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, Bodog.com, 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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{ 7 comments }

evolvor December 19, 2007 at 10:08 am

Agree. Digg def has a “luke skywalker” mentality, where it’s users are constantly talking about “blowing up the death star”, so to speak.

g diddy December 19, 2007 at 8:45 pm

I find your post very interesting. I own a few social news sites and it is interesting to see how the news about smaller less goliath companies fare. It would be interesting to do some sort of in depth study.

John December 19, 2007 at 9:15 pm

I must say I disagree with you on this theory. I am only slightly perturbed that I can only make this decision after getting through this story consisting of ridiculous amount of links, quotation marks, colored letters, and parenthesis – but alas no meat.

Dan Zarrella December 19, 2007 at 10:11 pm

thank you g diddy, and yes that would be interesting, are you on twitter?

John, what could I add to the article to make it more meaty?

Kenny Leenhouts December 19, 2007 at 11:55 pm

Hey Dan, nice post.
I’m pretty sure that I’m going to have to start reading some of these books your always bringing up in casual conversation. (Please note: imagine my “condescending-Dan face” while typing this)

John Ohno October 20, 2009 at 8:08 am

I am aware of the 'US vs THEM' mentality — tribalism is what keeps capitalism afloat, since you can sell anything as long as it promises to make you a member of one group and distinct from another (said groups can be entirely arbitrary, and even in many cases invented by marketers and defined solely by those commodities that are their outward symbology — or defined for some other goal and more or less identical). Perhaps it is the much talked about rooting-for-the-underdog element (supposedly common in the US specifically, though I haven't seen any hard evidence) that gives this an extra push — people will be more supportive if the group your commodity distinguishes them from is big (and therefore implied to be 'bad'). Of course, this merely acts as a method to reinforce the existing system — the machine manufactures bands like 'rage against the machine' to distract people who would otherwise actually rage against the machine, thereby guaranteeing its safety by manufacturing and selling (at great profit) token symbols of dissent.

John Ohno October 20, 2009 at 3:08 pm

I am aware of the 'US vs THEM' mentality — tribalism is what keeps capitalism afloat, since you can sell anything as long as it promises to make you a member of one group and distinct from another (said groups can be entirely arbitrary, and even in many cases invented by marketers and defined solely by those commodities that are their outward symbology — or defined for some other goal and more or less identical). Perhaps it is the much talked about rooting-for-the-underdog element (supposedly common in the US specifically, though I haven't seen any hard evidence) that gives this an extra push — people will be more supportive if the group your commodity distinguishes them from is big (and therefore implied to be 'bad'). Of course, this merely acts as a method to reinforce the existing system — the machine manufactures bands like 'rage against the machine' to distract people who would otherwise actually rage against the machine, thereby guaranteeing its safety by manufacturing and selling (at great profit) token symbols of dissent.

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