Us About Viral Marketing

In the book The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader an article by Deborah Jones explores the female-only oral tradition of gossip. She finds that there are four functional types of gossip, house-talk, scandal, bitching and chatting.


House-talk is the female equivalent of man’s shop-talk: the discussion of work of being a housewife, tips, tricks and new products are common topics. Where men would discuss cars or business, house-talk generally functions in domestic scenarios, but the concept is the same, tactical and specific discussion of “the things that need to get done“.

In social media, we see house and shop talk manifest itself in very obvious ways. HOWTOs and other geeky shop-talk stories are often the most popular memes circulating in social media circles at any one time. The more specific and detailed this stories are the more successful they are in propagating.


When most people think of gossip, scandal is what they think of. Scandal is defined as the “considered judging of the behavior of others” and its function is seen as the policing of misbehavior. What is defined as misbehavior in traditional gossip scandal often comes from the patriarchy and imposes a sexist moral codes (Here we find a great example of the fact that memes are not always positive to the host). Comparing this type of gossip to the social conflict theory we find in the study of urban legends it becomes clear that where as the social conflict theory operates on a macrocosmic cultural level, scandal can originate from motivations that range the gamut from individual conflict up to social and gender-based group conflict. In some instances it is an individual woman gossiping about the misdeeds of another woman for her own good, and in some instances she is merely perpetuating the social laws of her chosen cultural group.

Again, the parallels in social media are clear. When diggers (a very specific social group with its own motivations and conflicts) find a wrong in the action of others, they are very quick to engaged in “considered judging” of the offending behavior. The same, of course, happens at the individual level and many scandalous rumors originate not from social conflicts, but from personal vendettas that have been magnified by the mega-phone of social media.


Bitching is understood in the essay as the “overt expression of women’s anger at their restricted role and inferior status“. Here we find the Goliath effect (again from folklorology). The story takes the form of a very specific and personal retelling of an encounter a woman has had with an oppressive structure that is much larger and more powerful than herself and the audience identifies with the underdog.

The examples of bitching in social media are too numerous to cover in their entirety, but a few come to mind instantly. Bad customer service experiences with companies like Dell and AOL are legendary stories online, as are unpleasant stories of dealing with basically every well known company online.


Chatting, another form of communal recreation, is an intimate kind of parallel storytelling where one woman tells a personal story with an underlying emotional plot and the other woman replies with her own unique story echoing only the underlying emotional content. The male equivalent may well be the communal retelling (and often fabrication) of hunting stories around the fire-pit (or big fish tales on the lake), though the female version does not seem to overtly possess the competitive spirit of the male version.

Comment sections on popular social media sites, especially on “Goliath effect” or “bitching” type stories takes the chatting form pretty quickly. And inviting the right audience to relate their own stories about a strong emotional touch-point is a surefire way to stimulate lots of submissions. The important element (the only one the marketer can control) is the emotional plot or structure underlying the stories and perhaps an example story or two, the rest is created by the community.

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People I Met at Pubcon 2007

Had a blast this past weekend in vegas, but I didn’t have very good internet access anywhere the whole week, so I’m doing my wrap-up now. I got labeled “shifty eye Dan” in the first round I played of SEOmoz’s Werewolf game, but I managed to survive a few votes before being lynched and revealed as a black hat (Matt Cutts did a a “black hats rule” dance later that night when he too was a black hat).
The best part of the week was the networking, Dave and I met a ton of great people, including Cyril, Cory, Melinda, Sugarrae, Todd, Vanessa, Rand, Justine, Tamar, Brent, Matt, Joe, Robert, John.

So thanks to everyone who came and I met, for a wonderful week, feel free to say hello and stay in touch.

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