Ideas Do Not Spread Because they are “Good”
There are plenty of good ideas that go nowhere, and lots of bad ideas that spread like wildfire. Ideas don’t spread just because they’re “good” there are other factors.
Hierarchy of contagiousness
If I’m going to share an idea, three things have to happen first: I have to be exposed to it, become aware of it, and then be motivated by it to spread it.
When Homer composed his poems his society did not have written language, the poems were first written down about 500 years after their creation. 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 why ideas spread.
At their origin, most proverbs operate in an oral environment, and as such they display many of the same mnemonic traits necessary for purely oral retention and transmission such as alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm.
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.
Urban legends are short stories that are passed from generation to generation purely by word-of-mouth. They can teach us much about engineering contagious ideas.
It’s yet another way social media is like a cocktail party. I always find myself looking at nametags at networking events, because I want to know who the person I’m talking to is and what they do.
Imagine yourself at a networking event deep in conversation with a new bunch of friends. One of them is a total bummer and is constantly negative. How much do you really want to be talking to that person?
You’re talking to a handful of people at a party, and one guy is only talking about himself. Is he your favorite person to converse with? On the other hand there’s another guy who’s talking about you, your needs and your experiences. Which would you rather talk to?
Social proof is the idea that people rely on the reaction of others to make decisions, and we assume that others (individuals and especially groups) know more about the choice than we do.
Suppose there are two restaurants and a group of people on the street outside deciding which one to eat at. Each new person who lines up outside of the restaurant sends a signal to the rest of the group (and in particular their friends and family) that this is the restaurant to pick.
Every time I’ve looked at the contagiousness of ideas, be it online or off, one of the most frequent characteristics I come across is novelty. I’ve found that ReTweets tend to contain less common words than normal Tweets, and I’ve found that survey-takers highlight “news” as the most common type of content they share.
Social Proof vs Novelty
We can see then that evolutionarily, social proof is a defensive mechanism design to protect us from harm, where as pioneering holds reputation-boosting first-mover advantage. In the context of my experiments, social proof told visitors that my site was a trusted source of content, safe to be shared, but the lack of social proof on new articles told them that there was an opportunity for them to be the first to share valuable content, almost guaranteed to increase their reputation as a source of appreciated information.
Evolutionarily, people have a motivation to be susceptible to social warnings and pass them on to their family and community.
In 1962 a small town in what is now Tanzania fell victim to a spate of contagious laughing called the “Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic“.
If your tribe knows the best hunting or berry-picking spots for each time of year, it is in your best interest if only your tribe knows this, otherwise the resource will become over-used. And if you see a member of another tribe coming back with a huge bounty from a secret location, you’d better do your best to imitate him. Power comes not merely from knowledge, but rather from knowledge which is scarce.
Us vs them is one of the oldest, and most powerful marketing ideas. Apple is a quintessential example: from their beginnings they’ve portrayed themselves as the small guy against the big powerful bully.
Generally manifesting as a narrative, it 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.
How to Start Rumors
In 1940, the British military formed an organization as a part of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, called the “Underground Propaganda Committee” or UPC whose mission was to create and disseminate rumors as defensive weapons against the expected Nazi invasion of the the English mainland.
How to Stop Rumors
I don’t want to get into the politics behind the rumors, or even their truth (or lack of), what I wish to do however, is analyze the science of stopping or neutralizing rumors from a memetic perspective and see what can be learned and even applied.