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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Igor The Troll November 17, 2007 at 3:57 pm

David against Goliath.
Great analysis.

Dan Zarrella November 17, 2007 at 7:59 pm

thanks igor

0Boy November 21, 2007 at 12:33 pm


This article was very impressive. I enjoyed it so much that I…

1) Read it twice
2) Had my wife read it
3) Featured it in an article on my blog as a “must read” for those wanting a better understanding of social media.

Thanks! I’ll be watching your blog intently.

Jim (0Boy)

Dan Zarrella November 21, 2007 at 6:12 pm

Jim, thanks for the incredibly kind words, I’m planning a few more posts similar to this soon.
Also, I loved your blog and will be watching it also.

Igor The Troll November 25, 2007 at 5:57 am

Dan, talk about David against Goliath. I am Wikipeding now and this consept is totally there.

While WP may look dry to a casual observer but on the inside is the frontier of information ready to be brought to the society.

The difficult part that it is very time consuming and we do not have enough hands to expedite the process of gathering and desimineting information, but bit by bit we bring it to academia, who inturn make it authoritative.

Wkipedia is not Authority, it is the people who learn from WP and Authoritate us.

Imagine, for one person to gather information from all parts of the Internet to get it Authoritated by Academia, a very daunting task.

David against Galaith!
Keep up the great work!

Linda Sherman January 3, 2008 at 3:46 pm

I found your blog and this article thanks to Alex de Carvalho on Twitter.
A worthy read. I watched a bit of an urban legend happen when Katie Holmes was seen wearing what appeared to be a Singelringen on a movie set. TMZ picked up a photo of her mid-June and from there was a swirl of conversation about Katie Holmes and why was she wearing a Singelringen. In Touch Magazine ran an article July 2nd titled “Now Katie’s The Boss” using Singelringen as one of their proof points. We got 43,000 visitors to the Singelringen website during the first two days of celebrity gossip blog domino effect from TMZ followed by non-gossip pick up on Singelringen. We were as surprised as anyone else.

CPB February 25, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Twitter had been a good example of all of this. I consider Twitter as the new Urban Legend.

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