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.
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.